Friday, January 30, 2015

8 Areas of the Laws of the Game that the IFAB should Clarify

In an earlier blog post, The Debate on Football, I listed seven areas of the game that I believe are not well understood by players, coaches, supporters, media and even referees, even those at the highest levels, let alone those at youth and grass roots levels, and which I think need clarification. The longer the game is played without the International Football Association Board addressing these issues, the longer we will allow controversy to rage.

I will go into more depth on each of these areas below, using screenshots from the Laws of the Game section of the FIFA website and example videos from Youtube.

1. Handling

For the most part it is understood that handling the ball is only an offence if it is deliberate. The problems arise in defining deliberate.

It is very rare that a player deliberately handles the ball. We can think of the occasional premeditated or instinctive handling offence, where a defending player deliberately moves their hands towards the ball to prevent a goal being scored, such as Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup Quarter-Final against Ghana, that are obvious to everyone watching and no-one disputes that an offence has occurred. More on that incident later.

After that we get into grey areas where there is not complete agreement between people who see the offence.

The general understanding now is that in addition to deliberate infractions, handling is an offence if the player who handled either had his or her arm in an unnatural position or was making himself or herself 'big'.

What is an unnatural position?

In general most people would agree that having an arm out parallel to the ground or raised above the head would be unnatural. But what about a player who is running a a few yards from a player who crosses the ball and attempts to block the cross? This is, in itself, a natural action by a defender, and it is very difficult to control where the arms will be when trying to legally block the ball. There is definitely some overlap with the concept of making yourself big. Sometimes defenders can be seen to make a concerted effort to keep their arms behind their bodies. Is this necessary? Should we punish players who don't go these lengths if the ball strikes their arm?

What about a player who is sprinting back to help out defensively and is unable to avoid contact with the ball with the hand that is raised as result of sprinting?

What about a player who is falling over in a challenge and in going down accidentally plays the ball with a hand? In general, having a hand on the surface of the pitch is not a natural position for a footballer, but it is natural for a player who is falling over.

At youth level, what about a player who is standing a few feet from the goal and has an easy chance to score with a header, but closes his eyes and as a result the ball makes contact with his hand instead of his head and then goes into the goal? It is not deliberate, his hands were in a natural position, yet he has gained an obvious advantage from his own poor play.

Finally, how is making yourself big defined?

A player standing on the goal line with arms outstretched is clear-cut enough, but what about a player attempting to close down an opponent who is about to play a fifty yard pass? As the player approaches the player with the ball, how much leeway is given to move their arms out to the side, thus potentially blocking the pass?

Personally when I referee, I try to determine whether the handling incident was reasonably avoidable. If I determine that it was, I will award a free-kick. If I determine that it wasn't, play will continue. This method leaves much to the opinion of the referee, though I would note that the way the laws of the game are written, that is the intention - to allow the referee to decide.

I don't know the answers to all the questions I've posed above, but I would like to see some consistency, which is why I think Handling needs clarification from the IFAB.

Sometimes it doesn't even appear that there is consistency within the same game by the same referee. The video below from the 2014 Scottish Cup semi-final includes a penalty awarded to Hearts 6:00 in, and then at 8:45 a similar incident at the other end not resulting in a penalty for Celtic. Perhaps the referee saw a key difference between the two incidents but to the average fan it is not clear what that difference is.

2. Foul Recognition

There is so much to discuss here.

Firstly, we need to note the key differences between the first seven offences and the last three offences. The last three are ALWAYS deemed to be offences, with the proviso that the referee can invoke the advantage clause to allow play to continue. The first seven are only deemed to be offences if the referee considers that they were committed in a way that was careless, reckless or using excessive force. People who are unfamiliar with the nomenclature may well be wondering about fouls that are deliberate but not careless, reckless or using excessive force. Trust me when I say they are included in this definition.

Anyone who has played the game is aware that there is a lot of contact during a game and that a large percentage of that contact is purely incidental. If the referee were to award a free-kick every time contact occurred, the game would be ruined as a spectacle as it would be constantly stopping and starting. No-one wants to see that, not players, referees, coaches, nor spectators. This applies most often to pushing, tripping, kicking an opponent (accidentally rather than violently) , jumping at an opponent or charging an opponent, although it's hard to imagine that striking an opponent would be anything other than deliberate. The exception to all of this is holding (e.g. grabbing part of an opponent's body or holding an opponent's shirt, however briefly) which is designed to arrest momentum, the theory being that this is always a deliberate action.

