Referees take a lot of stick.
Sometimes they deserve it. Other times, when we are in a more generous mood, we are happy to admit that they have a tough job. Particularly at the highest level.
However, there are times when we are infuriated by their perceived incompetence and believe that we could do a much better job ourselves. We probably could, but we usually think this way when we are equipped with the benefit of multiple camera angles, slow motion replays and plenty of time to think.
We also need to remember that mistakes and inconsistencies are pretty much guaranteed in any fast moving, adrenalin fuelled situation. We too could have made the same mistakes in that situation, even when, from our vantage point, we can see exactly what went wrong. Human error is inevitable, and when there is a great deal at stake, the vultures are usually quick to pounce.
Having said all that, take last night’s Champions League game, in which Juventus defenders appeared to deploy tactics more suited to a game of rugby or a wrestling match than football. They were fully aware that one of Celtic’s strengths was the ability to score goals from well worked set-pieces. The Juventus defenders appeared well drilled in their tactic of nullifying that threat by bear-hugging the Celtic players or simply pulling them to the ground when they looked too dangerous.
Some might be inclined to describe it as nothing other than their traditional style of defending – suggesting this makes it normal, acceptable even – and I also heard someone say that Celtic were naïve to fall for these tactics – but Juventus got away with their negative and cynical approach all night, not because the Celtic players fell into their sophisticated traps, but because the referee and his stooges consciously chose to do nothing much about it.
There are times when refereeing mistakes and inconsistencies can be put down to inexperience, or intimidation by aggressive players and fans; there are times when they can be put down to genuine and honest mistakes; there are times when they can be put down to unconscious bias towards one of the teams; and there are times when you really do have to question the integrity of the referee and his entourage.
Refereeing integrity has come under scrutiny countless times in the past and it will come under scrutiny again in the future. That some referees have agreed to facilitate a certain outcome in return for a handsome reward is not a new thing. Managers and players are not averse to it either. There is a lot of money to be made here.
Last week, in response to the Europol investigation into the list of 680 games suspected of being fixed in the past 18 months, Sepp Blatter commented that match-fixing is such a small part of football that it will be overcome.
It seems to me that match-fixing is now such an integral part of football – and many other organised sports for that matter – that the chances of it being overcome are slim to none.
In a cynical moment, you start to wonder whether the manner in which football has evolved into a highly lucrative industry for already ridiculously wealthy individuals, and for those with the bravado and hard headedness to indulge in whatever dishonest money making practices they can get away with at the time, has resulted in the entire context being flipped on its head.
It may be that the honest competition we expect to see every week is now simply an addictively appealing smoke-screen that distracts our attention away from the real den of iniquity that sits behind it. We might not be too far from the truth if we went back to Sepp Blatter with the retort that honest competition, rather than match-fixing, is such a small part of football that it will be overcome!
So where does this leave Celtic in terms of the Champions League? Probably in the same situation as other teams not ‘expected’ to progress too far into the final stages of this glamorous competition – battle tired and weary, a little more experienced, an enhanced valuation for certain players, and significantly better off for their troubles. Not a bad return, when all is said and done.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn here is not that teams like Celtic are never going to be good enough at this stage of the Champions League; but that there are other teams from other countries whose presence in the final stages is far more appealing to the organisers of the competition. And hence (or because?) these teams and all their trappings are far more profitable targets for those who have mastered the fine art of working the industry behind the game.
(But enough of my paranoia – I am now praying for a small miracle in Turin.)