The Referees / Les Arbitres (2009)

Les Arbitres

A fly-on-the-wall documentary spotlighting the beautiful game’s men in black, The Referees looks at soccer from a different angle. More obtuse than acute.

The Referees

Of Gods And Men by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Before the kick-off whistle blows, tension mounts in silent convoys and dressing rooms. Until the trio of referee and linesmen head onto the pitch, the roar of the stadium shockingly muted as we listen to the otherwise occluded conversations between the game’s arbiters as they wrangle 22 men through fouls, penalties and free-kicks with whistles, shouts and yellow cards. It’s a unique perspective on the beautiful game, the jerseyed stars stripped out, laying bare the referees’ grapple for control and the long-lasting consequences of split-second decisions; careers made and broken in the wave of a flag or the blow of a whistle.

Filmed during Euro 2008, The Referees lets its images speak for themselves. The judges pride themselves coquettishly in their new blue strips, practise waving their flags in front of dressing room mirrors, stress over wrong decisions and hurtle up and down pitch, hoping to card a fouler in the act or catch someone offside. Italian wives watch from home, anxious for glimpses of their husbands, commenting on their new strip, tired faces and bullish stances. And there’s an intriguing conundrum between whether Spanish supporters want their team to make it through to the final or lose, so Mejuto can referee it.

Amateurs in a field of playboy professionals, the referees aren’t shielded either from the pressures of world class football. There’s post-match analysis and pep talks by UEFA President Michel Platini, advising referees to take a firm stance and yellow-card any player who argues: “You have everything you need to make them respect you.” The referees have the power, and no scene captures this better than one touchline tussle where out-of-the box coaches annoying a linesman get sent off too. And while Hinant may draw a veil over any potentially contentious interference from UEFA, he concentrates instead on the consequences of the arbiters’ decisions.

And none more than those of Howard Webb, who after disallowing an offside goal and awarding a penalty in extra time in a first round match between Austria and Poland suffers loudly remonstrating managers, post-match analyses and death threats. While every peep of his whistle on the pitch may be accompanied by a supportive confirmation text to his loved ones from relatives watching the big game at home, any referee’s decision dominating talk on the stands marks a bad day for the committee.

Above all, The Referees is keen to emphasise the arbiters’ humanity – “We’re not gods, we make mistakes.” But it’s a humanness denied by the committee’s own decisions – the UK trio is one of the first three to be sent home, disappointed by the performance of some assistant referees. It’s true after all, it doesn’t matter so much what the referees see as what the pundits say about what they see. And yet there’s also an old school rejection of video refereeing, a strange under explored tension between a tolerance for and an absolute rejection of mistakes.

With its insider glimpse into frantic communications on the field as well as its off-pitch wrangles, The Referees may change the way you watch soccer, but it’s unlikely to change your life, or shock you with any startling revelations. It’s not political, but rather an apologetic discovery of a sidelined hero in the beautiful game. And in his final reel homage to chief whipping boy Howard Webb with his gruff rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, it’s a storm they weather precariously as both champions and victims. The Referees isn’t focused enough to reach any metaphoric heights on the limits of human justice, but it might give some fans more sympathy for the game’s stolid scapegoats.

The Referees is released in the UK on 5th August 2011

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