After Sergio Agüero had vented his frustrations at Sian Massey-Ellis for not awarding a throw-in in the 41st minute of Manchester City’s 1-0 win against Arsenal on Saturday, the official walked away. Agüero then reached out and grabbed the base of the 35-year-old’s neck. Eyes firmly forward, Massey-Ellis flinched out of his touch and brushed it off.
It was over in a flash. But social media exploded. Clips of the incident went viral. I was one of those to watch, cringe and tweet – “Disgraceful, unprofessional and patronising.” Within 24 hours my post had 8,800 likes, 716 retweets and 236 comments.
So many men felt the need to reply with photos of male footballers up close and personal with various referees: Paul Pogba with a hand on a bald head; Lionel Messi with a hand on a shoulder; Cristiano Ronaldo nose-to-nose; and Agüero himself, with a finger pointed into a chest. Some claimed that pointing out the inappropriateness of the incident with Massey-Ellis was in fact sexist – they had caught this feminist out, and many delighted in their cleverness. Those were the more measured replies among several less tasteful ones. “Shut the fuck up he didn’t touch anyone inappropriately. Fucking older women making big deals about this go get you a man you divorced piece of shit” and “give your head a wobble you stupid cow”; and “he didn’t try to get laid or anything, take a chill pill” and “let’s be real he grabbed her shoulder he didn’t grab her ass”; and “plug in the iron love” and “stay at home just cooking”.
These responses are why it is not OK to brush aside these incidents without comment. Firstly, no player should be touching match officials. By July 2016, the problem was deemed to be so common that the Premier League, English Football League and the Football Association came together to introduce the rule that a yellow card would be issued to a player “for physical contact with any match official in a non-aggressive manner (eg an inquisitive approach to grab the official’s attention)”, while a red card would be issued for contact in “an aggressive or confrontational manner”.
That rule has not stopped contact, but it does give important power to the officials. That there was no immediate action taken against Agüero suggests Massey-Ellis did not report it. That does not mean it was not inappropriate, however.
Once again Massey-Ellis has found herself at the centre of a sexism storm not of her own making, and for many women working in football being seen to be making a fuss is potentially career stalling and, at worst, career ending.
“Myself and Wendy Toms were the first two women that came through the men’s professional game in the 90s,” says Janie Frampton, a former referee. “Both of us have said so many times since that we probably had too high a tolerance level at the time because we just wanted to fit in. Now, we’ve come on 30 years and we are still experiencing the same issues … Wendy and I were treated as a circus – I don’t want that to still be the case now.”
As the abuse resulting from my tweet continued to poured in, so did the replies from women, many who work in football in some capacity, creating a collective sigh at behaviour which, for them, feels all too familiar. One message came from a grassroots female referee thanking me for commenting on the issue they face “on a weekly basis” but feel they would be “laughed at” if they called it out.
Why these responses? Because women are sick of being touched inappropriately. Watching Agüero pull Massey-Ellis from behind and squeeze her neck, watching her eyes stay glued forward as she flinched away and seeing his hand slide across her back as he went to leave, resonated with our collective experience as women. Many may argue it was harmless, non-aggressive, playful, even a defusing of the situation, but it was not OK. It is not OK to touch a woman like that in her place of work, it is not OK to touch a woman like that in a club, it is not OK to touch a woman like that in a bar, it is not OK to touch a woman like that on a football pitch.
It would be hard to find a woman who has not had to cross a road to make sure they are not being followed, has not been inappropriately touched at some point, has not walked down a street holding their keys as an emergency weapon, has not turned music off at night to avoid hindering their senses, has not had someone touch their shoulder and been scared. This is the reality for women everywhere and this is the context.
Agüero has not commented on the incident and Pep Guardiola’s defence of him did not help matters. “Hey, come on guys. Come on guys,” he pleaded after City’s win on Saturday night. “Sergio is the nicest person I ever met in my life. We can look at the problems in other situations but not in this one. Come on.” The problem, Guardiola, is that nice guys are capable of doing bad things.
So, yes, male footballers touch referees, but there is a social and cultural context within which Agüero’s handling of Massey-Ellis exists and the fact Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the organising body for match officials, did not deem Agüero’s actions to have been threatening or aggressive, and thus worthy of retrospective punishment, shows they too perhaps just don’t get it.