I have lost count of the number of times I have been to what is sometimes referred to as Canada's national soccer stadium. It is where Canada will kick off its World Cup qualifying campaign next month. To many, BMO Field is simply known as the home of Toronto FC.
Inside the imposing West stand the reminders are everywhere. TFC and Canadian soccer logos adorn the elevator doors and the washroom soap dispensers. The back wall of the written press box is decorated with a montage of memorable moments in TFC's short but colourful history.
I was back there again last weekend. The spectacular view of Toronto's skyline rising high above the East stand hasn't changed. At field level, however, everything was different. At either end of the pitch the goals were gone - replaced by rugby posts.
In a month's time the Rugby World Cup, played every four years, will kick off in New Zealand. Canada will be there, walking among the giants of the game. So will the United States, a.k.a. the Eagles, and as part of their preparations they squared off in Toronto for the first time in 12 years.
The game drew a respectable crowd. Around 10,000 knowledgeable rugby fans were treated to an entertaining match which, after an uncertain start, Canada won by a margin of six points. Suffice to say, there's room for improvement before they depart for the Southern Hemisphere.
There was one other marked difference between two sports historically defined as "association football" and "rugby football." The man in the middle. The neutral referee, Mark Lawrence from South Africa, is widely regarded as one of the Top 5 officials in the world.
One word amply described his relationship with the players: Respect.
Rugby, unlike its distant soccer cousin, has embraced technology. If the referee is uncertain whether a 'try' should be awarded he can routinely refer the decision upstairs to the Television Match Official or TMO. Interestingly, Mr. Lawrence didn't have that luxury in Toronto.
'Mic-up' an innovative concept
The other major technological step which rugby has taken is to 'mic-up' the referee. It allows the viewer to hear exactly what is being said by the match official either during open play or when an infringement has occurred on the field.
It is an informative and fascinating insight into what is actually happening inside the lines. We hear how the referee is managing the game, and more significantly in my opinion, how he is man-managing the players' behaviour.
Rugby players are paid to take no prisoners. It is the nature of the game. In the heat of the moment any given player will do what he must to prevent his opponent gaining territorial advantage. To the untrained eye it appears to be an incessant passage of pulling, pushing and general intimidation. But there are very clear guidelines as to what does and doesn't go.
Here is where the referee really earns his money. It is the official's handling of the player which is most impressive. These human giants, when called to account, accept the disciplinary lecture. No protest, no backchat. By and large they display a humility long since lost in many other professional sports.
It works in rugby. So why not soccer?
Major League Soccer does things differently. It always has done. MLS is not like most professional soccer leagues around the world. It franchises its product, its season runs during the summer months, it insists on central contracts for players, and it imposes a strict salary cap.
Like it or not, the MLS business model is in place for a reason. Fiscal responsibility, league-wide parity and the North American climate are all factors which separate MLS from its continental and overseas counterparts. Perhaps, then, it should take a lead where officiating is concerned.
A lesson in respect?
I, like you, am sick and tired of players paying lip service to soccer's Respect campaign. There is absolutely no point in attaching the label to their sleeves. Clearly the vast majority of footballers, and the millions of youngsters they influence, have no idea what the word means.
We all understand MLS referees are not the best. They make mistakes because they are human. But why should they be singled out for criticism by players, coaches and fans? Let's just take a moment to consider that the players under their control are hardly world beaters themselves.
So why not experiment? Why not try and change the culture? MLS is a young league trying to attract a family audience. Let's mic the referee, as in rugby, and hear what he has to say as the game evolves. Maybe, just maybe over time, the players would not routinely dispute every decision.
Perhaps they would learn not to surround, pressure, and coerce the referee. Maybe they would not walk away with a parting shot of verbal abuse when issued a card. Who knows - there is a chance the players would take responsibility for their own action rather than look for someone else to blame.
There is no reason MLS cannot become a world leader in referee-player relations. It could show the global soccer establishment there is another way to manage the sport. A game where respect carried a tangible message which all players were prepared to embrace.
Sometimes we need to glance beyond our borders to see how the other half lives. In the process we might be educated and inspired to change the way we do things. Should it choose to do so, soccer can certainly learn some valuable lessons from rugby.
The chances of anything changing anytime soon? Slim to none of course. So go ahead soccer. Swear, cheat, dive and spit all you want, but do yourself a favour. Lose the hypocrisy of respect for officialdom. There will probably be enough referees to abuse for the foreseeable future.
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