By now most of you have read the article by freelance-writer Steve Davis from Dallas. It is being circulated among referees here in northern California, and I am sure that elsewhere in the country, officials are nodding their head at Davis’s comments. If you haven’t seen it, check out the link I provided in my last blog on this site. Let me add a little different perspective to Davis’s comments.
First, note that Steve Davis is not a beginner at soccer-writing. He has covered the game for years, and his views are those of a mature observer, neither some strident beginner trying to make a controversial name for himself, nor some hack jumping on a bandwagon of others’ opinions. So pay attention to his words.
Second, dissent in MLS has a history, and as the philosopher George Santayana said many years ago: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. (As an aside, I can write that that statement by Santayana is one of the most-often cited, but most-often ignored pieces of wisdom you come across from the mouths of politicians or the pens of writers. More on that in a moment.)
Third, understand that the game you see in MLS is a victim of the advice referees have been given over the years. They have been told to back off punishing stars for dissent. They have been exhorted to try to talk their way out of disagreement, rather than flash a card. In the words of Esse Baharmast: “Use your personality—(aka man-management)—in situations that get difficult.”
That’s good advice . . . up to a point. By all means, use your personality, or your charisma, or sense of humor to defuse situations, but if the players don’t respond, then don’t hesitate to take appropriate disciplinary action. Too many referees in MLS try the management approach and keep on trying it even when it is failing. No one seems to have told them that once the players get a sense that the referee is not going to issue cautions, then control of the match passes from the referee to the player.
(Remember that notorious match in Chicago where Marco Echeverry took over the refereeing from the inexperienced and ill-trained Jair Marrufo? The player ran the show for the hapless referee because the man-in-the-middle was afraid to take action against the star midfielder and World Cup veteran.) (As another aside, rumor has it that Marrufo is next for our FIFA list . . . Imagine him with his MLS training trying to deal with a Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo. . . )
So when you read the list of the biggest whiners in MLS, notice that it is not as list of average players; it is a list of stars, with Landon Donovan at the top. Referees are obeying their instructions to the letter, and the principal victims of the policy are the fans and the game itself. The players also suffer, because they never have to learn the discipline necessary to compete at the international level.
Listen to what Steve McClaren, new Coach of England says when talking about Wayne Rooney’s recent difficulties, and notice the attitude that puts responsibility for professional behavior on the shoulders of the players, not on the backs of ill-trained referees. "In international football, you have to be extra careful with referees," said McClaren. "The most important thing (for a team) is keeping 11 players on the field, so I've talked to Wayne and all the players about their responsibilities and the discipline they must show.” Imagine how MLS would look if all the coaches in the league said that to their players!
It won’t happen, of course, because the powers-that-be are afraid to get tough with players, even though years of experience has shown that strong refereeing changes the behavior of players and improves the game for spectators. But as George Bernard Shaw, the political and historical playwright mused many years ago: We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. Especially by looking at MLS and the training of its referees.
Not too long a ago a telling moment arose when one ex-NASL and FIFA referee, and a very sharp observer of referees, was talking to a current MLS referee after a match. After being encouraged by the observer to get a lot tougher on ill-discipline among the players, the referee told the observer that “..you and the others like you wouldn’t survive in this league!” No, he didn’t mean that they weren’t technically capable of surviving, but that the league wouldn’t keep them if they were as tough as they had been in the NASL !
Q. E. D.