A meditation on life and sport.
He’s having a rough few years, the football referee. A gentleman of prominent forehead, from Wirral or Yorkshire—a constable, perhaps, or a schoolteacher. The forehead is a sign of his unusual enthusiasm for rules: At the work functions he infrequently attends he describes himself as a stickler, with apparent pride, a real stickler, mashing his forefinger down into a picnic table with delight, eyes oddly bright and shallow. He never cooks without a meat thermometer. Anything the referee’s wife or daughter leaves on the kitchen counter is disposed of in the first minute of the 25th hour.
But somehow, on Saturdays, it all has a way of breaking down. There are 22 of them, younger and fitter and hungrier than he is, hunting outside the rules for the littlest tug of an advantage. He’s the game’s adult, the stickler, but also the game’s infant, a radically empowered six-year-old, equipped with a remarkably urgent sense of what is and isn’t fair and the miraculous right to act on that sense of fairness, to change the game’s state when he thinks the rules have been broken. He doesn’t get a second chance, and when he errs, neither do the parties who are erred against. This football’s got no second downs.
And really, it’s all on him—sure, he’s assisted by a pair of work-experience kids with flags remaindered from the West End run of South Pacific, but they’re confined to jogging up and down the sideline, waving in helpless semaphore. Out in the middle of the field there’s only him, with a little spy microphone left over from the 1960s and a notebook with two playing cards. He’s got to keep control of it, and it happens only once, in front of his eyes, further or closer, sighted or unsighted, real or simulated—he has to know, to judge. And then that evening, and tomorrow, and forever, they’ll put him up on television and say what he should have done. How can he win? What is he to do? What are we to do, about the fallibility of sticklers?
Consider: this September, at Stamford Bridge, Diego Costa applying three hands to Laurent Koscielny’s face within something like the same three seconds, bowling Koscielny over once again as he’s getting up, and that somehow after the intervention of appointed stickler Mike Dean (assisted by the uncunning Gabriel) it was Arsenal who had 10 men, and later nine, and later zero points to Chelsea’s three. The trouble with sticklers is, they always lose out in the end.
Somehow (oddly) we’ve become sympathetic toward them—it occurs to us how much we’d like to improve the quality of their stickling, possibly by allowing them to review film of the events they’re obliged to judge. Part of this is the relative stickiness of adverse conditioning—every fan feels that the cases where their club is harmed by a mis-stickling are outrages against the very notion of justice, but those that benefit their club are karmic reward for all the possession, or all the pressing, they’d been doing all match long.
Another part, though, is that the way we consume the game is making refereeing look sillier and sillier. What’s worth tens of millions of pounds in television rights per match isn’t so much football as video product relating to football—streams to Brooklyn and to Bandra, certainly, but also an enormous quantity of replays, highlights, offside overlays, YouTube compilations, .gifs, all not just depicting but dissecting instances of bad stickling. Panopticon isn’t just a reasonable option here; it’s the prevailing state of affairs for pretty much everybody watching the game other than the referee and the fans in the stands—every year and every camera makes the stickler’s fallibility look like more and more of a joke. This is one of the best arguments for adding some video to football. This is a game about difficulty and mishap no matter how it’s considered, but let’s keep the spotlight where it belongs. No one is here for the referee’s difficulty. (The other best argument for adding video replay is that Sepp Blatter opposes it.)
Diego Costa, we can safely say, was not a stickler. Diego Costa always knew when the teacher wasn’t looking, how long his parents would be gone, how much of that homework assignment really needed to be done. Diego Costa knew how to give Indian burns, and when he stole your cubby one day and called you a tush when you tried to get it back, and you called him a tush in return, it was Diego Costa who then threatened to tell the teacher on you and who extorted five dollars of lunch money from you for the courtesy of his silence. Diego Costa’s entire life is a joke about sticklers.
But really—there’s no way to punish Costa, is there? The game’s chronotope, the shape of time it forces on its audience, is maybe its most essential appeal. This is a game of continuation, of spontaneous realignment in response to chances missed and taken, of coincidence and flow. Stopping action every time a manager threw a flag would be literal anathema, to say nothing of the abuses we could imagine, say, José Mourinho concocting from his ability to challenge. It’s really only the existing stoppages—penalties, goals, red cards, certain free kicks, each of which is followed by a brief tizzy anyway—that could be videoed.
And yes, that would be an improvement: to know whether so-and-so had been offside, whether there’d been contact. But there’s no way of stopping play for Costa, and even if you could—did he mean that? The slaps to Koscielny? The stamp to Can? Or Škrtel? Any number of elbows? When milk turns bad, did it intend to?
What we really want, of course, when we want replay has less to do with Costa than with life. For haven’t there always been Costas everywhere around us? These little grievances? Costas cutting in line at the train station, turning in homework a week after it’s due, sneaking in the side door without tickets, and meanwhile it’s drizzling, we’ve stubbed our toes, we’re watching the subway slide out of the station just as we’re through the stile. What we’re taught, all our life, is to not be sticklers. Life is a place where we get bored with beauty and make peace with injustice. Call it equanimity, or toughness—our adulthood, unlike the referees’, consists in choosing not to stickle, in turning whatever cheeks remain and living on regardless.
But do we love our toughness? Does it please us to endure? Or are we keeping, somewhere, a secret history of the unredressed, of all the times we could have—they deserved it! and we didn’t—all the times we’ve been the bigger person and gotten over something? Do we wish to go back again and get things right, whether by punishing or just by acting a little differently? Memory is a fistful of .gifs: if we’d kissed, or hadn’t, or spoken up, or kept silent—life ought to have been different.
What we’re really asking, when we talk about bringing video into football matches, is a question about the relationship we want football to have to the injustices of daily life. Sport is a set of white lines painted on the ground, within which rules apply. Shouldn’t they be applied as well as possible? Shouldn’t we get things right, here if nowhere else? That’s one vision of the sport—that it’s a refuge from life’s inconsistencies, a place where merit wins, where what ought to happen does. And the idea of video is that we can get closer to that ought, to a sport that happens in accordance with the virtues of its athletes rather than the failings of the stickler.
The other idea is that football ought to be some kind of academy, a place where, confronting the inevitable victories of Costa et al., we learn something from them that we can adapt to more private places in our life. That exposure to a little injustice here and there makes both football and the viewing fan more human. That we ought to know a little agony.
But of course we’ll know that agony regardless—we’re fans. We don’t need botched offside calls to be taught what life’s like—Agüero should have finished that, or de Gea should have saved, or Torres should never have gone. Our capacity to hope and hurt is so much bigger than our ingenuity that there’s no real risk we’ll ever invent ourselves out of this or any other pain—and the Costas, the Mourinhos and Suárezes (the Schumachers, the Maradonas and Gentiles) who know that winning’s more important than following any rule will always find another edge to walk. But say for now that we can do a little better—that we can help our sticklers count a few more good goals and a few less bad ones, reward a few less divers—and that a little better, here in the present, isn’t such a bad thing. It’s how we got here in the first place.
This article originally appeared in issue 07 of Eight by Eight. To learn more about the new issue, and to subscribe, please click here.