Sport Soccer

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Football's toughest job now a matter of life and death

Errol Sweeney

There was a real sense of shock and dismay at the news last week of the attempted suicide by German Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati. Mr Rafati is not only on the senior panel of the German league but also a FIFA-approved middleman.

In all my years as a referee, both on and off the field, I have never heard of such a case. Likewise, I personally have never felt that kind of pressure to want to self harm, but Rafati obviously did and thank goodness he was found in time by his assistants in the bath before he had a chance to succeed.

It does, however, bring home to one and all the real pressure that referees are under and it is an area of the game that is not receiving enough attention.

Plenty of time and money is being spent by football authorities on other aspects of the game but not much on the psychological well-being of our match officials. They are expected to go out in every game and be like robots, without feelings or emotions. Yet when they make a mistake they are pilloried by all and sundry.

As a psychologist, I have mentored many referees up to, and including, World Cup level and have prepared them physically and psychologically for what today is a highly pressurised situation.

Match officials have to be mentally as well as physically prepared going on the field of play and must receive the same kind of preparation in all its forms as players do.

One could easily ask were there no obvious signs or did nobody notice anything strange in his behaviour in previous games?

Pressure can come in many forms and ways. It can be psychological, physical or a combination of both. Until an investigation is conducted into this near-fatal case one can only speculate as to why it happened. In the meantime, steps must be taken to ensure that there are no other referees out there in danger of cracking under the pressure of modern-day football.

What I'm about to suggest is mere speculation, and I have absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise, but the following questions might arise. For example, was he under pressure from one or both of the teams to engineer a result? Was he having any personal problems, domestic or otherwise? Was there perhaps pressure from his place of employment and so on and so on?

It's only two years ago that German goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide after battling with depression for years. And

then there was the case of Swedish FIFA referee Anders Frisk, who in March 2005 quit refereeing altogether because of death threats coming from Chelsea fans.

I have also been the subject of death threats during my refereeing exploits and once had a .45 bullet left in my hotel room just before a very important relegation game in South Africa. I don't know who left it there, but I think the message was very clear.

There's no doubt that there's pressure and steps must be taken to ensure that this sort of situation is recognised and dealt with before we do have a real tragedy. Thank goodness this one was averted by the quick action of Rafati's assistants.

Errol Sweeney is a former League of Ireland and South African

Premier League referee

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