So it's clear the way this Law is worded that there is leeway for referees to make a judgement call as to whether to ignore certain types of contact while punishing others. This is why I get so annoyed when I hear a commentator justifying a player diving by saying, "Well, there WAS contact." Maybe, but a lot of the time the contact is so insignificant that it wouldn't cause a five year-old to fall over, let alone a fit and strong footballer. If that same sort of contact happened in a busy shopping mall it wouldn't be enough for the player to fall to the ground and then justify it on the basis that "there was contact."

A second factor to consider is that quite often the contact is clearly avoidable but deliberately initiated by the player who goes down. I've heard professional players justify this action by saying the opponent shouldn't have put themselves in a position where the player with the ball can run into them. I say this is utterly wrong, against both the spirit of the game and the intent of the Law, and is actually a form of cheating.

The example below shows just such a case. Ashley Young of Manchester could easily avoid Sunderland's Wes Brown, but instead chooses to start going down before any contact is made, knowing his momentum will carry him into his opponent.

Time for a clarification please, IFAB! And remember, the LOTG apply to all football, including youth and grass roots.

3. Stoppage Time

The amount of stoppage time added to matches is laughable in its inconsistency. Let's have some sensible guidelines so the amount of additional time is somewhat transparent. How much time should be added on for lengthy goal celebrations, substitutions, injuries or deliberate delays of the game?

Once upon a time it was suggested that each substitution should result in an additional thirty seconds being played. This suggestion did not take into account that replaced players from teams that are winning tend to leave the field much more slowly, often going out of their way to 'sportingly' shake hands with the referee as they slowly leave the field, than players from teams that are losing. Nevertheless, a well-known BBC radio commentator persists in repeating this myth every time he commentates on a friendly international in which each team has made six changes, sneeringly saying there should be at least six minutes just for the substitutes, when the board held up by the fourth official shows three minutes.

I have seen two back-to-back Premier League matches which both had three minutes added to the second half, in which the first match saw five second half substitutions, four goals, a two-minute injury break and three bookings, while the second half of the second match had no goals, no injuries, no bookings and just four quickly carried out substitutions. How on earth can both matches have the same amount of stoppage time?

Part of the problem is that there are no clear guidelines and referees probably estimate how much time to add rather than actually keep track, which would be an additional difficult task on top of everything else they are trying to do.

Another problem is that players who delay the restart of play are often not punished with a yellow card, so additional time continues to be unnecessarily wasted throughout the course of the match until action is finally taken. Below is a list of possible yellow card infractions for what used to be known as time-wasting.

A further consideration is that typically referees won't end the game unless the ball is in neutral territory. Very often they will let a team take a corner to see if they can score, but on a goal-kick as soon as the ball is kicked and has left the penalty area, the final whistle will blow with the ball in mid-air.

Stoppage time is also typically reduced if one team has an unassailable lead, such as when ten minutes are lost to injury but only two additional minutes are played because a team is winning 7-0. But this actually seems a little unfair in a competition that could be decided by goal difference.

Here's an example from an MLS match in 2013 of the referee finishing a match when New England, leading 2-1, are about to score a third goal. If DC United, losing 2-1 at the time, had been about to score an equaliser, would full-time have been whistled? The incident in question begins with a corner to DC United 8:40 into the video.

If referees would ensure a fair amount of added time, maybe we wouldn't see these ridiculous confrontations after a goal is scored when a player from the team that has scored rushes into the goal and tries to grab the ball off the goalkeeper or a defender who is holding it.

"Provoking a confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play" is a yellow card offence and the team that has just scored has no more right to the ball when their opponents will be restarting the game with a kick-off from halfway than they do if their opponents will be restarting the game with a goal-kick, free-kick, corner or throw-in.

Finally, there have been studies done that indicate that certain teams ('big' teams, home teams, etc.) are given more time to score when they are losing than 'small' teams or visiting teams.

In the interests of fairness and transparency, the IFAB needs to clarify how stoppage time should be calculated.

4. Offside

Although many people do not understand the Offside Law well, for the most part, referees, players, coaches, TV pundits and commentators and knowledgeable fans have no problem with most of it.

