Every time something unsavoury develops within football, the default concern seems always to be over the millions of impressionable children who are influenced by what they see on a Premier League pitch at the weekend.
If they see their heroes cheat, they’ll cheat.
If they see their heroes be racist, they’ll be racist.
And so on.
That logic isn’t in any way flawed, and the younger members of society will frequently imitate in real life what they see around them. Football players are, whether they accept it or not, role-models.
But let’s not pretend that football’s influence extends only as far as children, because it’s plainly apparent that the game holds sway with almost anyone who watches, regardless of their age.
That’s why the relationship between players, managers and referees is so important, and needs such immediate attention.
The FA launched its RESPECT campaign back in 2008, and like everything else The FA does, it’s been half-hearted and poorly executed. Without resorting to pedantry, there’s almost no obvious difference between player’s conduct towards official pre and post-2008; if anyone believes that RESPECT has been successful, then frankly they’re kidding themselves.
Watch a game next weekend, any game in any of the divisions. As night follows day, sure enough you will witness an example of dissent: being argumentative, telling a referee to flatly ‘fuck off’, or seeing a player getting-up into a referee’s face to dispute a decision. Every game, every single week.
That flagrant disregard for on-pitch authority doesn’t just infect children, and it doesn’t just seep into U9s games on a Sunday morning, it effects the way every part-time player conducts himself around every part-time referee. How many of us have played in or heard of games being abandoned because of hostility towards a referee? Too many. In a Premier League game, the menace of furious protestations are rendered redundant by the television cameras and 40,000 witnesses, but on one of those distant pitches on Hackney Marshes, not so much.
Football can’t be held responsible for correcting universal on-pitch etiquette within a generation, but it can start to take its obligation to set an example slightly more seriously than it currently does. When a player swears at a referee, when he argues a decision, when he encroaches on the official’s personal space…why are those offences not automatic yellow cards?
That has to change. The boundaries of what is and what is not acceptable have to be firmly established at the apex of the sport’s visibility.