The death of the linesman in the Netherlands has unnerved junior referees more than anyone else. "Everyone is shocked," says Franz Mühldorfer, a senior referee for TSV Rudow, a club in southern Berlin. Mühldorfer supervises 25 young referees, most under the age of 20. He says he now has to "calm the guys down, raise their spirits and encourage them." Only last October, a 16-year-old from his group received a death threat over his mobile phone after an indoor tournament. "I'll chop your arms and legs off -- you're playing with your life," the anonymous caller reportedly said.
Mühldorfer has told his referees that he's prepared to back them up and accompany them on the field if they need the extra support. After all, he knows from experience how rough it can get. Mühldorfer refs games in Berlin's youth leagues. He's been hit in the face, choked and spat on by both players and coaches. Mühldorfer has called the police onto the pitch eight times.
Now, he knows how to defend himself. When he presides over a game where he thinks there might be trouble, he takes pepper spray and his mobile phone with him onto the field. He recently purchased a tiny camera that he places in his breast pocket so he can gather photographic evidence if attacked.
Some 1,500 soccer games are played in Berlin every weekend. During the 2010/11 season, 59 matches were suspended, usually due to threats, violence and abusive behavior. Over the past season, the number of curtailed games rose to 96. An increasing number of referees will admit, off the record, that they are afraid of problematic teams. They say that they often lack the courage to call a penalty shot or issue a red card out of fear that the players could go berserk.
Surprisingly enough, these refs officiate in leagues where amateurs with limited skills face off on the field. At stake here are perhaps three points, seventh or ninth place in the standings for the 10th league, promotion or relegation -- but money, careers and the team's existence are not on the line.
Desperate for Help
The violence on today's streets and underground railway stations has now spilled over onto the soccer fields. "Football is a reflection of society," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said following the beating death of the linesman in the Netherlands. That sounds as if this were an issue for politicians and the justice system, and not something that requires the attention of officials at soccer's international governing body.
However, Bavarian referee Hitzlsperger is no longer willing to accept this attitude among top association officials. "A player has already threatened to stab me and burn down my house," he says. "I even once had one standing at my door. These are things that can really frighten people." Only a week before he resigned, Hitzlsperger sent emails to the Bavarian Football Association (BFV) in which he wrote: "We can't go on -- we need help." But he received no support in return.
In fact, the association didn't react until Hitzlsperger and fellow referee Schreier resigned. Then it called on the men to make no further public statements on the issue.
The BFV complains that the two men made sweeping accusations and offered no solutions. It also points out that it has conflict managers who are dispatched to monitor amateur games -- a few dozen to cover 15,000 matches every weekend. It claims that violent attacks against referees and suspended games are only rare occurrences.
Hitzlsperger accuses the BFV of downplaying the situation. He's calling for harsher punishments for the culprits -- and he suggests deducting points from the teams of perpetrators. But the BFV doesn't see this as a wise approach. If young people are banned from playing soccer, an association official argues, it merely shifts the violence onto the streets.
Herbert Fandel, the top referee in the German Football Association (DFB), agrees, saying the call for tougher sanctions is a populist approach. After the linesman's death in Almere, Fandel admitted that the association shouldn't turn a blind eye to the fact that there is also violence against referees in Germany. But he said it was up to the country's courts to mete out punishment. In other words, it's apparently not the DFB's problem.
Up until now, sports association officials have only resorted to cosmetic measures to improve conditions in amateur and youth leagues. After a special BFV sports court had to deal with thousands of cases of parental sideline rage in recent years, the Munich municipal district decided to abolish the standings for the "F" Youth League. The official justification was that children should be able to play in a free and relaxed manner.
However, this has unfortunately not improved the situation for referees. The problem with aggressive parents has merely moved elsewhere. Now, referees say that the atmosphere has become far more aggressively charged in the next age group, where 9-year-olds face off in the "E" Youth League.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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