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.