I have never been able to feel the same way about boxing since being at the Chris Eubank v Michael Watson fight at White Hart Lane back in 1992.
It was the night that Watson came close to death, and incurred permanent injury. His plight served for my entertainment – a fact which made me feel very guilty as I walked away from the stadium.
Watson needed only to survive the final round to win the fight and achieve his childhood dream of becoming world champion. But at the end of the 11th he was on the end of a devastating uppercut. I was some distance away in the stands, but it seemed clear to me that he should never have been allowed out for the 12th. The referee had to grab his arm to go through the ritual of touching gloves. And then, with Watson a helpless punch bag for a furious Eubank assault, one of Watson’s cornermen complained when the fight was finally, belatedly stopped.
Everyone, it seemed, had become caught up in the emotion of the occasion. The fans have this right – but his corner, and, especially the referee, have a higher duty. They must also protect those who provide the show.
This is clear in boxing. But it also applies to football. The most important duty faced by the referee is not to enforce the rules of the game. It is to ensure, as far as he can, the safety of those present.
There was a fascinating example of this in Brazil recently. Sao Paulo and Internacional met in the semi final of an annual youth tournament. This is a big deal, with a huge live TV audience.
The game, in Barueri, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, kicked off in perfect conditions. But a violent tropical storm struck. The match degenerated into something more akin to water polo, and the referee stopped the game. Internacional protested. They had just equalised, and felt that the momentum was with them. But their opinion carries not the slightest weight. The referee’s decision in this case was not influenced in the least by sporting considerations. Even the fact that the ball was hardly rolling was secondary.
The overwhelming reason for calling a halt was the lightning. Brazil has one of the highest incidences of lightning strikes in the world. Over 60 million are recorded per year, causing an average of around 100 deaths. Indeed, on this occasion a pitchside cameraman was struck a glancing blow.
The referee could – and maybe should – have stopped the game earlier. Part of Internacional’s protest was that the conditions had improved a little in the last few minutes, and when the storm had been at its most intense the game had carried on. This, of course, is of no relevance. In dangerous conditions, far better that the game be stopped late than not at all. Sporting considerations do not enter the equation when the safety of the players is in danger.