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CSL Referees need greater protection regardless of their decision-making

It’s not easy being a referee in any league at any level, but in the Chinese Super League (CSL) it appears to be on that fine line between brave and stupid. That’s largely due to the players’ behaviour and lack of support from the Chinese Football Association (CFA).

Referees in the CSL are so heavily scrutinised that Mark Clattenburg would struggle to tolerate just a season in the Far East. At least he’d leave with a cool Chinese tattoo, mind.

Whilst the scrutiny is often deserved, although conveyed in a less than eloquent way, it’s the CFA who should be listening to the criticisms. The unfortunate individual in black is often surrounded by disrespectful players who appear to be influencing decisions. Armed with just cards, a whistle and some emphatic gesturing, the referees, while far from blameless, need more support from the suits upstairs.

Granted, the Chinese referees are particularly poor in comparison to their equivalents in Europe. But where they’re from or what culture they’re immersed in doesn’t justify such an obvious gulf. China needs to create a more supportive environment for officials to avoid putting off potential new talent from entering the profession.

The last round saw a number of bad decisions and or reactions during the second round of fixtures in the 2017 CSL season. Most notable was the feisty affair at Hongkou Stadium between Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Quanjian.

The 24th minute dismissal of Qin Sheng unsurprisingly riled up the Shenhua supporters. Replays proved that they should have been irritated by Qin Sheng’s idiocy rather than referee Li Haixin’s correct call.

Qin Sheng – who was forced to make a televised apology – was heavily criticised by his own club as they reportedly inflicted a hefty RMB 300,000 (Euro 40,574) fine and demotion to the second team while the length of ban is at least three games.

Shenhua followers should really have been grateful Li Haixin didn’t produce the red card three minutes earlier when Tao Jin was fortunate to only receive a yellow. The defender was booked for a handball that appeared to prevent Alexandre Pato from going through on goal.

Another incident that saw a yellow card instead of the red it warranted was Axel Witsel’s elbow on Fredy Guarín. The 80th minute challenge by the side line and in front of the linesman led to a chorus of complaints from the home fans. It also saw at least nine players and staff from Quanjian gather around the scene as Shenhua’s players, including goalkeeper, Li Shuai, raced over to point fingers at Witsel as he laid on the floor:

Arguably, the worst decision actually came before Giovanni Moreno’s opener when Li Haixin failed to play a clear advantage that would have provided Cao Yunding with a one-vs-one opportunity. Li Haixin’s inability to delay the blowing of his whistle by just a second showed a lack of composure. Whilst further training and experience should eradicate this, Li Haixin shouldn’t have to deal with players on both sides protesting nearly every decision in such an unsporting manner.

Intimidation of the officials is a common theme in China and a couple of examples from last season spring to mind.

Once again, Shenhua are involved, but this time it’s their players who overreacted at Shandong Luneng Taishan. Papiss Cissé struck a rebound from Graziano Pellè’s saved header with 10-minutes remaining. Seven Shenhua players then ran to the linesman to question why he didn’t raise his flag for offside.

But here’s the thing, Cissè didn’t score and Shenhua were leading, subsequently winning, 1-0. It’s hard to believe that nearly two thirds of the team wanted to protest so excessively on the basis of principles and better standards.

Elsewhere, during a top of the table clash between Shanghai SIPG and Jiangsu Suning last June, there was an unsavoury reaction to an admittedly poor decision.

Referee Hai Tan awarded Jiangsu Suning a penalty with a quarter of the game remaining and the scores delicately poised at 1-1. Brazilian Alex Teixeira was adjudged to have been fouled, yet replays showed SIPG’s Yu Hai actually got the ball first.

SIPG were apoplectic with the decision, causing a pack of seven wolves to aggressively intimidate the lone black sheep. The players got so physical that Hai Tan even tried to walk backwards into former captain Sun Xiang who seconds earlier used the ‘I’m not touching you if you walk into my strategically placed arm’ move (see picture below).

This made for embarrassing viewing yet the CFA did sweet FA about it. Of course, the referee could have handled the situation better, but for a brief moment there, these weren’t professional footballers playing a match, these were deluded delinquents who thought harassing and bullying the referee would see a reversal of his decision. It’s commendable to seek justice but there are ways of doing it and displaying such a lack of self-control isn’t one of them.

Playing professional football requires an equivalent level of concentration. Applying thoroughly thought out tactics against a strong opponent demands full attention and awareness. One lapse could result in defeat. To make things worse, they’re part of a team that shares a collective responsibility which only increases the guilt of failure tenfold. Players should simply be ashamed if their mistake is the result of losing energy and focus on a decision that didn’t go their way.

Sadly, it has become an open secret that referees in the CSL can be influenced by overwhelming protests, and it’s their jobs, with the support of the CFA, to correct that. But as spectators, we shouldn’t look at the individuals as the problems but rather the environment.

Football is a tribal and emotional sport, consequently it’s high pressure for all involved, yet there should still be room for rational thinking and self-discipline. While respect is as much earned as given, players and staff can at least do their part by allowing officials to make their decisions. Then any mistakes can be attributed to the referee’s ability rather than the influential behaviour of others.

View video here.

The CFA should really start backing their officials through strong retrospective action. Those guilty of crossing the line should receive a punishment that varies from a fine to a suspension. And that’s only if the referees didn’t exercise their right to dish out some red cards to those they decided were overly aggressive physically and or verbally.

The hope would be one example restricts any others, but a couple of red cards to players from the same team who are disputing a decision might just lead to all out chaos on and off the field. A clear introduction of the CFA’s expectations and sanctions prior to their implementation should help reduce the possibility of such scenes occurring. The ultimate aim for all football around the world should be to match the levels of respect shown by Rugby players towards their officials. It might be a dream but it can still at least be a target.

The referees in China are already battling against the history of match fixing which tainted the CSL. Then there’s the same pressures felt by all referees who are often used as the excuse for a team’s failure to win. So, let’s redirect our hate of the black sheep towards the wolves who hunt in packs and the cowards who just sit and watch.

Peter has lived in Shanghai since October 2011. His interest in Chinese football has grown despite initially being put off by Nicolas Anelka's insistence on taking the worst (and every) set piece during his short stint at Shenhua. Peter has played and followed football since he was a kid and regularly deprives himself of sleep to watch Liverpool. He also has a blog ( which covers both Chinese and English football.

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