NICOSIA (Reuters) - There are few more hazardous occupations in world sport at the moment than being a referee in the Cypriot football league with officials on the Mediterranean island having suffered six criminal attacks in a year.
“The police have told us flat out that they cannot protect us and that they are unable to make any arrests in connection with incidents against referees, so what can we do?," a Cyprus Referees' Association (CRA) representative told Reuters.
"We have asked the Justice Minister to take action but again he says he is doing all he can. If he can’t help us who should we ask for help, the Minister of Agriculture?”
Referees have always been considered a soft target for Cypriot football hooligans seeking to vent their anger and the sport has been hit by allegations of corruption.
There has also been a worrying upsurge in violence.
A car used by top referee Leontios Trattos was set alight this month, the second incident involving him after his car was destroyed in a bombing attempt last year.
In February, a car belonging to the wife of a referee was torched.Such incidents have occasionally led to referees boycotting games. But the CRA has this time refused to give in to intimidation and will not ask its members to go on strike in response to continued acts of violence.
“A necessary pre-requisite for the smooth running of league matches is to secure referee safety and that needs to be immediately comprehended by the football association, who we demand leads these attempts,” a CRA statement said.The CRA also believes clubs must act in a more responsible manner because they often stoke fires before big matches by inciting fans to intimidate referees. Incensed supporters often direct their anger over their team's failings at officials.
Referee Marios Panayi told Reuters the system needed a complete overhaul, from the implementation of stricter laws to the clearing out of high-ranking officials at the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) and CRA who have been around for far too long.“To be fair to the CFA, they can’t really do anything to prevent these so-called fanatics attacking referees but there are a number of high-ranking officials within the association who provoke certain feelings because various groups feel they are prejudiced against them,” he said.
Panayi, a former international referee, has withdrawn from refereeing this season, tired of Cypriot football which he believes has been plagued for years by vested interests.The CFA said in a March 17 statement that the fact the police had made no arrests in connection to incidents against referees encouraged outraged fanatics to terrorise referees.
“The CFA would like to express its sorrow but also its indignation because there has not been until now an effective response to the continued attacks against referees,” it said.Referees make mistakes in Cyprus, which happens in all countries, the CFA said, adding it is impossible to prevent mistakes and calling on everyone to show understanding and be more tolerant of Cypriot referees.“Those to blame for the hostile climate towards referees, even if it is involuntary, are those that defame them for mistakes that are often insignificant,” the CFA said.
“We are all witness, after all, to serious refereeing mistakes made by international referees who take part in leagues around Europe”.
The police say they are doing everything possible to solve the cases but the dearth of willing witnesses has hampered any investigations.“People need to understand that the police cannot be everywhere on a 24-hour basis but we are available if any member of the public has information that can help prevent or solve a crime,” the police said in a statement.They are calling on anyone involved in football, even if they wish to remain anonymous, to come forward and help the police make arrests which would hopefully act as a deterrent against those targeting referees.Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou was quick to jump to the defence of the police force despite their having not made any arrests in cases where referees were targeted.“The CFA should first reflect upon their share of the blame. Inflammatory statements made by team officials that incite violence are also to blame for these incidents,” Nicolaou said.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)