Actions and words have consequences. From the Premier League to grassroots, the abuse of referees is a crisis that faces all levels of football, but the pattern of behaviour only flows in one direction: it starts at the top and is mimicked at the bottom.
The appalling abuse suffered by English referee Anthony Taylor as he travelled home from officiating the Europa League final highlighted that cause and effect. Taylor had been tasked with officiating a fractious and ill-tempered contest between Roma and Sevilla in Budapest: the sort of match where the referee finds themselves at the heart of the action as much as the players. After Roma lost on penalties, Jose Mourinho blamed Taylor for the defeat. The manager then confronted Taylor in the car park, launching a tirade of insults and labelling him a “f***ing disgrace”.
A few hours later, Taylor was confronted again, but this time the 44-year-old was not faced with just one aggrieved dissenter. As Taylor arrived at the airport with his family, the referee was surrounded by a mob of Roma supporters. Still incensed by their team’s defeat the previous night, the Roma fans attempted to get to Taylor and objects and drinks were thrown in his direction. Taylor, who could be seen shielding two women from the attack, was left without adequate protection. The scenes were dangerous and frightening.
A line had been crossed, but it was crossed by Mourinho the night before, first as he identified Taylor as the reason Roma lost and then as he approached Taylor in the car park. The Englishman made a few contentious decisions during the final – Roma were denied a penalty in the final moments of extra time, and Mourinho believed Sevilla should have been shown a red card – but Roma’s defeat had as much to do with Mourinho’s negative approach after taking their lead than any of the referee’s decisions. Taylor had been praised elsewhere for how he handled the final – a game that appeared as unmanageable as an official could face.
But there is a difference between being aggrieved at ending up on the losing side and turning criticism of the referee personal, targeted and aggressive. Mourinho had sat in his post-match press conference and said his team “lost a game but not their dignity” before accosting Taylor in the car park, away from the pitch. Any argument that criticism of the referee is part of the game vanished when Mourinho crossed that line. A day later, Taylor was confronted again in a public space at Budapest Airport but this time, Taylor or his family could have been seriously harmed.
It was a reminder that touchline behaviour at the top level filters down to real-life situations. The body that represents elite referees in England, PGMOL, said it was “appalled” at the “unjustified and abhorrent” abuse but a much starker warning came from lower down the chain. Responding to the video of Taylor being abused by the Roma fans, the charity Ref Support UK said: “This is so worrying to see. [Managers’] comments and players’ behaviour encourage this and it is on a worrying rise where a serious incident or murder is just around the corner.”
An indication of the danger of that has been clear this season. The FA have this year started a trial of giving referees body cameras in four adult grassroots leagues in England. The initiative is designed to improve behaviour and respect from players and spectators towards officials, but it also represents a damning indictment of how vulnerable referees are to physical abuse. A survey by the BBC of almost 1,000 members of the Referees’ Association found that more than 30 per cent said they had come in for physical abuse from spectators. A similar number said they had been threatened with violence against them or a loved one.
The Premier League said they were “shocked” at the “unacceptable” abuse Taylor and his family faced – but the English top flight can only be too aware of the levels of referee abuse in its own competition. The abuse of officials has been commonplace in the top flight for years and the problem is not getting any better. Just a few weeks ago, Jurgen Klopp celebrated in the face of assistant referee John Brooks as Liverpool scored a late winner against Tottenham, and was banned for two games following comments he made about referee Paul Tierney.
In response, Ref Support UK said Klopp’s behaviour was “disgraceful” and accused the League Managers Association of “silence” on the issue. “They appear to do nothing to address the behaviour of their members whose actions are mimicked at grassroots level by managers and spectators where children are refereeing and have to deal with this replicated behaviour,” a statement said.
Referees are an integral part of the game but they will continue to face abuse until action is taken at the top, or else football faces an existential threat. Mourinho admitting some responsibility for what Taylor and his family suffered would be a start to addressing it.