Swedish director Mattias Löw, of the production company Freedom From Choice, shared with me a short documentary called “The Referee,” about the unfortunate Martin Hannson, who officiated the France-Ireland qualifier last fall and failed to call Thierry Henry’s decisive handball.
I wrote about the case here at the time, and later did penance for the sins of my French friend Henry at the World Cup when I traded seats with a lone Irishman so that he could sit with his friends at the Argentina-Mexico game. As a result, I had to sit through the entire game next to an elderly, cursing, chain-smoking Argentinian. And of course I heard from several happy Irish fans that the curse directed by millions of their countrymen against the French team clearly worked, condemning the ones who should not have qualified to an ignominious rout at the Cup.
Returning to all this now, when it oddly seems like ancient history, might seem strange. But I thoroughly enjoyed this film as a humane portrait of what it means to be a referee. It reminded me of the excellent chapter in Christian Bromberger’s book Le match de football which explores the question of why people become referees, and why they put up with the completely insane abuse their choice of work exposes them to pretty much whenever they walk on the field. Of course I’m not quite ready to swear off the pleasure of cursing at referees, which after all constitutes one of the great pleasures of football fandom. But as the film suggests, it might be worth swearing off the death threats and international political scandals that go with high-level refereeing. I highly recommend the film as a way of engaging in a more calm set of reflections about the meaning of justice, law, and human error in football and beyond. And I appreciated it when Martin calmly noted that while refereeing was challenging, raising kids was much more so: “In football there are rules. With children there are no rules.”