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Changing the Narrative



After Saturday’s match, the Milan media and social media erupted in a volcano of rancor yet again. Referees have long been abused, and Italy has a special way of honoring them. Every aspect of their lives is published and discussed before each match, especially if there is any trace of them ever having supported any club in any city remotely related to Serie A. But when a ref makes anything perceived as an error, fans and pundits take to their screens with anger typically reserved for family reunions and actual wars. And if a ref makes a call that is perceived as benefitting Juventus, then he’d better have a really good life insurance policy. But this is sport. And football is supposed to be the “gentlemen’s sport.” Isn’t it about time that we start changing the narrative?

Let the AIA decide if his errors were egregious

I had a brief conversation with a friend yesterday about changes. She suggested that VAR should be more like another sport, where the final say on specific plays was left to a panel of refs away from the game. But, I reminded her, the basic tenet of reffing in football is that the head ref always has the final say, because football calls are not so cut and dry and there can be multiple calls on one play. Players already seek to trick or influence the ref with diving, making their own calls, swarming, and even threatening the refs. If you try to take the power away and give it to people who aren’t there to see what’s going on both on and off the ball, the head ref will have even less respect and authority. She agreed that an entire cultural change was needed. If we expect the refs to improve, then the players, coaches, and fans need to improve, too.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Refs are an essential part of the game. Matches cannot be played without them. But they are human. They will make mistakes. Some, based on weather conditions, vision, angles, etc., some just because they are human. Back in 2011, before VAR, I used a controversial Champions League offside call to demonstrate this point, and concluded:
“As a fan, sometimes it goes your way, other times it breaks your heart. In the end, though, whatever the referee calls or doesn't call, it stands. The officials do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Without them, we could not have our football. And to be fair, in a 90 minute match, they make a tremendous amount of calls that are right - a vast majority. Unfortunately for everyone, it’s the ones they don’t that we remember.”

This happened. But Juve were equally penalized in the same game

In March of 2013, I wrote about calls going in our favor for a while. So much so, that they very much impacted our form and results. But people forget to acknowledge that when they are on the winning side of errors. In fact, people are often ignorant of the truth. For example, the acrimony between Juve and Milan exploded with the Gol di Muntari in February of 2012. Milan would have won the league, people claim. Only they forget that Matri actually had a goal wrongfully called offside in that match, too. So if reffing were perfect, then history is accurate when it comes to that Scudetto. But somehow, I am the only Milan fan that remembers that. Why? Where is the objectivity? Where is sportsmanship? Reason? A basic level IQ? Anything?

Even with the addition of Goal Line Technology and then VAR, confusion and misconception abound. When a ref makes a call, suddenly everyone is an expert. Even though they literally have no idea what they are talking about, or even if they’ve played competitive football. Because refs are trained carefully and well to interpret perhaps the shortest set of rules in any major competitive sport. Which means your overpaid and undereducated pundit is most likely wrong when he or she opens their camera-ready mouth. Don’t get me started on the fans on social media. I could have endless entertainment from people telling me all about what they think are the laws of the game, except they usually couple it with abuse. Like two years ago, when Juve were given a penalty in the 97th minute to steal two points from us. The bizarre rhetoric, re-imagination of both stoppage time and the laws of the game, as well as the verbal and physical abuse that followed that match would be inconceivable, if it didn’t really actually happen in real life. Even more astonishing, when Juve lost in the 97th minute last year and crashed out of the Champions League, their captain acted much the same as Milan fans had the year before. And of course, Juve fans followed suit, even sending death threats. Years earlier, I had jokingly written about arming refs, but the need is there more than ever before, it’s not just a silly joke these days.

The disease of disrespecting refs spilled over into European competition

Some fans swear certain refs have it in for their team. Or that certain refs are the best or the worst, often based on recent results and perhaps some favorable or unfavorable  calls. I highlighted an example of this in “Refs Gone Wild” in 2014, focusing on a couple of refs, but specifically Rocchi. However, since then, he has also reffed last year’s World Cup, the sole head Italian ref to represent. He also won Serie A’s ref of the year award in 2018. Like players, referees can get better or worse, and it’s usually better, with experience. I teasingly listed the qualities I like in a referee, but they are often things that go unnoticed by pundits and fans.

