Case Study: Managing Dissent

WARNING: This post contains language that could be considered offensive.

In the recent Manchester derby match, Select Group and FIFA Referee Martin Atkinson was in charge.  Early in the second half, Manchester City (blue) was flagged for offside.  Man City midfielder Samir Nasri took exception with the decision and complained about it to Referee Atkinson.

A short two minutes later, Man City were again flagged for offside, and on this occasion, Nasri approached Assistant Referee 2 to complain.  AR2 quickly recognized the dissent and instructed Nasri to stop (53:02).  When Nasri did not, Referee Atkinson intervened (hear the whistle at 53:11) and delivered a stern warning to Nasri.

Nasri did not respond well to the warning.  As you will see in the video, Nasri disrespectfully waves Atkinson away and appears to say “go away boy” (53:22).  Nasri then mocks the referee with hand gestures that simulate talking and very clearly says “shut the fuck up”.  At this point, Atkinson blows the whistle again (play was still stopped for the offside) and cautions Nasri for dissent.

Over the course of the season, we have seen Atkinson be very consistent in dealing with dissent.  He tolerates the occasional emotional outburst, but no more, and that is the case here.

That said, I am left feeling dissatisfied with the issuance of only a caution, and I am hoping some of the iTOOTR community – and especially our UK readers –  can help shed light on this.

This kind of behavior from a player is rarely, if ever, seen in American professional p And when it does happen, it is dealt with swiftly and severely.  Why is that not the case in the Premier League?  If the behavior exhibited by Nasri isn’t deserving of a dismissal, then what behavior towards a referee would be?

I am aware of and acknowledge the cultural differences between the USA and the UK; our UK cousins often think of us as a bit “puritan” with regard to matters such as foul and abusive language.  But surely, this type of behavior is beyond the pale?  Isn’t it?  As far as the youth game goes, I can’t think of a referee I know who would punish this type of outburst with only a caution.

I encourage our UK readers and our USSF State and National referees to share their insights with us.  Is this type of behavior typical?  Do referees want to punish it more severely and don’t because they fear the FA won’t back them?  Or did Referee Atkinson just get it wrong by only showing a yellow card in this case?

33 responses to “Case Study: Managing Dissent”

  1. I don’t care what level of play, he should have seen red instead of yellow. I tend to be tolerent, even on language up to a point, but he was past that point..


  2. If you are someone watching that on TV and see a player sent off there, are you going to say the referee overreacted? As a casual observer I would say a resounding “yes!” Sure, did he moan and groan and act like a baby? Yes. Did he even say some dirty words that his mommy would smack him for? Yes. But did he deserve to be sent off from a professional game? No. Part of the job of the referee at the professional level is to make the game entertaining for the fans, and send offs for STFU are going to upset fans, unfortunately.


    • Walt hits the nail on the head. The fans would not accept it as a sending off and nor would the money men/sky TV etc. The cry “but it’s just swearing”. That is why is has been allowed to creep into the game and has become ‘acceptable’. Forget offinabus money has eradicated that from the top level, look at the whole Terry/Ferdinand saga – both of them accepted screaming effing c*** across the pitch at each other several times, their punishment? Nothing! People barely raised an eyebrow at the language and to me the C word is the worst of the lot.

      I don’t agree with it but it’s the way it’s become. I would actually like to see a offinabus weekend – All refs at Premier League & Football League level evoke Law 12 in full. Ok a cuss for missing an open goal is not so bad in the scheme of things but a straight red for any swearing at an opponent or the referee. I sincerely doubt any game would actually make it until half time because there wouldn’t be the players left on the pitch!! Do it just once and it would prove a point to the players and fans but the referees would never be allowed to do it and “ruin” games like that! That is how it would be seen by players, fans, managers and the money men…

      Society in general is to blame as well. To this day I would not dare cuss in front of my dad, I’d get a backhander in the blink of the eye for the lack of respect but you’re not allowed to give your children a backhander like that these days. You end up arrested and with social services crawling all over you. My elder children would think nothing of using the eff word in front of me, nor would their friends. If I had done that in a friends house as a teen/young adult I would have received a backhander from the parent and time I got home a second one from my dad for it!! Swearing is a social norm whether we like it or not.

      I think Atko was wrong in one respect, it should have been red for offinabus, but in terms of the modern game he was right in that it was merely a yellow for dissent and that was it. A red would have been overturned on appeal and Atko would have been (wrongly imo) absolutely slaughtered in the press for being pathetic, for ruining the game etc. It’s a no win scenario for refs at the top level I’m afraid.


