In nice in March, Michel Kitabdjian died. In West Yorkshire in April Norman Hunter and Trevor Cherry died. At the end of that month in Bellinzona the trial of Franz Beckenbauer on massive corruption charges was abandoned due to the pandemic and the Swiss statute of limitations. The coincidence of these events prompted me to spend an afternoon in Leeds United’s archives of infamy with Don Revie’s white assassins of almost 50 years ago. A superstitious man, the Leeds manager copied Real Madrid’s kit in the hope that it would prompt emulation. And it just might have done. But it wasn’t to be. And that was nothing to do with such capricious notions as fate.
It was because a referee, M. Kitabdjian, cheated. Or, if he didn’t cheat, he was so weak that he ceded to the bullying of Beckenbauer, who is routinely described by easily impressed sportswriters as a gentleman. The poor berks can’t distinguish between gentleman and gamesman. In the match in question, the European Cup Final of 1975, he committed two obvious fouls which would have resulted in penalties had the game been refereed by a neutral. Kitabdjian was also persuaded to disallow a goal scored by Peter Lorimer which he had initially given. He succumbed when he was surrounded by the boorish Beckenbauer and his outplayed Bayern teammates.
This sap of a ref was not alone in his frailty. Brian Clough’s Derby County had been stitched up in 1973 by an Agnelli retainer whose sole job was to buy referees officiating at Juventus matches with, of course, Fiats and, marginally less obviously, expensive watches.
More recently, Chelsea were done in the 2009 Champions’ League semi-final by one Tom Henning Ovrebo, who appears to have been acting on the orders of Uefa (prop: Michel Platini) to ensure that the final would not be a repeat of the previous year’s low-revenue special when Chelsea lost to Manchester Utd. So four penalties went unawarded and an undeserving Barcelona won. Mr Ovrebo’s reaction to vituperative criticism from all quarters was, as is usual in such circumstances, to hide in a monastery under a false name. Why do they do it? Referees are paid peanuts. Very top whack in the English premiership is about £220k per annum. A Chelsea reserve gets that much in a week. Most who officiate — a dismally apt word — in the English Premiership are lucky to make a quarter of that. They also earn the hatred of thousands, death threats, aggravated trolling, chicken livers through the post (second-class).
The ref has special powers which enable him to discern murderous studs where there are none
It is a pathology not a job. Or if it is a job it is the ultimate jobsworth job. Famously, year upon year, the Jobsworth Annual Congress (Cleethorpes, Lytham St Annes, Minehead) is annulled because the jobsworths on the door will not admit the jobsworths queueing for entry because they lack the correct certification, number of pens in breast pocket, accreditating accreditational accreditations, retractable pull badge, clip-on name tag, clipboard and matching handkerchief. And lanyard. Le cordon c’est l’homme même. Traditionally translated as “the lanyard is the very essence of the man”. It is more than their job is worth to admit these malefactors.
The referee is a blessed form of jobsworth. He has special powers which enable him to discern murderous studs where there are none and to overlook a libero cunningly playing a moment’s basketball. But what does he do when there are no matches, no opportunities to be the centre of attention? Can a ref run amok? Yes, but only within the rules, which evidently presents something of an oxymoron. Better surely to transmit his special powers to strengthen other jobsworths who are currently revelling in the multitude of gifts that have winged their way from Wuhan.
French prime minister Edouard “Le Blaireau” Philippe has taken to blaming press and TV commentators for their failure to laud the government’s stalled efforts in what Emmanuel Macron repeatedly calls “the war”. He and the hardman interior minister Christophe Castaner might do better to concentrate on sorting out the refs and jobsworths in public office who are interpreting regulations so liberally they might as well not exist. Do they know the offside laws?
They are weighed down by feeble deference to political and social orthodoxy and communitarian favouritism. Police in the Calvados department of Normandy have been instructed to behave “softly” in areas where there is a concentration of the public observing Ramadan, assault cases excepted. That’s tantamount to declaring no-go areas. It’s officially-approved cowardice.
The Muslim Prefect of the Oise department decreed that no alcohol should be sold. His homologue in Seine and Marne had the sensationally bright idea of enlisting all 15,000 gun-crazy members of the department’s numerous chasses to patrol as militia-like provisionals informing police of infractions — this in a country already brimming with noble snitches, honoured grasses and millions of corbeaux, a country whose local papers list at length, every autumn, the deaths of chasseurs in regulation high-viz schmutter mistaken by their fellow hunters for a wild boar in high-viz schmutter.
The latter two of these freelance insubordinations have been suppressed. The first is proving more tenacious. All of them have support from a high-handed faction that should know better but is so convinced of its own precious superiority that it grants itself what might be termed elective interpretation and is thus willing to ignore some rules and bend others in the names of common sense, natural justice and economic probity. None of which has a place in the beautiful game.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe