Beware a new wave of footballing celebrity – one that’s entirely of our own making: the modern-day referee…


HERE it is, the one nobody has been waiting for.

Another wade into the biggest showpiece in sports entertainment. The thing which has become box office across every TV, WhatsApp group and social media debate. The one thing we cannot get away from talking about from August to June.

Refereeing in football.

This week dispelled another myth about the conception of European competence from officials. Both the Champions League and Europa League showed it can descend into the same melee of playground-like ridiculousness at decisions given and not.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that last night’s referee Georgi Kabakov had a good game. He had more than a whiff of the right kind of authority and tended to let the game flow.

It’s a fine balance to strike, this. Referees cannot be without some form of authority in a game. They can’t be spoken to and dictated to like shit, which has happened for years.

But then you can’t be the schoolteacher, police officer or general body of authority we’ve come across in life who use such jurisdiction to dismiss and dictate with condescending arrogance.

Ultimately, the same things are happening however much we try to assert judgement on particular personalities (which is also a big part of the problem). Kabakov had control until he didn’t. Until he became kingmaker to what might be Toulouse’ greatest ever night. Then he became flappy, stubborn and card happy.

It’s again an example of VAR making lives harder for referees, not easier. A subjective call can still be objective to two opponents on the same pitch. Thresholds change weekly. The dreaded pandemic of whataboutery is widespread to this element of the game.

It can’t be enjoyable for them. You would think they still much rather prefer a clean, incident-free encounter over what ensued between Tottenham and Chelsea on Monday.

You would think, but the boys and their process are heading straight to number one in the charts. Match officials for game week 12 is currently the third highest news story on the EPL website.

How long before we collectively decide we want to know more about these hot new influencers who are having a direct impact on our lives? Before we see Antony Taylor on the cover of GQ or Chris Kavanagh advertising his own brand of clothing?

I say this facetiously of course, but if you asked television producers who they’d most like to interview straight after a contentious game on Super Sunday, I’d guess most would pick referees.

If we’re telling them that the spotlight is greater than ever before, then smaller becomes the margin for error. Football in person versus on television is more disparate than ever before. Both are unhelpful to the cause.

Stadiums can become influential and lead refs like Kabakov to lose calm in judgement. All the while, somewhere, Gary Neville is making funny noises and funnier contradictions. Steve McManaman has just gone up another decibel in pitch when saying “Fletch”.

This would usually be the point where I say it’s on all of us to rectify this. That we need to stop analysing and scrutinising them so much, making them the centrepiece of a sport still littered with collective and individual brilliance.

But here’s my writing about this very thing a day after Liverpool deservedly lost and refereeing controversy was front and centre. I know that I’m more invested today because of that injustice. I also knew that Arsenal and Tottenham’s plight was entertaining, funny even, to so many.

I’m tainted by my own tribalism. I am just as problematic. Therefore, I will bow to ambivalence. I’ll take my medicine and pay my entrance fee to watch the greatest showman in black weave his magic from here on in.

Forget Kevin De Bruyne, soon there’ll be kids aspiring to become Stuart Atwell when they’re older.

Get ready, a new wave of celebrity is upon us, the greatest antihero of our lifetime. And it’s entirely of our own making.

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