Perilous Pitches: Violence Against Referees Spikes in Germany

By Lukas Eberle and Conny Neumann

Violence against referees at amateur and youth football matches in Germany is reaching alarming proportions. Facing frequent threats and attacks, and feeling abandoned by sports associations, poorly paid officials are either quitting or refusing to make tough calls against clubs with bad reputations.

One month ago, Daniel Maurer received a dire warning: "We're going to find out where you live -- and when we do, you're dead." Since then, the 23-year-old always hesitates before getting out of his car when arriving home after dark. He glances around nervously, listens and waits. He just can't shake the fear.

Maurer is neither a mafia investigator nor a motorcycle gang leader. He's a referee in Munich's junior youth soccer leagues. During a recent "A" Youth League match played by JFG Union München Ost, he awarded a penalty kick to the opposing team -- and promptly received so many death threats that he decided to throw in the towel after the final whistle. Maurer says he will never referee another match.

He's not the only one to capitulate in the face of mounting violence at amateur soccer games. Hans-Jürgen Schreier and Andreas Hitzlsperger, two senior referees from the southern German city of Dachau, resigned from their positions in mid-November. For over 20 years, both men have presided over games in the Munich area, trained referees and assigned them to matches. Now, they say they can no longer guarantee their people's safety. Although the majority of games end peacefully, there are violent incidents every weekend, and young referees, in particular, have apparently become moving targets for certain fans and players.

"We don't want to wait until we receive a phone call that one of our junior colleagues is lying severely injured in the hospital or has perhaps even fallen into a coma," says Hitzlsperger, the brother of Thomas Hitzlsperger, a former midfielder on Germany's national squad who currently plays for Everton.

The most violent incident to date recently occurred in the Netherlands. On December 2, 41-year-old linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen was attacked by players. He had volunteered as a linesman in a game between 15- and 16-year-olds in Almere, a town near Amsterdam. Disgruntled with his offside decisions, a group of young people followed him after the match, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked him. Nieuwenhuizen died the following day in the hospital. Schreier and Hitzlsperger are afraid that such a vicious attack could also occur on German amateur soccer fields.

Increasing Violence

There is nothing new about violence among lower-league clubs. But there has been a dramatic increase in the brutality that coaches, spectators and amateur players have been unleashing on the impartial arbiters of the beautiful game.

Dachau-based referee Maurer was already attacked by players during a game three years ago. He had to flee to the locker room and only ventured outside once the police arrived. At the time, Maurer thought that he had simply run into a patch of bad luck, an exceptional situation of sorts. But the fact is that attacks on amateur referees have become almost routine these days.

After losing a regional league game to SuS Haarzopf Essen in western Germany's industrial Ruhr region in March, a SC Blau-Weiss Oberhausen player and a spectator attacked the referee, threw him to the ground when he tried to escape to the locker room and seriously injured him. At a recent "B" Youth League match near Munich, a teenager threatened a referee with a broken bottle.

In October, a player from the Bavarian team FC Iliria savagely attacked the man who had refereed an amateur match against ESV Rosenheim. The victim nearly lost his eyesight. The violent attack was provoked by the referee's decision to allow extra playing time, which gave ESV an opportunity to score a late equalizer. Another Iliria player thrashed the Rosenheim coach as he was trying to help the referee. The coach was rushed to the hospital with bruised ribs and a damaged kidney. The local soccer association banned the perpetrators for life.

A few weeks ago, in the western German city of Darmstadt, referees in the D District League also went on strike for two Sundays and didn't officiate a single game. The Darmstadt Referee Association wanted to draw attention to the increasing amount of violence. Following the goal that put the score up to 5-0, TG 1875 Darmstadt players chased a referee across the field before kicking and choking him.

Battered but Uncowed in Berlin

The situation has become especially critical in Berlin. Over a year ago, referees in the German capital went on strike. During an important lower-league match, 52-year-old referee Gerald Bothe had been attacked and seriously injured after ejecting a player. The beating caused Bothe to swallow his tongue and nearly asphyxiate. A player on the opposing team saved his life.

Wishing to send a clear message, the Berlin Referee Association distributed an anti-violence flyer. But Bothe says: "Nothing has changed." The male nurse, who continues to ref up to three games every weekend, was recently attacked again. After an over-40 league match in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, he noticed that a player for Türkiyemspor Berlin had been on the pitch with the wrong player pass. When Bothe told the team that he would have to mention this in his report, two players stormed the locker room and threatened to beat him up. This time, bystanders were thankfully present to intervene early enough.

"Many see a soccer field as a place where they can let off steam. Frustration at work, at home, with their girlfriends -- they think they can compensate for everything when they're on the field," says Bothe. He receives €15 ($20) for every game he officiates, plus €5 to cover travel expenses. But despite the danger and meager pay, he doesn't want to quit, because he believes it would send the wrong message. Instead, he's working with colleagues on a proposal aimed at reducing the violence on Berlin's soccer fields.

Indeed, the future of the game is at stake, and it remains to be seen whether enough idealists can be found who are willing to subject themselves to the ordeal of serving as a referee.

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