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Soccer officials need to become anonymous again

Jon Moss is a real person with a name, but you’d forget about The Referee very quickly.

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

In many ways, Jon Moss has only himself to blame.

First, he became a referee. That decision, while presumably done with the best of intentions and the highest of hopes, was probably a mistake. There is no compatibility between top-level refereeing and a quiet life.

Second, he gave two penalties against Liverpool at Anfield. That’s a noisy thing to do, even before we consider their correctness (or otherwise) and their timing (God help the man who robs the Kop of its late winner). A calm week will not follow.

Third, he gave those penalties in entirely the wrong way: he asked for help. He availed himself of the assistance of his assistant. It’s odd, the way this works. Abstractly, getting an informed opinion from somebody with a different view sounds like quite a good idea. But a referee that asks for help, then listens to it, is somehow diminished and weakened. They no longer own their decisions. Guessing with confidence might not be better, but it certainly looks better.

(Particularly if you accidentally make a reference to a TV replay that your colleague isn’t supposed to be watching, as can so easily happen in any normal conversation.)

Finally, those decisions. We won’t go into the contested rights and wrongs of them here, because (a) that would be tedious, and (b) we’d be guessing. What was interesting, however, was the fact they remained contested a few days later, even after every available expert in the land had viewed every conceivable angle. Even the former referees themselves couldn’t agree: in the wake of the game, Mark Clattenburg and Dermot Gallagher offered different views on whether Dejan Lovren kicked the ball deliberately — it can sometimes be hard to tell — and what that meant for the apparently offside Kane on the first penalty.

The problem with such refereeing decisions is not that they happen, or that they’re debatable, or that they’re sometimes just straightforwardly wrong. That’s all inevitable. The problem is they’re useful. Useful for anybody — players, fans, managers — looking for a figure to blame. Useful, to, for any media outlet looking for the kind of content that generates and sustains itself as it flutters back-and-forth. Wrong? Right? Yes? No? Here’s Jürgen Klopp, he disagrees. Changed your mind? No? Yes? Here’s Graham Poll. No, wait, come back.

Here it’s probably worth noting that the drive for better refereeing standards may be working, in a general sense, but it does appear to have done some strange things to the standing of officials. Professionalisation, for example, may have made referees better, but it has also served to increase the responsibility they bear for their decisions. Amateurs making mistakes is part of the deal, but a professional is supposed to be, well, just that. Meanwhile the encroachment of referees into punditry positions has only served to intensify things: either they agree with their erstwhile colleagues, which is boring and predictable, or they disagree, which is controversy and, yes, more content.

As for VAR, even when it does work as planned, it brings weird interruptions into the flow of the game. Correct decisions, which should be good things, are rendered strange: celebrations are truncated, momentum stalls, and the atmosphere curdles. And there’s the referee in the middle of it all, talking into his headset. Ruining everybody’s day. In any case, as Clattenburg and Gallagher’s disagreements show, sometimes the only thing on TV is Rashomon.

So we’ve ended up in a thoroughly unvirtuous circle, where officials are more exposed for their errors, and those errors can be usefully exploited by almost every other interested party. The obvious solution is for football to re-mystify its officials. To obscure them behind a layer of enigmatic anonymity, so that decisions are handed down not by fallible people, who can be criticised as such, but mysterious oracles, who toy with the fates of footballers for their own inscrutable ends.

Take their names: they are just The Referee. Cover their face. Remove all recognisable features: admittedly, this might be complicated. Perhaps those shifting skinsuits from A Scanner Darkly? it is perhaps not a coincidence that Pierluigi Collina, the only modern referee ever to be broadly accepted as competent, looked intimidatingly otherworldly as he went about his business.

What matters is that it becomes impossible to say something like “Mike Dean hates Arsenal” or “Jon Moss robbed us today.” Instead, we’ll be limited to “The Referee was good to us” and “The Referee was bad to us,” which will inevitably collapse into “The Referee giveth, and The Referee taketh away.” At this point, even the most dedicated of conspiracists will get bored of arguing with ineffable and uncaring forces, and be forced to move on with their lives.

The alternative is that football, as a broad cultural collective, agrees to some kind of collective breathe, and relax moment. A general moment of recognition from all parties that banging on about referees beyond the heated moment is, at best, an exercise in noisy boredom. At worst, it’s both a malignant assault on the fabric of the game, and a pretty shabby way to treat a person whose greatest sin is, usually, giving the other lot a penalty.

Doesn’t sound very likely. Bring on the robes. Bring on the masks. Jon Moss is no more. Jon Moss has been eaten. There is only The Referee.