A referee being attacked in Turkey should be the last straw - but football has shrugged its shoulders before

The assault on a Turkish referee has drawn widespread condemnation - but will any of the game's governing bodies actually take action to protect officials?
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Given that it’s been the biggest story in world football so far this week, you’ll already have seen it and, hopefully, been disgusted by it – the craven and needless assault on a referee by MKE Ankaragücü president Faruk Koca, who has been arrested along with two other men following scenes which have generated near-universal outrage.

Everyone from Gianni Infantino to Koca’s former boss in government, Turkey’s right-wing president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has swiftly condemned the attack, which followed a 1-1 draw against Çaykur Rizespor which saw both players finish with ten men. The entire Turkish Super Lig has been suspended indefinitely following the incident while the Turkish FA decides what to do next.

Aside from the inevitable legal ramifications, the fallout has thus far mostly consisted of a string of tweets and think pieces pontificating about the damage that would be done to the fabric of the game if such scenes were to become a regular feature of football. This is a line of thought which is perfectly reasonable, save for one small problem – it is already a depressingly routine feature of the game, in the UK and elsewhere.

Assaults on referees ranging from verbal tirades to brutal physical attacks are a common sight event in recreational football in Britain, and aside from some tsking and tutting the reaction is usually a nationwide shrugging of the shoulders. A referee who was assaulted in a car park following an Under-7s game in Merseyside in September recently complained about the lack of support from the FA after the perpetrator, who was sentenced to community service, had his touchline ban from children’s matches overturned. It’s an extreme example, perhaps, but indicative of how little tangible action seems to be taken despite all the solemn shaking of heads. Everyone claims to care, but few people do anything much about it.

Photographs of Halil Umut Meler, the official who was on the receiving end of Koca’s right hook, in his hospital bed with a neck brace on have garnered plenty of sympathy, but if this is what it takes for a meaningful debate to be had about how to protect referees and improve safety standards, then that’s a pretty sad condemnation of the game as a whole. Referees are abused and assaulted on a regular basis with little being done, perhaps until now.

There are, in defence of the FA and other similar bodies around Europe, some attempts being made to find solutions. This March a trial was begun in Middlesbrough which saw referees fitted with bodycams – which apparently required the FA to obtain the permission of IFAB, the body which oversees the game’s rules. But that trial is the only tangible step forward that has been taken recently. Attempts to modify behaviour towards officials from the top down have invariably been incredibly lukewarm – it wasn’t long ago that Premier League referees were asked to book players for any form of dissent in top flight games, a concept which seemed to be completely forgotten about a month or so after it began. A fresh drive this season has seen an 88% increase in bookings for dissent in English football, but there has yet to be a tangible change in attitudes from player, while managers complain as freely as they did before.

The FA (along with FIFA, UEFA, and all the rest of them) long ago decided that it was alright for top professionals to crowd referees, bellow in their faces, even push and shove them from time to time, and the same organisations have also been perfectly happy for managers to use their time in front of the cameras to bitch and bemoan refereeing performances without substantive recriminations. The occasional fine is handed down, sure, but if anybody in a position of actual power gave a damn, this could all have been stamped out years ago. Instead, they ask managers and players who behave in absolutely appalling fashion to hand over a tiny fraction of their salaries every once in a while, maybe sit in the stands for a game, and the whole thing carries on.

And so it has carried on, and gotten worse and worse, year after year, probably exacerbated by the microscope placed on officials by VAR, until we end up with a referee punched hard in the face (and then apparently kicked in the head when prone on the floor) in front of a top-flight stadium, in a scene which will have been familiar to grassroots referees across the continent. Will seeing it on television, at the highest level, finally persuade all those various governing bodies and associations to act to stamp out the abuse of officials? Or will it just be a case of one more round of tutting, and we carry on until it becomes even worse? Lest we forget, it’s only five years since PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis marched onto the pitch to confront a referee while armed with a gun.

It’s easy to say that nobody would ever go quite that far, of course, but how much would you bet in a world where a grown man attacks an amateur referee in a car park because of a game played by seven-year-olds? And when the stakes are potentially as high as a referee’s health or even life, would you really want to take those odds?

Abuse of referees from the Premier League down to the local rec has been a growing problem for years. Nobody has done a damned thing about it, and as such the appalling behaviour exhibited by professional players and coaches towards officials has become not just tacitly but actively supported by fans who care more about getting a decision than they do about the kind of incredibly basic morality involved in refusing to condone the abuse of a person who might, or might not, have got that decision wrong. It’s a pathetically sad state of affairs – let’s just hope that a referee being hospitalised in Turkey is the worst it ever gets, and the catalyst for change. Sadly, holding our collective breath is unlikely to be worthwhile.

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