Are referees getting a handle on the dark arts of football?
By Joe Harker
Stuart James of The Guardian thinks there is a cloud hanging over the World Cup. Although praised as excellent entertainment, James worries that bad player behaviour threatened to take over too many games and is souring everyone's good time.
Cynical fouls, getting a kick in when the ref isn't looking, crowding out the match officials to influence their decision. Some call it "sh-thousery", others refer to it as the dark arts, but it all falls under the umbrella of cheating, or rather trying to find the sweet spot of cheating and getting away with it consistently. Nothing so blatant as snapping an opponent's leg off or picking up the ball and carrying it into the opponent's net, just little things here and there to nudge the game in a certain direction.
The king of this kind of stuff is Real Madrid and Spain defender Sergio Ramos. While an excellent player in his own right, his ability to influence the game and get away with little instances of cheating makes him even better. You might not like Ramos or the way he defends but one look at his trophy cabinet will tell you that his way works.
Many of the best defenders in football had a mastery of the dark arts but for everyone who does it cleverly there are more who are too obvious. One of the cornerstones of being a sh-thouse in football is knowing how far to push it so that you can do unto others what they would be penalised for doing to you.
The job of the referee is to officiate the game but they also have a part to play in ensuring the match doesn't get out of control. In England's World Cup tie with Colombia referee Mark Geiger appeared to lose control of the game.
He was regularly surrounded by Colombian players who questioned his decisions. When he awarded a penalty to England it took nearly four minutes to clear the protesting Colombians from the box, who took the opportunity to scuff up the penalty spot while they were there. He also failed to act when a Colombian coach barged into Raheem Sterling at half time. By failing to curb bad behaviour early on Geiger sent the message that the players could get away with a lot.
There are some who believe a whole team engaging in the dark arts are actually harming themselves. When Colombia eased off the cheating their performance actually improved. It may be alright for one or two players to see what they can get away with but when the entire team is more focused on disrupting the game rather than playing it they can hamper themselves at the same time.
Most of the referees at the World Cup have been good, officiating the game well and making good use of VAR to help their decisions. FIFA estimate that 99.3 per cent of refereeing decisions have been made correctly. It's just the other part of their job that referees need to get a handle on and they are not helped by increasingly snide and theatrical players trying to influence them.