Red-hot rivalry requires neutral intervention

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RIVALRIES. Celtic versus Rangers, Boca Juniors versus River Plate, Pakistan versus India, Springfield versus Shelbyville and, of course, Jersey versus Guernsey. There is nothing like the red-hot heat of base tribalistic hatred to clog up the amygdala when it comes to sport. Love thy neighbour? Not a chance. Morior invictus. Death before defeat. Win by any means necessary.

When Honduras met El Salvador three times in a play-off for a place in the 1970 World Cup finals, a contest which El Salvador eventually won 3-2 after extra time in the third, there was so much rioting and violence that it provoked what became known as the Football War, lasting for 100 hours before peace was brokered.

Of course, there were already tensions between the two Central American countries. El Salvador accused Honduras of genocide after the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans because of land laws enacted under the influence of US multi-national United Fruit Company. (Oh, corporate America, is there a war you haven’t had your grubby paws on?) But football was the spark that lit the touchpaper.

On the field, it has been scientifically proven that fierce sporting rivalry affects competitors physiologically too. A study undertaken at Northumbria University found much higher testosterone levels in football players preparing to play against a team they considered an extreme rival. An article in Scientific American Mind said that researchers had found that rivalry changes more than just our body chemistry but also sways our mind, not only boosting motivation but also disrupting rational thinking, causing bias memories and encouraging unethical behaviour.

Which brings us back to our own eternal sporting feud, Caesarea et Sarnia, and, in particular, the Muratti, Les Îles de la Manche Classique, the inter-insular football derby of all inter-insular football derbies, for there are no others. The double meaning of the word “insular” says it all. On the one hand, it relates to things that come from an island. On the other, it means being ignorant and uninterested in people outside one’s own experience.

Over the last six Murattis, during which Guernsey goalkeepers have been forced to fend off not just shots but projectile carrots and volleys of abuse, there have been four red cards. In the previous six under-21 Murattis, where self-management of testosterone levels can be more precarious, there have also been four red cards, including the double yellow keenly given to young Barry Beatson last Sunday at Footes Lane by home referee Derek Gilman. But footage, and Jersey head coach Paul Renton, will tell you that both yellows were a “bit soft”, not only giving the home side an obvious advantage but ruling our star boy out of the U18 showdown next year. Now I am not suggesting that we should start a military conflict over it but we should, perhaps, be opening diplomatic negotiations at least.

A question raised by my colleague Steven Anderson – for credit where credit is due – was whether all Murattis, junior, senior, men and women, should have an impartial referee from England appointed, as the men’s one does? And at the fear of (once again) incurring the wrath of referee associations, it is not to say that Guernsey or, to a lesser extent, Jersey (jokes, wink, wink) referees are consciously biased, but maybe it could at least diffuse suggestions of unconscious bias influencing decisions. Since the second ever men’s Muratti in 1906, a UK referee has taken charge because the first one, a Guernseyman, was chased by a mob for denying Jersey an equaliser. And, in any case, the cost of a flight from London is a whole lot cheaper than the 20-minute hop between the two islands.

Referees are under a lot of pressure right now. “How many professional Premier League officials does it take to make a correct decision using the latest technology to assist them?” is becoming an old joke still waiting for a punchline. But it is not a easy job. I can confirm as much, having had first-hand experience trying to maintain order and failing miserably, mostly with myself, at junior matches where I also had the dual responsibility of coaching one of the teams. I had all the beleaguered authority and composure of a supply teacher filling in at Waterloo Road. Invariably, I just let everyone kick the living proverbials out of each other, should they so wish, and denied all claims for any penalties, meanwhile trying to soak up a particular type of passive aggression from school children. Never. Again.

Of course, however hard I tried to be impartial, and believe me, I did try, I was still accused by players, parents, coaches in an indirect way of being biased. Such was the dread and horror it caused me, I could be heard wailing “Mark Le Cornu, where are you?” like Shaggy to his four-legged friend, from the centre-circle. But if I learned anything at all from being a man in the middle, it’s that refereeing in football should always be like Switzerland. On time, accurate and, most of all, neutral.

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