I travelled a few stops on the London Underground yesterday. Somewhere on the Bakerloo line between Marylebone and Paddington, I found myself staring at a poster above the row of seats opposite.
It showed a series of hands raised in the air and a message had been spelled out across them by Transport for London. ‘We won’t stand for abuse of TfL staff,’ it read, alongside a message warning of action being taken against those who transgressed
Absolutely right, too. Because, apart from in football, where we are in thrall to the increasingly aggressive and unboundaried tantrums of a few over-entitled multi-millionaires, in what other walk of life would we look at the way Erling Haaland behaved towards referee Simon Hooper at The Etihad on Sunday and think it was in any way acceptable?
Where else other than football would we look at what Haaland did and then look the other way? Not in any other sport, that’s for sure. Not in rugby union or rugby league. Not in cricket. Not in hockey or tennis. Not anywhere. Why should football be an outlier any more? Why should we indulge this institutionalised thuggery a moment longer?
Hooper made a mistake when he reversed his earlier decision to play an advantage and blew for a foul on Haaland when the Norway striker had put Jack Grealish clean through on goal in the dying minutes of the 3-3 draw between Manchester City and Spurs on Sunday evening.
Erling Haaland fumed at referee Simon Hooper as Man City were held by Tottenham
Haaland and his Manchester City team-mates circled the referee on Sunday after he blew for a free-kick when City were wanting the advantage to be played after Jack Grealish was through
Maybe Hooper panicked under pressure. Maybe he thought he saw a linesman’s flag. It would be helpful if there was a line of communication so we got an explanation. It was a mistake and it was a big mistake. That is obvious. It may have changed the outcome of the game. It may not. None of it excuses Haaland’s behaviour.
Sure, City have been charged by the FA with failing to control their players after the melee that followed but they will not care about that. A fine is nothing to them. It is an irrelevance. Where is the individual accountability? Where is the threat of a punishment that actually hurts them and acts as a deterrent to Haaland and others? There is none.
Another reason City drew the game on Sunday is that Haaland made mistakes, too. He is a phenomenon as a player but there was a moment in the first half where Bernardo Silva played a square ball to him and, to general astonishment, Haaland put his shot wide from six yards out with the goal gaping.
It turns out that mistake cost City the victory. You could argue that, anyway. But I didn’t see anyone rushing towards Haaland and screaming in his face, gesticulating at him, crowding him, yelling so close that he’d be able to feel their hot breath on his cheeks on a bitter night in Manchester. Haaland is allowed to make a mistake but a referee is not?
I thought, by the way, that in our desperation to rid ourselves of VAR, we had reached a consensus we are prepared to accept good old-fashioned human error from referees. Errr, maybe mention that to Simon Hooper when he’s surrounded by a posse of City players and his reputation is being traduced up and down the land for an error under pressure.
This has been allowed to go on for too long. It is almost 24 years since Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham formed a vigilante flash mob and, veins popping, fingers pointing, eyes staring, mouths agape, pursued referee Andy D’Urso around the Old Trafford pitch because they disagreed with one of his calls.
It became one of the iconic football images of its time. It was used to illustrate the idea that Manchester United were out of control, drunk on their own power, flushed with their own success, creatures running on the anger and righteous indignation bred in them by Sir Alex Ferguson.
It is dispiriting beyond belief but, fuelled by player-power and the arrogance and entitlement brought by new levels of wealth, the behaviour of top-flight players towards referees has got worse since then and is feeding an epidemic of intimidation and abuse in grassroots football.
It was a mistake and it was a big mistake by Hooper but Haaland’s reaction was unacceptable
And now we have a new poster to take the place of the United gang surrounding Andy D’Urso. Now we have another image that will be used for years to come to show how the abuse of referees has become normalised and sanctified and defended by too many within the game.
We have another image that young footballers will already have seen, an image that legitimises the kind of thuggish, petulant, puerile, spoiled behaviour they will emulate up and down the country when they get right in the face of a referee and scream their hate at him.
Let me tell you what the image is not. It is not the artist’s portrayal on the front of the City-Spurs programme on Sunday showing Haaland sitting cross-legged on the pitch at the Etihad in a zen-like pose, his eyes closed, a serene smile on his face, his arms outstretched, his hands arranged so that his thumb is touching his forefinger and forming a circle.
It is almost 24 years since Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham formed a vigilante flash mob and pursued referee Andy d’Urso around the Old Trafford pitch
Mail Sport has launched a campaign to stop the abuse of referees at all levels of the game
Haaland missed a huge chance earlier in the match that could have given City the victory
No, this image is different. The image that will launch a thousand more copycat attacks on referees is of Haaland, his hands clamped to his head, pulling back his hair, a demonic expression of hatred mixed with disbelief on his face as he vents his fury at Mr Hooper in the immediate aftermath of his decision.
Haaland — along with Ruben Dias and Mateo Kovacic — confronts the official immediately, his fury uncontrolled. His face is contorted in an expression of anger, pain, misery and disbelief that makes him look like the figure in The Scream, the painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.
It is hard to exaggerate the negative power this image will wield. Haaland is the greatest striker in the world. He is a brilliant, goalscoring machine, the figurehead of a City side that is the best club team in the world, a side bidding to become the first in English history to win the Premier League title four times in succession.
And when a decision goes against him, this is how he behaves. Young players — players of all ages — are highly impressionable. This is exactly the kind of image that will encourage them to get in the face of referees on Sunday League pitches. Get in the face of the referee and a lot, lot worse.
Apologists for Haaland’s behaviour — and there will be plenty — will talk about the pressure that young players are under these days and the best response to that remains the remark made by the Australian all-rounder Keith Miller who flew for the Royal Australian Air Force during World War Two.
When asked by chat show host Michael Parkinson how he coped with pressure in cricket, Miller had a tart response. ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse,’ he said. ‘Playing cricket is not.’
Haaland is a brilliant striker but this is how he behaves when a decision goes against him
Apologists for Haaland’s behaviour will talk about the pressure young players are under
It is time to stop indulging this petulance we have suffered for too long. It is time to acknowledge that it is starting to endanger the fabric of football. Why would anyone want to be a referee when intimidatory behaviour from players is encouraged by the stars at the top of the game?
‘I will not do a Mikel Arteta,’ City manager Pep Guardiola said after the match, making reference to the hysterical outburst from the Arsenal boss after a decision went against his team during a defeat at Newcastle last month. Guardiola might not have done an Arteta but his players had already done it for him.
Hooper had a fine game but he didn’t just make one mistake. He made two. He booked Haaland for his protests when he should have sent him off.
Forget the collective slap on the wrist City are facing from the FA now. It means less than nothing. To get serious about protecting referees and protecting the game, Haaland should be looking at a three-game ban, the better for him to ponder how he would react if someone ran up to him and screamed abuse in his face the next time he missed an open goal. Not well, is my guess.
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