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“…Damned if I don’t”

“…Damned if I don’t”

Being a referee is perhaps the single most contentious position in sports. To say it is a thankless task is to imply the opportunity for gratitude; when you’re a referee, there is no gratitude, only scorn and admonishment, eternally. Never should a referee’s decisions transcend the pitch, but on occasion, they do, to tragic consequences.

The whistle blows, the ball sputters away and play halts. It was a questionable move, to be certain; actually, it was downright illegal, and I knew it when I did it. Nevertheless, I hoped the man with the whistle didn’t see me, or at least that he didn’t see all of me in the moment when I bared my true self before my teammates, my opponent, before God Himself. As in the afterlife, absolution on the pitch comes with a price.

* * *

It’s a cold Saturday morning in February, below freezing in fact, which makes standing around as a sub to start the match all the worse. Sticking a head out the window before leaving my apartment wasn’t a sufficient judge of the weather or accompanying wind, and a light hooded sweatshirt did not suffice. My roommate frets about missing the Arsenal match, happening thousands of miles away and five hours ahead, but he is our goalkeeper and the main reason we stood a chance at all. Arsenal’s weekly appointment with disappointment was going to have to wait.

We walk to the pitch, as we do every week, discussing our odds. He had been on the team in seasons previous, and being that I had only just moved in and that they needed to fill a few spots, I joined his club. We speak of our chances at defending his team’s championship. It becomes apparent then that I am underdressed, but we were already going to be late. We start jogging, the flowing blood in my veins a welcome relief from the feeling of stagnant ice, a reminder that I am awake, that I am alive.

Arriving at the field, we gather our belongings into a giant, bland pile of athletic tote bags and sneakers, kicked off in favor of boots. I wear Adidas, the same pair I’ve worn for five years, and they now look their age more than ever. The rubber on their tongues is starting to peel, and the mud is forever stained, giving the boots a subtle but distinct shade of off-white. Pulling them on, I begin to lose feeling in my toes. I shake my feet and perform crude calisthenics in an effort to ward off injury. My roommate heads to goal, imploring us to send him tough shots to warm up.

Looking at his watch, already far behind the league’s schedule for the morning, the referee blows his whistle and commands the captains to the center. Deferring to my teammates, who are better and more familiar with each other than with me, I walk off to the sideline. Another blow of the whistle, a roll of the ball, and the game begins.

 Jittering with each passive breeze that blows in off the nearby harbor, I shuffle my feet as my team battles. Every so often, a whistle interrupts the run of play, the referee calling the ball back for a free kick, while the offending party’s objections whistle off into the clouds. With each foul, the arguments become louder and more indignant:

“Ref, HOW is that a foul? That was all ball!”

“No, ref, my feet didn’t even touch him!”

“C’mon, ref! He’s basically wearing me as a shirt right now!”

And so on, and so forth.

Midway through the first half, I’m called on as a sub, an ostensibly warm and rested body replacing a tired warrior. Immediately, I’m scrambling all over the field, forsaking my given territory as a centre-back to chase opponents and opportunities. To make up for my general lack of skill on the ball, I play with fierce passion, sometimes to my own team’s detriment.

* * *

What players constantly seem to forget in the throes of a tense match is that the referee’s job is hard enough. No one ever thanks the referee, at least not in earnest; any audible “thank you” seemingly delivered in the direction of the ref is, more often than not, actually intended for a spiritual entity, the football gods, or perhaps the player’s own ego. “I want to thank myself for making such an excellent play there, and for having the referee recognize the gratuitous act of injustice that prevented me from completing my run and scoring the goal which inevitably awaited me on the other side of that gruesome tackle.”

I never refute a referee’s ruling. There is not much to be done after a ruling is made anyway, lest you get on the wrong side of the official and give up a highly questionable foul later. It seems heretical from a player’s standpoint, but I have a great deal of sympathy for the officials of a match, particularly at professional levels. No one is ever pleased with what you decide. The best anyone can hope for is being pleased at the acts which come as a result of what you decide, such as a slotted penalty or sent-off opponent. Even then, it seems always to be an act of justice, as if the players themselves do not hold responsibility for their actions any more than the planets do. What you decide as an official may be right in your eyes, and may very well be right objectively, but to some portion of fans, there is no justice.

* * *

We win the game, and the referee is generally inconsequential. We were always going to win the game, regardless of what he decided. Not all officials are so lucky, however. I arrive home that afternoon and read an article about a referee in Argentina getting killed by a player he had previously sent off. The player went to his bag, grabbed a gun and shot the man three times in front of everyone – his teammates, his opponent, in front of God Himself. Never again would that man feel the brisk pain of the cold, or hear the protests of a player. And for what? A disagreement over a child’s game? Neither club nor country can stand for this, yet no one stopped it from happening. I turn off my computer and close my laptop, thankful for the chance to ache.

(Follow Rory on Twitter, check out his blog, and find more of his soccer writing at FanSided.)

The Fields of Athenry

The Fields of Athenry

Editor’s note: This is the first piece from our newest contributor, Rory Masterson. He has been kind enough to agree to write features for The Open Field from time to time. His work can be found at The Cauldron, and at his blog Tuesdays With Horry. Getting Rory to write for us is a big coup. Enjoy.

by Rory (@rorymasterson)

Agonizingly, it took until the 85th minute. What at first seemed a foregone conclusion then became the all-too-familiar feeling of inevitable failure, coming up infinitesimally short when greatness was only inches away the whole time. When Wes Hoolahan sent in the cross, toward a group of three Italians and only two of his own countrymen within shouting distance of the ball and from an angle that most would agree was speculative, if not downright bonkers, another deflection, another parry away or a scoop from the goalkeeper flashed before every fan’s eyes. At least, until reality circumvented that.

