Football has long since been a staple in England. Its cultural impact ranges from the most watched and richest league in the world - the Premier League - down to non-league competitions. The most accessible level of football in England is known as “grassroots” football. Grassroots is non-professional and all-encompassing, and includes junior, school, amateur and disabled football. Grassroots Leagues and competitions are supported and funded by government and local community fundraisers. The Premier League and The Football Association (The FA), who aim to set the standard at the highest level, also provide funding and support for training and development all across football in the country.
One of the most difficult challenges plaguing grassroots football is the abuse directed towards referees and match officials by players, fans and managers. This abuse takes many forms and is most commonly verbal abuse, although threats and physical violence have unfortunately proven far too common. There is a genuine determination to prevent and protect officials, many of whom are volunteers or training to be professionals. But even in 2023, referees and officials are still suffering abuse. At a time when grassroots referees are coming forward publicly with cases of abuse against them, there exists a major issue that, as recently as this Sunday - professionals at the highest level have been setting the worst example and abusing referees on the biggest stage.
During Sunday’s Quarter-Final match, Fulham was playing extremely well and was leading 1-0 against Manchester United. However with 20 minutes to play Manchester United were correctly awarded a penalty by the referee Chris Kavanagh and the culprit for Fulham was rightly sent off with a red card. Chaos then ensued with the Fulham manager also being sent off moments later for alleged “abusive and/or insulting words and/or gestures and/or behaviour towards the match referee” directed at the fourth official. Drama only accelerated further with the Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic yelling abuse at the referee before attempting to grab his arm twice, pushing him and squaring up. He was eventually dismissed with a red card and is now awaiting further punishment for the abuse.
Two weeks prior, an incident with similar connotations to Mitrovic took place regarding Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes. In a frustrating match for his side against Liverpool, he reacted to a linesman by shoving him out of the way. Although this incident had a lot less aggression and force than the Mitrovic incident, it was concerning to see that he was not even booked let alone held to account. Despite violating the rule that players should not make contact with officials - there were no real repercussions for physically abusing an official. Rightly, there was concern that this incident could start a chain of worsening abuse towards referees and officials.
There is a fierce discussion surrounding the two incidents, although there is a consensus that Mitrovic was far more aggressive than Fernandes. Dermot Gallagher is a former referee and accepts that the two are not completely isolated but maintains that they are very different cases. He concluded that in both cases the right steps have been taken - Bruno Fernandes not being booked and Mitrovic facing further punishment beyond the red card. There was an emphasis from Gallagher that any contact towards a match official should not be condoned or tolerated.
An alternative argument - and one that appears much more valid - stems from reiterating the problems that arise when making contact of any kind towards a match official. The argument, namely purported by former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan, observes that football players tend to see what they can get away with, and without a completely enforced ‘no touch’ policy with the guarantee of punishment it would only be a matter of time before the abuse worsens until a climactic incident takes place and severe consequences ensue.
This appears to be true when looking at these two cases - one makes contact with an official by pushing him and receives no punishment, the other takes it to a level beyond that and receives a red card. The game falls apart if the authority keeping it together isn’t protected. It is therefore vital that Mitrovic’s further punishment is taken seriously, not just for the officials involved at the highest level, but every other level all the way through to grassroots football.
Professional players have a responsibility to lead by example as they represent millions of fans and are idolised by people from young children to adults. Football in England is like a waterfall where changes and actions in games at the top filter down to the bottom and there is clear evidence as the game changes and trends emerge - these are replicated at the grassroots level.
Regardless, this is not to say that abuse of referees hasn’t been going on for far too long before these incidents. The fact remains that instances of abuse towards referees haven’t slowed as the game has grown. Despite the Premier League and FA reinforcing messages against abuse and hate, it remains a pervasive issue. The BBC survey in February 2023 reached out to grassroots referees about their experiences to alarming results. 908 of the 927 respondents indicated they had experienced verbal abuse from spectators, players, coaches or managers. Nearly a third (293) said they suffered physical abuse from spectators.
Work has been and is continuing to be done to combat this longstanding and currently major issue. The footballing bodies in England do still demonstrate concern and fight against such hatred. The FA launched an "Enough is Enough" campaign to combat swearing, aggressive shouting and persistent arguing among spectators, players and officials.
Football in England is a focal point of its culture and communities, due to the importance and impact the game has for people, whether that is from being a fan of a professional club or playing for a non-professional Sunday league team representing a small town.
It is unacceptable that abuse still occurs and has been recently amplified at the highest level to grassroots football, and when that abuse is targeted towards the authority of the game, the sport and everything around it devolves and suffers immensely.
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