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Evans-Cisse spitting spat exposes football's glaring flaws

Simon BarnesMarch 6, 2015
Papiss Cisse appeared to spit on Manchester United's Jonny Evans as tempers flared at St James' Park © Getty Images

A spitting contest. Just what football needs to improve its reputation. You can always rely on football to stoop that little bit lower than you expected. Papiss Cisse of Newcastle United and Jonny Evans of Manchester United, both charged by the FA, appeared to exchange spittle in the course of Wednesday's match.

It's an occasion more likely to provoke eye-rolling than anger: football outdoing its own reputation for distasteful behaviour once again. After the most recent biting episode from Luis Suarez - there have been too many to remember them as separate incidents - it was suggested to me that sport brought out the animal instincts in human beings.

It doesn't. Sport does the exact opposite. It's combat tamed, civilised and played to certain gentlemanly conventions. That's why Suarez provoked such outrage: because he had broken - indeed shattered - those conventions.

Spitting at opponents comes into the same category. That's why it offends and that's why - if the referee sees it - it is punished by a straight red card. It doesn't hurt as much as, say, having your leg broken, but in some ways you'd prefer that to the abuse and invasion of being used as a spittoon. So spitting is a serious issue.

Which brings us to the comic bit. Cisse has already accepted his charge and Evans, who hasn't, could also be punished retrospectively.

Two things were required for the players to be dealt with in this way: the first was that television footage must have shown unambiguously that the an offence did indeed take place. The second was that the referee Anthony Taylor had to say he didn't see it.

Had Taylor seen it, there would have been no question of punishment. This is because football operates on the principle that the referee is infallible. If he saw an incident and didn't punish the players involved, there would be no incident.

That's exactly what happened last weekend. Ashley Barnes of Burnley kicked Nemanja Matic of Chelsea, Matic over-reacted and got sent off. It was a bad foul, even if Jose Mourinho's angry response to it was over the top. But Barnes is in no danger of getting punished for it.

Why not? Because the referee, Martin Atkinson saw it. He saw it and issued no punishment to Barnes: therefore Barnes did no wrong. You don't need a doctorate in philosophy to work out the flaw in the logic here.

Last Sunday the referee Roger East sent off Wes Brown of Sunderland for a foul against Radamel Falcao of Manchester United by mistake. He later admitted that he should have sent off John O'Shea. And what with Mourinho's belief in a conspiracy against Chelsea, we've had plenty of refereeing controversies to deal with.

There are two points to take on board here. The first is that football is the curious principle of infallible referees. The second is that in football the currency - the goal - is uniquely high, and so matches frequently turn on a single incident: a player's mistake, a moment of great skill, the decision of a referee. Referees change matches, and change seasons; that doesn't happen to anything like the same extent in any other sport.

Football was not designed to be played for such high stakes, with fortunes depending on the decisions of a single panting individual with but a single pair of eyes

How can referees make mistakes? How can they be so incompetent? They get paid, they get trained, they are subject to an intense selection process and yet every week they make mistakes. Are they all mad? All blind? All terminally incompetent? Is the appalling standard of refereeing going to destroy football as we know it?

As I listen to these sort of questions I roll my eyes.

The fact is that it is not possible to referee a game of football with 100% accuracy. Or anything close. It's physically impossible for a referee to see every incident or to be in the right place to have the best view. To referee accurately, a referee must be in several places at the same time, and be capable of focusing on at least two things at once. He can involve his assistants to an extent but the convention of the sport is that a single person runs the show.

He has to keep up with play, and since the ball travels a great deal faster than humans can, he is seldom precisely where he needs to be. In the course of a match he must run further than Mo Farah did when he won the Olympic 10,000 metres; a study a couple of years ago showed that Premier League referees were running an average 7.12 miles in a game, with players running 6.75; referees reached a top speed of 20.7 mph, not far short of the players who reached 21.6. Try doing that while making a series of game-changing or even life-changing decisions.

It can't be done. The best the referee can do is to get more right than wrong. And that's tough on footballers and managers, because a refereeing error - and it's a certainty that they'll come in every match - can have devastating meaning for them.

Football seems to be governed on the 19th century belief that sport's function is to teach moral lessons, the most important of which is unquestioning acceptance of authority. Hardly surprising that the millionaires who haunt the playing surfaces and the technical areas find this concept tricky.

Football was not designed to be played for such high stakes, with fortunes depending on the decisions of a single panting individual with but a single pair of eyes. So what to do? One option is to change the system to one that creates fewer incorrect decisions; American football, for example, used seven on-field officials to run games in the NFL and instant replays to allow coaches to challenge calls and cricket has a decision review system.

The other option is to shut up and deal with it, because that's football.

Wes Brown had his red card rescinded after referee Roger East incorrectly sent him off instead of John O'Shea at Old Trafford © Getty Images

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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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