Tuesday 2 August 2011

Men in black: "The Referees"

Want to know what referees at major footballing events actually say into those chinstrap microphones, apparently on loan from Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour? The French curio The Referees plugs us right into the interactions these men share with their linesmen and fourth-official colleagues on the touchlines. 2006's arty Zidane did a similar thing, following one player as he moved and thought his way around a humdrum league game; the referees profiled here by directors Yves Hinant, Eric Cardot and Delphine Lehericay are plying their trade at Euro 2008, which lends the film an added drama - this is almost as big a stage as it gets.

Some of the officials selected talk about the weather; the Italian contingent - holding up a robust national stereotype - discuss coffee, and have no problems inviting female fans into their dressing room once the final whistle has blown; Britain's own Howard Webb swears a lot, but also rigorously checks and double-checks every decision - even theoretical ones, the moot points - with his linesmen, to whom he appears fiercely devoted. It's another French item that extols the virtues of teamwork, all the more important in an industry dependent on results. One irony: the further each referee's national team progresses in a tournament, the less likely he is to get the higher-profile matches. The tournament's eventual final, contested between Spain and Germany, means an early bath for the representatives of those two nations, a particular blow for the Spaniard Manuel Mejuto González, whose retirement from international football would go unnoticed amid his countrymen's joy at lifting the trophy; as always, the best referees are those you just don't notice.

No question about the levels of scrutiny and pressure these men are under elsewhere, however. Webb's parents, in the stadium to see one of their son's appointments at close range, receive text messages from their other son watching on television back home, querying the validity of one of his brother's offside decisions (as anyone with access to a TV replay might). German coach Joachim Loewe, having been shown a red card by one official, runs to Angela Merkel in the stands, like a brattish toddler seeking the support of his mother. And then there are the various UEFA committees (headed by the distinctly Machiavellian Michel Platini) to placate, not to mention the egos of those spoilt millionaires on the pitch to content with: Milan Baros and Dimitri Karagounis come across as especially naughty boys.

Like any good refereeing unit, the directors have a sharp eye for on- and off-pitch developments: they spy one linesman practising his flagging in a dressing-room mirror, whistles disinfecting in the sink. It would be hard to miss the pride of Mr. and Mrs. Webb, watching their son from the stands, or on the TV back at home; or, indeed, to miss Michel Platini's unmatched ability to schmooze a room, a skill to rival anything he ever did on the playing field. Perhaps more pertinent to the film's thesis may be the words one ref is overheard to utter to aggrieved players by way of a pre-emptive strike at the final whistle: "We are not gods: we make also mistakes." An accidental adjunct to the FA's Respect campaign, succeeding in making football's arbiters of justice a little more human-seeming, it's possibly too impressionistic to be as comprehensive as, say, Half Man Half Biscuit's "The Referee's Alphabet" ("The A is for my authority, which many players seek to question/Thinking they're somehow going to change my mind"), but there's enough here to make even the most yobbish fan think twice before unleashing a volley of verbal abuse at the so-called wanker in the black.

The Referees opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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