The referee: our psychic safety valve

Like nearly everyone, two of my favorite soccer poets have talked about referees in some not so flattering ways. 

The referee, according to Eduardo Galeano, is “an abominable tyrant wo runs his dictatorship without opposition… “ He is a “pompous executioner.”

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Laurent Dubois notes that referees make soccer “one of the most effective tools for mass human torture ever devised.”

Both, however, go on to make it clear that referees are not only necessary to keep the game going “technically,” but also that they function to keep fanship operating in a psychically positive direction. We should be grateful, they seem to say, that we have referees to take the blunt of our anguish, whether they know it or not (and whether we realize it or not).

I was thinking about this over the course of the last week, not because of soccer, but because of events in college football (looking at you, Tennessee). In a sense, the commentary about referees and umpires is true for fans of all sports, but I have little doubt that it is true more often, and more consistently, in soccer, if only because soccer score lines are more often close at the end of the game. With other sports, you are more likely to see blowouts, and, as a result, bad refereeing gets forgotten, or at least downplayed. You simply don’t dwell on a bad call that kept your from scoring a field goal if you team ultimately wins by 20 points. And if you lose by that much, you also tend to accept that you were soundly beaten. 

It’s the last minute “bad” call in a close game that gets remembered. And those are far, far more likely in soccer where 2-1 finals are common.

As a result, the most common discussion I hear before and after ever game is how we are likely to get screwed over by a referee who seems to hate the team (e.g., every single fan base in the PL is sure that Mike Dean is out to screw them over), or how he ultimately did so after the games conclusion.

As Dubois notes, “Without the all-powerful and endlessly fallible referee, we would have so much less to watch and to talk about.”

But it’s so much more than talk we get to do as soccer fans. Indeed, we get to understand our team as potentially unbeatable were it not for those referees. While there are rare cases when we might be willing to admit that a call that went our way helped us win the game, we will surely point out that this “helpful” call was offset by something asinine the referee called earlier that cost us a goal. That is, “Yeah, he made a call that helped us, but he made other calls earlier that screwed us over.”

In other words, the only time we really discuss officiating after the game—at least at any length—is when we lose. Officiating provides us with a logic that says we only lost because of the vast array of forces line up against us. 

And that’s the thing. Losing is hard. It can ruin a weekend or keep us tossing and turning at night, while winning can make us feel not only relief but triumph, like we are a force with which to be reckoned.

With those stakes, it makes sense that our brains, our minds and our egos, want to feel that a win is almost always deserved while a loss can be blamed on some external force, often the referee. 

I know none of us likes to think of ourselves that way, but just watch and listen to the conversations after a game. The winning fans may make a passing reference to a few calls, but the losing fans will find a call or two that grasp onto for dear life, making it clear to everyone that victory was within reach had it not been for that “pompous executioner,” that “abominable tyrant.”

Sometimes, I thinkg we oughta thank them for being our own personal scape goats, for letting us imagine things could be otherwise while be tie to them to the tracks.

But generally, I’m simply too furious to pull that off.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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