Robbie Brady connected with a perfect header, the divine touch leading to a goal that will last a lifetime. Improbably, the Republic of Ireland would advance to the Round of 16 at Euro 2016, perhaps its greatest achievement ever. For the team, it is a culmination of riding along the razor’s edge, having only just qualified for the tournament at all in a playoff. Manager Martin O’Neill, ever excitable and always the definition of anxiety, has every reason to be proud of his men.

Arguably the biggest winners of all, however, are the Irish fans, who traveled so well to Euro 2012 that they were named Fans of the Tournament despite their nation’s team dropping all three matches without scoring a goal. They’ve returned in 2016 with a vivacious, unrepentant joy to spread all over France.

Tales of fan exploits have arrived early and often, from chanting the Lord’s Prayer at a nun on a train to serenading a French woman in the streets with Frankie Valli to destroying, and then repairing, a car roof in celebration. Joining Swedish fans in a large-scale singalong of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” was a particularly inspiring moment of fan camaraderie. Imploring a random Frenchman to come to his balcony only to boo when he went back inside might have been the best.

Some of us don’t like to admit it, but there’s a certain pride we all take in lumbering around under the impression that the world has it out for us. Whomever has it the worst ends up having it the best, because the next person isn’t as miserable as I, and all that. Take that with the current state of the world, which is full of as much paranoia and hatred as it likely ever has been, and we all end up pretty disgusted with humanity. In their own miniscule yet unimaginably important way, the Irish fans are doing their part to help, or at least to distract.

All of it works as a healthy reminder of the good sport can bring about, especially when framed against the violent, riotous actions of English and Russian fans earlier in the tournament, both of whom found themselves on the verge of getting their teams disqualified altogether. The pure joy the Irish emanate is uniquely infectious, and their self-awareness, no doubt a result of the pervasive cultural Catholicism that reigns supreme on the Emerald Isle, is almost maddeningly and unavoidably lovable.

ireland last chance

For as great as the Irish fans have been, their team has never done much to celebrate. Roy Keane, Robbie Keane and a select few others aside, Ireland rarely produces talent worthy of starting anywhere other than at second-rate European clubs and in lower tiers of English football. Ireland has often struggled to secure a footballing identity, often cowering behind the shadow of its British Isle neighbors. The nation’s greatest manager, Jack Charlton, was an icon for the English team that won the World Cup in 1966, and even he isn’t the most famous soccer figure in his immediate family.

With an expanded second round that allows third-place teams to advance to the knockout stages for the first time in the tournament’s history, the Irish found themselves in a favorable group. A tie against Sweden in the opening game – which, perhaps, should’ve been a victory, but then the exploits of the match against Italy wouldn’t have been possible – led to a 3-0 loss to the budding juggernaut that is Belgium, which seemed to spell doom for the Republic. When Italy secured its place at the top of the group, however, Ireland saw an opening. The Italians would rest eight of their regular eleven starters, and the Irish would go all-in, their fans sure to be overwhelmingly present in Lille.

Having nothing to lose means also having everything to gain. From the opening whistle, the Irish were in control against an Italian team largely composed of prospects, just looking to gain national experience, and backups. Ireland recorded twelve shots, four of which were on target, to Italy’s four total shots, though all four could very well have made the Irish sitting ducks, and that doesn’t even count Lorenzo Insigne’s post-rattling strike only a few minutes prior to the winner that nearly sunk a nation of over four and a half million.

To their fans’ delight, the Irish delivered on that Hoolahan cross, perhaps the best of the entire tournament thus far. Hoolahan had been the sole goalscorer in the Sweden game, a lonely creative force amidst utilitarian soldiers hell-bent on frustrating the opponent without having a terribly clear plan on what to do once it regained the ball. Brady’s header fell to the ground where the keeper had been, bouncing into the net and leaving those wearing green in the stadium and around the world with an eternal, if brief, memory of salvation.

It serves to be realistic rather than optimistic, both of which are skills the Irish have wonderfully mastered and compartmentalized. The favored song of Irish supporters, “The Fields of Athenry,” concerns an imprisoned man during the Irish Famine. That they use the image of a caged thief to inspire their own team is telling, for every victory the Irish claim feels distinctly like a robbery. The Shane Long goal which led to the defeat of Germany last year had it, and the Brady goal certainly had it.

Waking up from a hangover means facing a dry, bleak reality. The Republic of Ireland faces the host nation, France, on Sunday. The aforementioned talk about every win feeling like a robbery? France stole one from Ireland in 2009 to qualify for the 2010 World Cup; even the most hospitable among Irish fans have yet to forget Thierry Henry’s handball and FIFA’s subsequent failure to deliver either a punishment or a replay of the game. Neither corruption nor justice favors the Irish.

So, on Sunday, they will sing, they will chant, they will applaud every completed pass and shout at every missed call. The only opponent will be the referee, and even he is welcome to join them for a Guinness afterward. What will likely be a drubbing at the hands of an invigorated, youthful and creative French team won’t matter in the long run; everything from here forward is a surplus, the likes of which the Irish are unaccustomed to. “It’s so lonely ‘round the field of Athenry,” the song goes, but Irish men and women are always flanked by the joint familiarity of sorrow and jubilation. Come on, you boys in green.