MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Attacked on the field by the president of a top Turkish soccer team, referee Halil Umut Meler desperately tried to cover his head to shield himself from the kicks of angry fans.
Monday's shocking scene at the end of a Turkish league game was an example of the violence and abuse directed toward officials that, it was claimed on Wednesday, have included incidents as extreme as car bombs.
“It’s a responsibility for all those who love the ‘beautiful game’ to take action and do something. Before it’s too late, before this cancer will kill football,” Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA’s Referees Committee, said Wednesday.
Meler was hospitalized after being punched by MKE Ankaragucu president Faruk Koca at the end of a 1-1 draw with Caykur Rizespor. He fell to the ground and was also kicked in a melee when fans invaded the pitch after Rizespor scored a last-minute equalizer. Meler was discharged from the hospital on Wednesday.
Koca and two other people have been placed under pre-trial detention, facing charges of causing injury to a public official. The Turkish Football Federation suspended all league games in response.
“A referee cannot be beaten because of a decision they took, even if it’s wrong. His or her car cannot be bombed or set on fire because of a penalty kick," Collina said in a statement that did not provide examples. "Unfortunately this is not an exaggeration, as car bombs and cars being set on fire is something that has happened in some countries, and not so rarely.”
In recent times there have been a number of high profile incidents involving attacks or threats made toward officials in soccer.
In Brazil, the president of fourth-division club Sergipe was suspended after he came onto the pitch and punched a referee in March. Last month, an official with Brazilian club Corinthians tried to break into the VAR room after one of the team's players was sent off.
English referee Anthony Taylor and his family had to be escorted away by security at an airport in Hungary after Roma fans targeted him and threw a chair in his direction after the Europa League final in May.
More extreme incidents include the gun-toting owner of Greek team PAOK Thessaloniki marching onto the field following a disputed goal in 2018. And a weekend soccer player was sentenced to at least eight years in prison in 2015 in the United States for a punch that killed a referee.
Soccer has for a long time been concerned about how abuse at the top of the sport can lead to rising incidents at amateur and youth level.
“The image of Halil Umut lying on the ground, with his hands protecting his head while he was kicked by his assaulters, as well as the image of the bruise under his eye, are horrific,” Collina said. “But even more horrific is to know that there are thousands of referees around the world who are verbally and physically abused at lower levels of the game across the world, without being reported by media.”
A referees' charity in England has warned incidents like the one in Turkey could soon be repeated in the Premier League.
“The desensitization of ref abuse has been left to fester for far too long and an incident like this, live on TV, is just around the corner in top-flight football in the UK unless we have a huge change in attitude and culture towards match officials at all levels of the game," said Martin Cassidy, chief executive of Ref Support UK. "Referees all over the world have, for far too long, been viewed as fair game no matter what age the referee is. Referees are an endangered species due to abuse, threats and assaults.”
Despite those fears, the body that runs referees and officials in England, said Wednesday that there had been a “significant decrease” in unacceptable behavior this season compared to the same point last season.
The Professional Game Match Officials (PGMOL) has clamped down on what it describes as conduct on the field and on the sidelines at all levels of pro soccer in England.
As a result it said there had been a 37% decrease in charges for surrounding match officials, dropping from 19 to 12. According to its figures there has also been 43% decrease in charges for mass confrontations (61 to 35) and a 10% reduction of charges for “technical area misconduct” (70 to 63).
“A culture change won’t happen overnight and it is early days, but we are moving in the right direction and our officials are successfully delivering on our part of the collective football effort to reset behaviors, protect the reputation and promote the positive image of the game for the next generations," PGMOL chief Howard Webb said.
There has been an 88% increase in cautions for acts of dissent from players, which is likely a result of the PGMOL's clampdown. Numbers went up from 966 to 1,813 cautions.
"This shows that our new approach is making an impact at the top of the pyramid, and we need to maintain this and ensure that these positive changes are carried through to the whole game,” FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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