The referee, of course, takes the field in order to enforce the laws of the game. But how much responsibility does he have to ensure the quality of the spectacle?
A boxing referee, it may be remembered, can haul the fighters together and call for more action and entertainment for the paying public. Should any similar considerations be present in the mind of a football referee?
It is a question which has recently been raised by veteran Paraguayan striker Roque Santa Cruz. He is now rounding off his career at the place where he started, Olimpia of Asuncion. But he spent over a decade and a half on the other side of the Atlantic, with his time in Europe split between Bayern Munich, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City and Betis and Malaga. As well as a sharp and intelligent mind, he possesses the undoubted benefit of perspective. And he is not happy with the standard of refereeing in his native land.
“The game here is dull,” he says. “In Europe the best leagues are spectacular, the game is played at an incredible rhythm because the referees don’t keep interrupting the flow. Here they blow all the time, and this really gets to me. It’s bad for the game, for the television, for the public inside the stadium. As far as I’m concerned, the role of the referee is fundamental for the game to be attractive.
“To improve football the referees have to be able to read the game better. They really have to know a lot. Football is a contact sport, not every contact is a foul. And anyway, the referee can let the game go on, play an advantage and later go back and show a card to a player. He doesn’t have to stop the game at the moment he sees a foul.”
The sentiments of Santa Cruz are relatively common in cases of South American players who have acquired European experience, and in purely footballing terms they are surely correct.
In defence of South American referees, however, there is a counter-argument to be made. Games on this side of the Atlantic are often harder to control than in Europe. It may seem like a stereotype, even an offensively lazy one, but experience tends to back it up; the South American game is often played at an emotional level closer to breaking point.
Recently, for example, Nacional of Uruguay were eliminated from the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. It was not even close, or particularly tense. The lost 1-0 in the home leg against Botafogo of Brazil, and were two goals down inside the first five minutes of the return game. They never looked like scoring. But tradition demands that they cannot go down without a fight. In the last few minutes they were looking for flare ups, anxious to raise the emotional stakes. In the end, they had three sent off, and managed to provoke a red card for an opponent.
In such an atmosphere, a laissez faire approach to blowing the whistle is asking for trouble. If the referee lets the game flow there is a big chance of losing all control.
The potential problems were made clear in the last World Cup, where, it appeared, FIFA favoured a softly-softly, lenient disciplinary approach in the knock out games. When two South American sides met it was a dangerous policy. Brazil versus Chile threatened at times to boil over, and the Brazil v Colombia quarter final clocked up a huge number of fouls, with Brazil looking to kick James Rodriguez as often as possible, and paying the price when Neymar picked up an injury which brought a premature end to his competition. In these games, the referees might have been better advised to have been more pro-active.
Perhaps the conclusion is a simple one. Roque Santa Cruz is right – the referees need to read the game better. But they also have to understand the social milieu in which the game takes place.