  3. Yellow is pretty consistent with what is generally expected, I think. I’m an American ref and I do between youth and adult amateur D1, and in my experience, you do whatever lets you control the game for 90 minutes. U17 and below, I would say, this gets a red if it’s loud enough. But above that, a red would be seen as an overreaction and would detract from the respect you get from the players. The view is that a good ref can take some dissent without being too sensitive, and giving a red for some cursing amongst men would only be seen as the ref falling back on his cards and losing control. It has to be seen within the context of what is expected for that particular match. For better or worse, I wouldn’t go giving red cards for language in front of an assessor except under the most extreme circumstances.


  4. For you who would only show a yellow….remeber one of the MANDATORY sendoffs are Foul or Abusive Language under Law 12. Robert White I also do games up to and including D1 Amateur Men’s games and have been refereeing since 1994. In fact in the Amateur games we are instructed ANY Foul language is a sendoff because of children playing in nearby fields and if it is heard and we don’t do anything about it, we will never ref another D1 game in that league again. Better brush up on Law 12.


  5. No doubt that at least yellow was warranted. Any discussion on second yellow for spitting at the ref? He made eye contact and spit at the ref. Also, as far as entertainment value versus blatant disrespect…I have to side with the ref. Does EPL give fines for this behavior?


    • My understanding is the FA can only act when the referee didn’t see the incident. If the referee saw it and dud nothing, the FA may not retrospectively punish the player.


  6. Great piece Mike!

    The referee should evaluate dissent/abusive language in terms of content (what exactly is said or done), loudness (the extent to which the dissent can be seen or heard widely), and whether it is clearly directed at an official (including assistant referees and fourth officials). The objective in dealing with dissent/abusive language is to support the spirit of the game, to maintain the authority of the officials, and to reduce the likelihood of such behavior becoming widespread.

    Now, Walt above made an interesting point about keeping the entertainment value up and thus issue a yellow card in this instance. If we start thinking of the entertainment in such way, why not send him off – red cards are always entertaining to watch?! Look, we had this very same conversation with USSF’s brass and that is what the league is trying to do – create entartainment thats ells, but instead of allowing this type of behavior we are told to keep the professional games “on the edge”, allowing game flow to the point where you are very close to loosing control of the game, but while keeping it still together. That is a difficult task as you can imagine, but that’s what creates a good entertainment value – allowing abusive language takes away from it.

    Another comment brought up by Luckie – it seems that whatever league that is that you are officiating has a serious problem. If the referees have to think twice about properly applying the LOTG to these situations because of possible consequences you describe, it is a wrong place to referee. Find another one.

    I have been officiating both amateur and professional soccer for a long time and I will tell you this – I always pride myself in making unpopular calls when need be. I have no problem sending off a 12 year old for abusive language the same way I would send a professional player off during a Live TV game. And it’s not easier said than done, it really is that easy.

    If you will just follow the masses, you will end up with the masses. If you want to break out and have a shot at a professional career – just apply the LOTG to the best of your abilities and do not loose your integrity by looking the other way.

    Rafal, National Referee


  7. In the context of THAT particular match, it “feels” like the caution worked (USSF principle: does the player need it? Does the match need it? Appropriate to level of play).

    I’m language tolerant (and admittedly I have a relatively foul mouth in everyday parlance, when not in civil/public settings, the presence of my elders and certainly not on the job) but if the 3-P’s are present, Law 12 & USSF directives just don’t give much of a selection. That said, it does seem these days at the amateur and youth levels straight reds are all too often second guessed; SRA standards comms and assessors seem to grill you no matter what with the clear vibe that you were wrong or it was somehow your fault not the player’s.

    I see the resulting reluctance to send-off all the time with colleagues in upper age divisions and by contrast, colleagues who do send-off a player correctly have been second guessed for even the clearest send-offs issued over the objections of interviewed ARs who confidently agree with the REF decision. If you show certain plastic “too much” you get a bad rep in your SRA. Everyone denies it and everyone knows it. That’s why this sort of thing gets really hairy, IMO.

    I am encouraged by Rafal’s comment though. Officially that’s the expectation of all of us. IRL everyday it doesn’t always seem to be applied to us that way though and it bugs the daylights out of me. When I was newer I was by-the-book too much. I feel the reluctance sometimes now and think about this all the time, trying to improve and facilitate a better game every time.

    BTW, NFHS matches, we’re expected to much more strict in application—but even then you get a rep both ways which feels equally unwarranted.

