I’ve been running the touch line for nearly 25 years now, sometimes romantically casting myself as the Witchita Linesman in the Glenn Campbell tradition: always searching, never finding, always hankering after a golden past when football was simpler, purer and more respectful.
Refereeing the beautiful game has to me always been an honest and honorable reputation: shedding doubt, creating certainty, judging fairly and squarely, undeterred by the bigger commercial pressures on the game and the braggadocio of the noisier neighbours whose hourly take home pay far surpasses what my father could only dream of when he was a strapping 25 year old running the lines in the old days of Franco and the Generals. In his day, the referee was simply an integral part of the game: no ref, no game it was simple as that. You could have the players, the kit, the changing rooms, the crowds, the songs and the banter: but without the man in middle, replete with black shirt, shorts and shiny whistle, there was no game. It was started by him, it was ended by him. End of.
But these days it is nowhere near as simple and my father would been dismayed to see the extent that the games arbitrators have been ridiculed by those who should know better. Neither the players (no-one expects anything from them in terms of a balanced assessment of what has or hasn’t occurred in the last 30 seconds on the pitch) nor the managers (who patrol the pitches with the monkeys of their owners on their back constantly picking the fleas and the shit out of their mohair suits) and certainly not the agents (whose pension and future families inheritance depends parasitically on their entourage’s abilities to score, fake scoring or just faking it full stop).
Tonight though was different and I like to think that had he been still alive, he would have nodded approvingly, fully appreciating the pressure I was under.
I was running the line at the second leg of the Supercup tie between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. The Atletico player Tiago was booked by my colleague, Señor Borbalan and subsequently shown the yellow card. This prompts the Atletico manager, Señor Simeone to castigate everyone in sight, pulling his hair out, shouting, screaming, gesticulating, exhorting the crowds to get behind him and his team. Señor Borbalan promptly shows him the red card and sends him to the stands.
He of course is appalled and remonstrates with anyone who cares to listen. Nothing new there. His temper rises to the occasion and in orchestrating the crowd to turn into a baying, illiterate mob behind him, he faces up to me, eyes agog, invective pouring out of his collective mouths like I had just shagged his mothers, and I then turn away from him and he hits me on the back of the head with a couple of slaps. Not fully fledged swipes or punches, just a couple of slaps. Quick fire, one after the other.
I’ve looked back at that moment on the media replay many many times. Sitting in this cell waiting for the ultimate judgement from the authorities makes me wonder what on earth came over me at that point.
I see the surprise look in my eyes, I see his sneering face. I see his glossy moustache glistening in the stadium lights; but I don’t see the hatred that arises through my guts, my heart, my liver; I don’t see the punch I throw straight at his face and the surprised look bloodily spreading down his face; I don’t hear the temporary stunned silence of the crowd as they realise that this Man in Black has had enough and in one mad moment, retaliates with enough venom to sink a whole battalion of intergalacticos. I slap him back: not once, not twice but countless times, a generation of pent up resentment and silence finding a voice. I, my father and my colleagues have waited long enough. This was the moment when the dam broke.
After that, all is blackness. I see myself on the TV monitor kicking him several times in the stomach at the side of the pitch, but I don’t remember doing it. I see on the screen some officials dragging me off him and pinning me to the ground, but I don’t remember seeing them there. I see myself on the CCTV footage being bundled out of the stadium in the back of a police car; but I don’t remember hearing the wailing sirens or screeching tyres.
The first thing I become conscious of is the newspaper headline the next day: Man Bites Ref: Ref Bites Back. It’s an allusion to the journalistic truism that whilst dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is; and the suggestion that we men in black are nothing more than dogs in the public eye is not surprising although it is tiresome in its predictability.
The next thing I hear is Glenn Campbell’s sweet soulful voice wafting through my prison cell window and I’m reminded of my father and his constant running the lines through thick and thin, through rain and snow and through Franco and all his generals, none of whom had the audacity to slap him around the back of the head when he sent off a manager for misconduct.
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time,
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.