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Monday, July 01, 2002


The Tyranny of the Whistle: Referees, Instant Replay, and the Future of Greek Soccer

Black are the rasa you dressed in
black, just like your soul

One need only substitute the word, rasa (the traditional attire of Greek clergy), with the word, roucha (denoting normal clothing), for the demotic Greek song – which expressed deep popular discontent over the Church’s role during the Ottoman occupation – to accurately echo Greeks’ sentiments about the soccer referee, and his function as the ruler (archon) of the game. By definition, the referee’s role elicits a strong critical reaction in soccer fans and players alike. Eduardo Galeano, in Soccer in Sun and Shadow (pp.10-11), brilliantly described the referee’s presence on the field, and his complex relationship with players and fans.

In Spanish he’s the arbitro and he is arbitrary by definition. An abominable tyrant who runs his dictatorship without opposition, a pompous executioner, who exercises his absolute power with an operatic flourish. Whistle between his lips, he blows the winds of inexorable fate either to allow a goal or to disallow one. Card in hand, he raises the colors of doom: yellow to punish the sinner and oblige him to repent, and red to force him into exile.

The linesmen, who assist but do not rule, look on from the side. Only the referee steps onto the playing field, and he’s absolutely right to cross himself when he first appears before the roaring crowd. His job is to make himself hated. The only universal sentiment in soccer: everybody hates him. He always gets catcalls, never applause.

No one runs more. The only one obliged to run the entire game without pause, this interloper who pants in the ears of every player breaks his back galloping like a horse. And in return for his pains, the crowd howls for his head. From beginning to end he sweats oceans, forced to chase the white ball that skips along back and forth between the feet of everyone else. Of course he’d love to play, but never has he been offered that privilege. When the ball hits him by accident, the entire stadium curses his mother. But even so, just to be there in that sacred green space where the ball floats and glides, he’s willing to suffer insults, catcalls, stones and damnation.

Sometimes, though rarely, his judgment coincides with the inclinations of the fans, but not even then does he emerge unscathed. The losers owe their loss to him and the winners triumph in spite of him. Scapegoat for every error, cause of every misfortune, the fans would have to invent him if he didn’t already exist. The more they hate him, the more they need him.

For over a century the referee dressed in mourning. For whom? For himself. Now he wears bright colors to mask his feelings.

What I would like to suggest here, however, is that the attitude of Greek soccer fans toward referees transcends any expected reaction, and veers into the realm of the obsessive. A typical soccer fan’s reaction toward a referee is one of frustration at the latter’s status as a power figure, controlling and even deciding a game from the outside, rather than from within. By contrast, the stance of Greek fans appears to be one of loathing for an authority figure incapable of exercising any form of control or respect – let alone authority. What Galeano perceives as a fan’s tendency to disagree with a referee constitutes a natural reaction based upon one’s desire to be the arbiter of what is right and wrong. However, a Greek fan’s view of the man in black running up and down the field constitutes an ideological position, a conscious, premeditated approach carefully formulated after years of corruption and abuse. To paraphrase Greil Marcus’s brilliant reading of Elvis, action is irrelevant when all a referee has to do is appear on the field for the fans to loathe him.

Consequently, recent revelations of game-fixing and bribes to referees on a popular Greek talk show, Makis Triantafyllopoulos’s The Jungle, came as no surprise to anyone. They simply confirmed what every fan knew, in contrast to desperate assertions of legitimacy expressed by members of the Greek soccer league and the government. Being in Greece during the World Cup, it was interesting to follow the public’s reaction to many critical mistakes committed by referees during the games. In its overwhelming majority, the public refused to see referee mistakes as just mistakes, choosing instead to attribute them to conspiracy and bribing.

