Respect for the ref
11 February 2011
When interviewed in the wake of a defeat, Italian football managers often resort to a technique which invariably enables them to divert supporters’ anger away from their own team: they attack the referee. It’s a habit which prompts surprise and disdain elsewhere in some parts of Europe, where referees’ decisions are always respected, even when they are clearly wrong.
No doubt his long experience as president of AC Milan inspired Silvio Berlusconi to be the first to adapt this technique in politics, substituting the referee for a judge. And it’s all the more effective, because judges, just like referees, rarely have the support of the crowd. We only notice them when someone commits a foul, and more often than not we do not need much encouragement to conclude that they are mistaken. For years, the Italian premier’s regular attacks on judges, whom he labels “subversive” and “communist,” have enabled him to distract attention from his and his team’s shameless infringement of the rules.
At the same time, the world of European politics, unlike the world of European football, has been quick to learn from Italy’s example. Recently, Nicolas Sarkozy launched an attack on judges, claiming that their negligence resulted in a notorious murder in France. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán took advantage of an unpopular ruling against a tax “on those responsible for the crisis” to significantly reduce the power of the country’s constitutional court.
The French president and the Hungarian premier may have different motives – the former is attempting to boost his popularity in the run-up to presidential elections in 2012 while the latter aims to increase the room for manoeuvre enjoyed by his significant majority – but they are both following in the footsteps of Silvio Berlusconi, who has systematically indulged in populist rhetoric in a bid to exploit public mistrust of the judiciary and remove the legal checks and balances which would deny him unconditional power.
It’s a tactic that may prove effective in the short term. But if it continues to inspire imitations across Europe, the politics of the entire continent runs the risk of enduring the same fate as Italian football: that is to say that it will become increasingly confused and mediocre, and less and less effective in the international sphere where referees are less likely to be intimidated by managers’ angry speeches.