Kim Milton Nielsen | The politics of postponements

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Besides two recent high-profile examples of a change in schedules in the world of football, we have just seen the postponement of sporting events in the wake of the tragic loss of life due to the earthquakes in Mexico and we have also all had to come to terms with the potential consequences of heightened security.

While I was fortunate that in my entire time as a referee I was never required to make such a call, it does not mean there were no close shaves or that I was not prepared for any eventuality.

I also clearly remember the day of 9/11, when myself and my team landed in Athens having been in the air during the attack on the Twin Towers of Manhattan in 2001.

There was a distinctly unsettling atmosphere in the city that we just could not work out, and it was only when we reached our hotel that we saw footage on the news and the atmosphere suddenly made sense to us.

FIFA took the decision to postpone the following day’s Champions League and UEFA Cup ties, even though some went ahead on the night of the attack itself. Our game was Olympiakos versus Manchester United and the strangest thing was that we attended the security meeting at 10 on the morning of the 10th, completed it and left with no mention of a postponement.

It took a phone call from the secretary at my own national federation to spell out the reality, and even then there was some humour, because when they said my game was off I immediately assumed they were talking about the weekend.

Croatia’s Luka Modric in action on the waterlogged pitch

What must have happened was that FIFA prioritised informing the associations of their decision over informing the venues. I had a business meeting which meant a transfer to Leeds/Bradford instead of accompanying my assistants to Copenhagen via Heathrow on the 11th, so I luckily avoided the lengthy delays they experienced as they made their way home.

In World Cup qualification, Croatia versus Kosovo kicked off at the Maksimir Stadium 16 years on, and torrential rain was the cause of an abandonment which left plenty of the players unhappy with the rescheduling to 1430 local time the following day, Sunday, September 3. As the referee you may feel that you have slightly more input, but you are really at the mercy of the owner of the venue or the police at times such as these.

The latter played a large part in the hour’s delay to the Arsenal versus Cologne Europa League fixture, of course, and I must say from the pictures on TV it looked a truly awful situation when so many unexpected spectators descended on the Emirates.

You must anticipate that you are likely to come under a degree of pressure now and again from those around you in their various roles, but as I said, it never fell to me either to call off a game  or keep a crowd waiting before kicking off late.

The closest I came was the threat of snowfall, which was always cleared in time to go ahead, and one further occasion when, coincidentally, some German fans, albeit of the national team, appeared to be determined to find a fight when they visited Luxembourg, a far shorter trip than the one undertaken by Cologne this month!

General view of police and FC Koln fans outside the stadium

It was October, 1990 and our dressing room window gave us almost too good a perspective on the results of their late arrival, so we knew there was a problem, but we followed the police advice we were given, as well as my own instinct to always keep to your scheduling as far as possible, and we kicked off on time.

Back in April this year Dortmund postponed a Champions League fixture by 24 hours after an explosion next to the team bus which left one of their players injured, and again UEFA took the decision out of the hands of the officials. Such incidents remain, thankfully, few and far between.

Until next time, vi ses, or see you later, and stay safe.