    I’m not sure about the spit at the very end. Where are Nasri’s eyes, direction is at the REF but eyes? Guys spit to the ground all the time. His body language doesn’t seem like he’s directing it disrespectfully. Than hand gesture earlier seems merely dismissive, but I may be missing the cultural element. I’ve had players give me a dismissive flick of the hand after a caution issued, but after a quick verbal reproach, “watch it” or “settle down” usually it’s a non-issue. Older kids shut up fast because they know full well where they stand. Grown men? *shrugs*


  8. Wonder if the red card Nasri got today was a bit of ” we got ya now” carry over from last week. It looked like a harsh red – both Nasri and Norwich player went head to head after the challenge but Nasri got the red for a little extra.


    • Fergus, I haven’t had a chance to watch matches yet today (TiVo is working overtime). I won’t get to that one until tonight, as the trouble and strife doesn’t appreciate me using both TiVo tuners at one time to record matches (imagine that!). But, that match is being shown again this evening and I have it scheduled to record then. Should be interesting. Thanks for the heads up.


  9. I have been refereeing over 20 years – both youth and Open age – have done some professional games (well 1 at least 0 I did a 1st round FA cup really) but played professionally. I am secretary of local Referee Society and know and deal with Premiership referee’s and unfortunately they are employed by the Premiership and not the FA and are instructed not to follow full FA rules as in there opinion it would be “DETRIMENTAL” to the game for players being dismissed and thus “RUINING” the spectacle.

    This doesn’t make it easy for us ametuer referee’s at all sick of disciplining a player only to hear the immortal words “Well so and so got away with it yersterday” My repsonse well that was yesterday and that wasn’t me refereeing…..


    • Carl,
      I spoke with one of our FIFA assistant referees, and showed him the video clip from this case study. His reaction was more or less as you describe. He acknowledged that it makes our jobs harder in the Sunday Parks leagues, etc, but pointed out that at the highest level, it is a business first, a sport second.

      Thanks for your comment.


  10. I some times watch EPL (UK) and MLS (USA) with a friend who is hard of hearing and so has been required to develop the ability to read lips. He many times will read lips and tell me what various people are saying as best as he is able. It stuns me the foul language on both sides of the Atlantic and the lack of red cards for the violation. I referee primarily younger kids (U10/U12) and many times get assigned to AR various travel leagues in my area. I see the lack of penalties at the professional leagues for foul language coming down to the travel leagues and young people (primarily boys) in the 14-18 year old bracket cursing out the referees. Now they do get red cards and shown the sideline but they are stunned when we show them red. I am waiting for a 10-14 year old to start using foul and abusive language to me. So yes Nasri should have been shown red for dissent. As to the use of the video, there is a clause, I believe in the US), where if you are using the video clip for “education” and you only use it to prove a point or provide instruction you are not in violation of copyright law. No idea what the UK law says about use of material for educational purposes. But those are my two cents.


  11. As a Referee in an Adult League, I see this kind of behavior (and worse) every week. Even at the professional level this occurs because it’s been allowed to occur. Lack of respect is certainly a strong reason for this kind of behavior but arrogance is one of the primary reasons in my humble opinion.


  12. I am a referee in Columbus, Ohio but was looking at Minnesota State Referee Committee’s podcast on dissent and they gave an example in the MLS similar to this situation. The MNSRC says that U.S. Soccer and MLS wants this type of behavior dealt with swiftly. Any foul or abusive language directed toward an official will be sanctioned by a send off. I have little tolerance for dissent from amateur league players but have even less for youth players.


  13. I think in context it is important to realise that the swear word (f*ck) is not used directly to the referee. On the other hand, if he had directly called the referee a ‘cheat’, c*nt or similar, then I feel that there is a better case for OFFINABUS. By the way I am Australian, and feel that our tolerance to swearing is more lenient that that of our American cousins, so I would be surprised that there would be many Australian referees at a decent level of the game who would send somebody for this.


  14. I’m refereeing in Europe and I totally agree with the opinion that this is dissent and disrespectful behavior. As mentioned here, is it red/yellow or disciplinary sanction not needed? What if player has been already cautioned earlier in the match? It’s also worth of second yellow – or is it? Still TV, fans etc… wouldn’t agree with the referee if he made that decision – nor it’s right or wrong.

    In my opinion this should same as it should be with simulation. It should be FA who punishes the player later on. First could be some kind of fines and then if this dissent behavior continues also in later matches – then he should be suspended (just like Suarez has been). In that case the match by itself wouldn’t suffer of this dissent behavior but still the player couldn’t get out of it. Referee could even remind of that during the match (FA will receive report of this unless you stop it know) or something like this. Problem with this is only that then it means that FA really should protect and back up the referees.


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