Football Film Season: The Referees (Les Arbitres) (2009)


Written by Ashley Hickson-Lovence, a referee from Hackney and an English Literature student at the University of Sussex.

Football fans aren’t very good singers. So the sound of 52,000 in the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna yelling their rendition of Seven Nation Army wouldn’t have been easily listening for English football referee Howard Webb, who takes centre stage in The Referees.

But that was to only be the beginning of an eventful fixture between Austria and Poland in the group stage of Euro 2008. 89 minutes and a contentious shirt-tug later, he is to become a hate figure – labelled Hitler by the Polish faithful.

In this sombre documentary it is unimaginable why anyone would want to put themselves at the mercy of 22 players and the world with just a whistle and some coloured cards for protection. Poor Mike Mullarkey barely able to eat his half-time banana, he’s shaking so much after seeing on the big screen that he has made an incorrect offside decision. The advice given to him ‘Don’t look at the big screen!’

But in their often pedagogical briefs to the other officials, it is evident there is something bizarrely special about these men in the middle (and their assistants on the side) and we are obliged to admire. I dare someone to say that ‘football is not about the referee’ to these 6, who battle it out like Strictly contestants on grass hoping to make the knockout stage and eventually for one lucky ref, the final.

For large parts with the crowd sound muted, we’re free to watch the referee strut their stuff: scampering into position, conversing with their assistants and bantering with players (namely the Greek midfielder Giorgos Karagounis) almost as mesmerizingly as Zizu in his film ‘Zidane: A 21st Portrait’ (2006).

Unfortunately for Yorkshireman Webb, he doesn’t make the final cut and is sent home early. He, like the rest of England watches the final between Spain and Germany, officiated by Italian Roberto Rossetti with his loyal father, wife and kids on TV. Torres scores the only goal. But who cares about the players. Rossetti has a blinder. He can look forward to a fresh mug of Italian coffee with his new coffeemaker that he’s so excited about. We all like coffee don’t we? See, they are human after all.

Review by Ashley Hickson-Lovence

The Referees is out now on DVD.

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