To Greek soccer fans, referees in general – and Greek referees in particular – function in exactly the same manner as Greek policemen: they are both authority figures incapable of eliciting any form of respect and trust. Untrained, unprofessional, corrupt, and weak, the policeman and the referee are power personae in the most literal sense – masks of power with no actual power whatsoever. Consequently, any serious attempt to address the fundamental problems that have been plaguing professional soccer in Greece for the last 25 years has to begin by addressing the fans’ deeply rooted mistrust of the men in black.

What I now propose is what I believe to be the only radical solution that can slowly restore the average fan’s faith in the archon of the game – and consequently in the game itself – to a functional level: namely, implementing instant replay. Instant replay was introduced in the United States a few years ago by the National Football League, with the intent to eliminate game-deciding mistakes by referees. It gave coaches the opportunity to challenge certain calls, and referees the chance to redeem themselves. Instant replay was suspended for a couple of years after protests that it violated the purity and internal rhythm of the game, only to be introduced again. It has now been introduced by the National Hockey Association, and, after a season of many critical mistakes by referees in the last seconds of basketball games, the National Basketball Association is currently debating the use of instant reply for the last minute of a game.

The use of instant replay during soccer games would more or less follow the format employed during football games. Each team would have the right to request an instant replay once in each half. An outside referee would then review the challenged call. If the challenge was judged to be correct, the call would be reversed. If the challenge was denied, the challenging team would forfeit one of its valuable substitutions. The right to two total challenges per half would minimize delays to the game, a major complaint against the use of instant replay in any sport.

Although there are many subtle ways a referee can influence and determine the outcome of a game, instant replay gives a team the opportunity to challenge those game-deciding calls (penalty shots, for example) that have plagued the sport and continually enrage fans. It also transfers a certain degree of power from the referee’s whistle back to the team, and indirectly to the fans. The knowledge that a call can be challenged is an essential step in bringing some legitimacy back to the sport. It is obvious that instant replay is not the miracle drug that will magically cure all the ills that have been plaguing Greek soccer for so many years. A number of radical reforms at all levels are necessary to reverse the game’s decline. In a country in which the referee carries on his back the collective burden of the game’s misfortunes, however, the introduction of instant replay can be the first major step in separating a referee’s intentional (or unintentional) performance from his demonization as the sport’s ultimate evildoer.

In a recent column in The New York Times (“Soccer Must Keep the Ball Rolling”), George Vecsey strongly argued against demands to introduce instant reply in soccer as a result of a large number of badly officiated games during the World Cup. Vecsey quoted the words of the president of FIFA (the international soccer federation), Sepp Blatter, to the effect that instant replay will radically alter the essence of the sport: “If our game is becoming scientific, then we will take away its emotion and nobody would have any discussion any longer if it was offside, not offside; if it was inside, not inside the penalty box.”

Both Vecsey and Blatter are right. Instant replay can instill a sense of absolute justice in the sport that takes away from its unpredictability and beauty. To allow a referee’s mistake to be part of a game is to allow for the disturbance of the way things “should be.” You know that Spain is a better team. The referee’s mistake changes the natural order, however, and allows the unpredictable to occur, at least for a short time: Korea wins. It is a paradox perhaps that we impose such absolute power upon a referee, but can’t accept his mistakes as being part of the game.

Watching so many games decided by a referee’s call during the World Cup, however, has convinced me that soccer needs instant replay. We entrust a referee with the responsibility of interpreting the rules; as the late baseball commissioner, Bart Giamatti, wrote in relation to that sport’s umpires: “Spectator and fan alike may, perhaps at times must, object to his judgment, his interpretation, his grasp of precedent procedure, and relevant doctrine. Such dissent is encouraged, is valuable, and rarely, if ever successful” (A Great and Glorious Game, pp. 63-64). If the fan’s reaction is not just dissent, however, but an overwhelming sense of discontent developed over a long period of time and continually reinforced, the instant replay is the only hope for the sport, the only way to attain, once more, that stage at which the fan recognizes and accepts how rarely successful his dissent from the ruler of the game really is.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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