PARIS – The players were more boys than men, not yet 17. But they were furious. Mimicking the ugly behavior of professionals seen on TV, they swarmed around the referee, haranguing him to disallow the goal just scored against them. One player was particularly aggressive, threatening violence. So Nicolas Perron did what any referee should do: He sent him off.
From there, it went from bad to worse.
"He started coming toward me, I could see he wanted to hit me. I started to retreat. Then, I ran," Perron recalled in an interview. "The players followed me. The player I red-carded punched me in the face. I fell to the ground. The players hit me while I was on the ground, kicking me."
What the heck? This is sport? No matter the level of soccer — from amateur games like those Perron oversees in the Paris suburbs, to globally televised high-octane encounters in the English Premier League — there's a body of evidence to suggest that a person has to be a little mad, a bit of a masochist, to want to officiate a sport where abusing referees, verbally and physically, has become a sport in itself.
The career of Mark Clattenburg, a top referee in England who oversaw the men's final at the London Olympics, could be derailed if there's any truth to allegations in the British media that he may have called a black Chelsea player, John Obi Mikel, a "monkey." Police are investigating. So is the Football Association. Regardless of the outcome, it's hard not to see the whole affair as yet another example of how refereeing high-stakes, tinderbox matchups like Chelsea vs. Manchester United — the game Clattenburg worked last Sunday — can place intolerable pressures on the officials in black.
Refereeing can be a pleasure for those who are passionate about it, a vocation for the luckiest and very best. While top players may earn in a week what top referees get in a year, the likes of Clattenburg still make a tidy living. They get to rub shoulders with stars, the ego tripping of worldwide exposure, the thrill of stepping out into famous arenas such as Old Trafford and Camp Nou. All referees share a common bond, even the vast majority who don't reach the heights, who aren't even salaried: the knowledge that they are indispensable, that soccer wouldn't be a sport loved and played by billions if they weren't there to keep the peace, enforce the rules.
"On the pitch, you're, quote-unquote, the boss. It's another perspective on football that I really enjoy," said Perron, who officiates under-17 matches and hopes to make refereeing his career when he's completed his engineering degree.
"It's a passion. It's not because something happened to me once that I should give it up. In the immediate aftermath, I did think to myself that there's no point doing this if I'm going to get punched on a pitch. But it happened just once and, weighed against all the pleasure I get in all the other matches, I have no regrets about continuing."
Still, when was the last time you heard of a referee being thanked, warmly praised? In the era of instant Twitter-nalysis, the job is only getting more difficult. At the top, referees with one chance and one angle to see an action are instantly second-guessed and judged by television replays — which they don't have access to because soccer's rule-makers don't allow it. They are policing players who deliberately try to hoodwink them, drilled to deceive and cheat — to dive for penalties, feign injury, sneakily tug shirts, waste time and otherwise bend rules but not get caught. And after the match, referees are asked to keep their opinions to themselves, while players and managers immediately complain about their decisions to the cameras.
Scorn for referees is handed down, father-to-son, from one generation of fans to another. Three years after he was picked apart in the court of public opinion and screamed at by Chelsea players for his decisions in a Champions League semifinal match against Barcelona, Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo told the Guardian this year that he still gets occasional abusive emails from the London club's supporters. To spare upset, he doesn't show them to his family.
"Irrespective of what you do out there, whether you smile, joke, laugh, have a great game or not, you've got to accept the fact that you're in a profession where nobody likes the referee," former Premier League and FIFA referee Graham Barber said in an interview. A team manager shared that somewhat depressing pearl of wisdom with him years ago, "and I never, ever forget it."
Dwindling respect for figures of authority. Foul language. Hair-trigger resort to violence. The bear-traps for referees are societal problems, too, not just restricted to soccer. Criminologists using data from the French Football Federation reported this July that 5,417 referees were victims of aggressive behavior in the 2010-11 season in France. This from a total of 711, 375 amateur matches. That means such incidents are still quite rare — affecting just under eight out of every 1,000 matches. The vast majority of the affected referees, 86 percent, were on the receiving end of verbal, not physical, violence. Still, that's more than 100 referees verbally or physically roughed up each week. Mostly, the aggressors are players.
Two of the players who attacked Perron in December 2009, when he was 16, giving him a black eye and prompting his father to call police, were banned from soccer for 20 years, with six others banned for three years, and another for two. Perron said he was chased again by another angry player in a separate on-pitch brawl a few months later.
"That time, I managed to get away," he said. "You have to know how to run."
At Chelsea's Stamford Bridge last Sunday, the challenge for Clattenburg was of a different magnitude entirely. This was two of England's richest teams in a game that, when points are totaled at season's end, could help determine whether either of them is crowned the Premier League champion.
"Those games, the referee, clearly — and I've been there — is under immense pressure," Barber noted.
Overall, Clattenburg did well. Showing a second yellow card to Fernando Torres, sending him off, for diving was questionable, because it was clear from video replays that United's Jonny Evans touched the Chelsea striker before he flopped down too easily.
Still, soccer can't have it both ways. Fans, managers and administrators say they are sick of players diving. They look to referees to lay down the law. Given how hard it can be to tell a dive from a genuine fall, these are invariably tough calls.
There's since been scrutiny of Clattenburg's style, more chatty with players than strict disciplinarian. But, as Barber noted, "referees aren't all clones, they do it in their own way. As long as it works, there's not a right and there's not a wrong way."
If Clattenburg hadn't sent off Torres and Branislav Ivanovic, and if Chelsea hadn't lost 3-2 to a clearly offside winner by United's Javier Hernandez, would Chelsea have subsequently complained about the referee to the FA? That's an interesting hypothetical question. The club alleged the referee directed "inappropriate language" at Mikel, the Nigeria international shown a yellow card by Clattenburg, apparently for talking back at him.
Clattenburg hasn't responded publicly to the allegations. The national secretary of the referees' union, Alan Leighton, said in an interview it wouldn't help Clattenburg's defense to talk now.
"I want Mark to have the best opportunity to present his case and the best way of doing that is by presenting it to the proper authority, not to have it rehearsed in the press," he said by phone.
If Clattenburg is found to have used racially abusive language, then it's hard to imagine a rosy future at the top of the game for the 37-year-old candidate to officiate at the 2014 World Cup.
"If that is proven, and it comes from a referee, I think potentially that's the end of his career," Barber said. "You cannot have somebody who's out there in an authoritative position saying that."
But what if Clattenburg said nothing abusive? What if this was just crossed wires in a noisy stadium between players from abroad and a referee who speaks in a broad northern English accent?
Well, again, there'll be those questions: Why would anyone volunteer to put themselves through such ordeals? Who, in their right mind, would be a referee?
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester