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Erling Haaland's actions define referee abuse – the FA is giving in to casual thuggery

Erling Haaland shouts at Simon Hooper
Erling Haaland protests Simon Hooper's decision to curtail his original advantage call with vituperative aggression - Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

His veins bulging, his features creased into a mask of apoplexy, Erling Haaland unwittingly provided a picture to encapsulate football’s problem with dissent. In 24 hours, the photograph of him shrieking in referee Simon Hooper’s face has launched a thousand memes, from a pastiche of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to a piece of imagined Dutch Renaissance art.

It is a vision of gargoyle-esque rage that, in Premier League terms, would look more at home in the early 2000s, alongside that infamous shot of Roy Keane and Jaap Stam going nose-to-nose with Andy D’Urso. At the time, this scene triggered almost universal outrage. It was deemed monstrous that Keane, then on £52,000 a week, could pursue an official pocketing a meagre £700 match fee and terrorise him with impunity.

Fast-forward 23 years, and we see history repeating itself with Haaland. Here is the highest-paid player in English football appearing to yell “F--- off! F--- off!” at Hooper, an official who, like most top-flight referees, would struggle to earn in a year what the Norwegian earns in a day. And what punishment will he endure for this brazen piece of intimidation? Zero. While the Football Association have charged Manchester City with failing to control their players, the man at the centre of it all receives neither a fine nor even the mildest rebuke.

Something is deeply awry here. It was not just that Haaland conveyed a contempt for authority by excoriating Hooper at point-blank range. It was the fact that he doubled down moments later, with a “Wtf” – “What the f---” – tweet to his six million followers. It is understood that the FA saw fit to be lenient because Haaland did not explicitly impugn the referee’s integrity. But how much more explicit does the evidence have to be? Haaland let Hooper know exactly what he thought of him from a distance of roughly six inches – and then invited his army of online disciples to join the pile-on.

At a time when referees are a breed besieged, this is a dismal look. Worse, Haaland’s avoidance of any sanction means there is likely to be a repeat offence soon. It is the most conflicted message that the game is sending to dissenters this season. On the one hand, Howard Webb, as head of Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), has made it his mission to hold the strongest line against abuse of referees. On the other, the FA has studied the raw footage of Haaland’s denunciation of Hooper and decided that he should face no further action. So much for the promised crackdown.

On the surface, the FA’s rule on post-match media comments and social media activity is unambiguous when the subject is officialdom. “If the comments imply bias, attack their integrity, are personally offensive, prolonged, or particularly unreasonable, it could lead to a charge or formal warning,” it states. But the application of this diktat can be haphazard. Virgil van Dijk was charged with breaching it after Liverpool’s victory over Newcastle in August, having labelled John Brooks’ red card against him a “f------ joke” as he left the field. Why has one superstar player been brought to book, but his rival granted clemency?

The waters become even muddier when you study the example of Brighton’s Lewis Dunk, who last week was the first player in 11 years to be sent off for foul and abusive language towards a referee. Amateur lipreaders established that Dunk had indeed spoken to Anthony Taylor in fluent Anglo-Saxon, but the alleged content was hardly any further beyond the pale than Haaland’s outburst at Hooper. Not for the first time in recent months, an impression forms that it is one rule for City and another for everybody else.

It is staggering that football continues to tolerate these tantrums. The liberty that Haaland and his fellow multimillionaires are afforded to berate and belittle would be unthinkable in any other sport. Rugby? Suffice it to say that when Chris Robshaw once dared express a difference of opinion with Nigel Owens at Twickenham, the Welshman slapped him down with a headmasterly “Christopher!” “Sorry, sir,” the chastened England captain replied.

Surely, it only requires a modicum of maturity: a delineation of boundaries, and automatic penalty for anyone who oversteps. Football, though, genuflects so pitifully at the altar of celebrity that an air of entitlement is encouraged. Hence why Haaland felt able to explode at Hooper with foam-flecked fury, before feeding him to the mob. Here was a player acting in the confidence that such excesses would go unpunished. And sure enough, within a few hours, the FA proved him right.

In most areas of civilised society, wanton verbal abuse comes not just with the threat of a fine, but criminal prosecution. You see it everywhere, from supermarket queues to airport security screening, these warnings of the dire consequences of not treating staff with the respect they are owed. Except in football, the standard codes of dignity and decency are shredded. Players richer than Croesus can punch down in the well-founded belief that the authorities will do nothing to stop them.

Few dispute that Hooper made potentially a significant mistake on Sunday, initially playing advantage before blowing his whistle and denying Jack Grealish the one-on-one from which a City winner could have come. But in what world does this justify Haaland’s obscene over-reaction? It was intriguing to listen to Pep Guardiola afterwards. “Who doesn’t make mistakes in football, or in our lives?” he asked, rhetorically.

Except he was referring to his own players managing only a 3-3 draw. He was not talking about referees, those poor, put-upon figures held to a standard of infallibility that everybody else is spared. “Normal,” Guardiola said of Haaland’s response. It should be anything but normal. The spectacle of Haaland exploiting a power imbalance to humiliate the match’s ultimate arbiter should be deeply abnormal. And yet it is enabled by a game that gives its wealthiest protagonists carte blanche to indulge in casual thuggery. Football, for its own good, needs to grow up.

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