Last night I was refereeing a high-level U16 Boys club match in Saratoga Springs, NY. The home team went on to win by a score of 5 - 1, but that's not important.
I mention this match because like most others, there were some heated words exchanged occasionally throughout the match. It's the kind of thing that, if it isn't dealt with early, could fester and grow as the match progresses. The infamous Zidane headbutt to Materazzi's chest is likely a result of such unsporting behavior.
So when I heard a defender tell an opposing striker to "get up you pussy" after the attacker was stripped of the ball and ended up on the ground, I took note. I let the counter-attack continue, but when it died with the ball in the goalie's arms at the other end of the pitch, I blew my whistle to stop play, which I'm sure was a surprise to most everyone in attendance.
I then walked over to the defender-cum-provocateur and showed him a yellow card, explaining that "this is for what you said a minute ago." He seemed to be aware of his guilt and didn't bother arguing. When one his teammates asked why I took the action I did, I simply told him "he knows why." And then I added, "it's because of crap like that that Zidane didn't get to finish his career properly."
Sure, Zidane should've risen above the insults without lashing out at Materazzi the way he did. But as FIFA have adjudicated, Materazzi was deemed guilty of foul and abusive language - a sending off offense that precipitated Zidane's moment of madness. As a result, he will be suspended from the Italy's next two international matches. And to a certain extent, it vindicates but does not completely exonerate Zidane's violence (who was suspended for three matches, although he's announced his retirement).
But maybe something positive really can come from this whole ugly situation. Perhaps it will give players pause to think about their behavior on the pitch in the hope that they will not sink to the level of Materazzi and his ilk. If, however, players prove to be incapable of changing their unsporting ways, it is up to us as referees to nip the problem in the bud before things escalate. And that's exactly what I was doing last night.
Until next time...