However, with Juventus, it is different. I don’t know if there is an IQ deficiency in Italy, or if fans just wantonly ignore reason, but because Juventus win so much, it is an indelibly written truth for all other Serie A fans that Juventus own the refs. If you ask why, they’ll refer to Calciopoli, which is the second greatest piece of Italian mythology. Juventus don’t own the refs. They own their own stadium, and have carefully built the unstoppable force that has shamed the rest of Serie A for years. But don’t let facts or reason get in the way of what you have to tell yourself to justify the fact that your club has been run by Italian clowns, and therefore is simply inferior to the soon-to-be eight consecutive Scudetto winning team.

His name literally translates to "break wind", yet he still deserved respect

People have tried to prove that Juve get advantages from the refs. But in doing so, they often find other teams actually have more “favoritism” that year. Back in 2013, as I mentioned above, Milan got all kinds of decisions our way. Earlier this calendar year, we had a string of “luck” with ref calls. However, overall, I believe Milan are toward the bottom of the list in Serie A for getting penalties called for us. While there can be “strings of luck” here and there, in the end, ref calls tend to even out. Yes, even with Juve. While there is research that shows that bigger clubs often get more favorable calls, people fail to recognize that bigger clubs have more skilled players. And lesser skilled players tend to foul more because… wait for it… they’re not as talented. So please leave your Juve-logoed tin foil hats at the door when you want to have a conversation with me, please. I’m not buying it.

As I mentioned in my review of Saturday’s game, Dybala’s furbo move to earn the penalty and Kean’s fabulous goal had nothing to do with the refs. While Fabbri made a subjective handball call and didn’t give a penalty for Castillejo going down in the box, either, there is no guarantee that those penalties would have been successful, even if they had they been given. Fans are so quick to assume that if the calls had gone their way, the result would inherently be different, but that is not true. And even if those penalties had been awarded and scored, then it is impossible to know if Juventus would not have also scored more goals.

People are angry because they thought VAR would solve more of our problems

Which is why it is so important for referees to get it right whenever possible. Trust me, I like a well-reffed game. But even with technology, there is still human error, particularly when humans are in charge of using VAR, I've discussed it extensively on the podcasts. The referees are disciplined by the AIA if they make egregious errors. It actually happens all the time. There is no way to rescind calls or cards or change results, but anyone with a reasonably functional brain knows that for every match that was impacted for your club in the negative, there is at least one where ref calls went your way. The problem is, there seems to be a serious lack of people with functional brains.

That is where the narrative needs to change. If we expect the refs to do better, then we need to do better. We can all learn more about reffing. Like how today’s meeting of the AIA and Leonardo and Gattuso is part of a regularly scheduled meeting with all of the teams in the league. After matches, all of the refs debrief the week’s matches together and discuss questionable calls and educate themselves constantly as to how to do better. A few times throughout the season, the results of these conversations, as well as data from GLT and VAR, etc. is presented to representatives from all of the clubs. Then the refs ask for suggestions and comments as to how to improve the reffing. They won’t change results or make apologies, although they do acknowledge errors in reffing and take feedback from the “injured” clubs.

Publicly calling a ref "inadequate" costs respect for all of the refs and makes their jobs even harder

Imagine if we as fans (as well as pundits) did the same? Maybe if we took some ref training or at least did some reading online to better understand how the rules actually work, we’d have more patience. Then if we accessed some kind of forum a few times a year to better improve understanding of and communication with the refs. I’m not delirious, of course you people aren’t going to do that. But the very least you could do is stop making the situation worse. Don’t buy into clickbait stories designed to enrage and which have zero foundation in truth. Don’t propagate the mythology and anger-laced tirades that are fake news when a ref makes a call you don’t like. It shames your club, makes a fool out of you, and adds to the problem instead of the solution. It’s the very least you can do if you expect the refs to do better.

If we want change, we need to be willing to change. Coaches, players, directors, media, and fans must all be willing to take a step back and see the big picture. In that big picture, there are refs who have been physically attacked, threatened, their livelihoods negatively impacted, their families threatened, and more. Just for doing their underpaid, underappreciated, part time jobs. If there is to be a shift in their performances, then all of us need to give them the respect required to do their jobs better. If we want change, we should be changing the narrative.


This post inspired by the music of David Bowie’s “Changes”


Our next match is
Serie A Week 32
Milan vs. Lazio
Saturday, April 13 • 20:30 CST (2:30pm EDT)