Interfering with play, despite what Bill Shankly may have said, is now defined as actually touching the ball. That's easy to understand. There is an objective criterion which leaves no leeway for the referee to make a subjective decision.

Interfering with an opponent is also spelled out. It involves a little leeway for the opinion of the referee to come into play. Note that a player is in an offside position who may be distracting the goalkeeper or defenders is not considered to be interfering with an opponent, unless the player either obstructs the vision of an opposing team player (which would presumably usually be the goalkeeper, but could theoretically also be a defender) or challenges an opponent for the ball.

An article about the winning goal scored by Tom Huddlestone in a Premier League game between Fulham and Tottenham discusses this point. The then Fulham manager, Mark Hughes, surely had a point when he said, "Mark Schwarzer has to hold his position until the ball actually reaches where Gallas is, because he is thinking that at some point Gallas may stick out a toe and deflect it. To say he is not interfering and not in the goalkeeper's eyeline is completely at odds with the truth."

Now we come to the third part. What is meant by gaining an advantage?

A ball that rebounds off the posts or crossbar is easy to understand. Again, there is no room for subjectivity here. Either the ball rebounded off the frame of the goal or it didn't.

The confusion and subjectivity arises when a player who was in an offside position when the ball was last played by a teammate, receives a ball via a touch by an opponent. The law, as written, divides this scenario into three different situations:

i. The ball merely rebounds of an opponent who made no attempt to deliberately play it. In this situation, the opponent counts the same as a post or the crossbar, and the attacking player is ruled to be offside.
ii. The ball rebounds or deflects to the attacker as the result of a deliberate save (usually by the goalkeeper, but again theoretically it could be by a defender). In this situation the attacking player is again ruled to be offside.
iii. The ball reaches the attacking player via a touch from an opponent who made a deliberate attempt to play the ball. This could be, for example, intercepting a deliberate pass back to the goalkeeper, or it could be from a defender attempting to intercept a pass intended for the attacking player, who only manages a slight contact and doesn't prevent the ball reaching its intended target. In situations such as these, the player is NOT deemed to be offside.

This means that if a defender is unsure as to whether an attacker is going to be called offside, there is a risk in attempting to intercept a pass:

- If he is successful, fine. The offside decision becomes moot.
- If he doesn't manage to touch the ball, he's lost nothing. His opponent may still be called offside.
- But if he touches the ball but not enough to prevent it reaching the attacker, he's ensured that his opponent is now definitely onside, when there's a chance he would have been offside if he hadn't attempted the interception.

Under the Law as outlined above, it appears that a new phase of play is considered to have begun when either an opponent of a player in the offside position deliberately plays the ball, or a teammate of the player touches the ball, deliberately or not. Once this new phase of play has begun, whether or not a player had been offside is irrelevant and the player's offside status has to be recalculated.

This also means that a player who is potentially offside by twenty yards can run into the opposing penalty area unmarked and score if an onside team-mate takes possession and then passes the ball back to the 'offside' player. The Law says that this is not gaining an advantage. A lot of football people would disagree. 

There is a huge amount of leeway for subjectivity with regard to did the ball merely rebound from an opponent, or was the opponent attempting to make a save, or did the opponent deliberately play the ball, particularly when the ball doesn't go in the direction intended. This is inevitably going to result in inconsistency of interpretation not only between different confederations and countries, but also between referees in the same league. It is this "gaining an advantage"part of the Offside law that I believes require clarification from the IFAB, along with the distribution of some really good educational materials.

5. Consistency of Cards

Sometimes certain fouls are punished with yellow cards, while similar fouls just result in a free-kick. A foul that would normally result in a yellow card may not be punished if the offender already has a yellow card. Fouls early in the match may not be punished with a card while the same foul later on sees the offender punished. A player may commit six fouls with no card, while another receives a yellow card for persistent infringement after two or three fouls. It is understood that cards are a management tool for referees, but increased consistency should still be encouraged.

Especially early in the game, referees may shy away from giving cards, even though the LOTG make no reference to the amount of time played in the section on Cautionable Offences. I've heard commentators say that the referee has caused himself problems by awarding an early card, because now he has to punish similar fouls the same way. It's not an argument I entirely agree with, because by clearly punishing a bad early foul, the referee can convey the message to everyone at the stadium that that type of foul is not going to be permitted, thereby possibly proactively preventing similar fouls from occurring.

It seems particularly wrong that a player who has already been given a yellow card can commit a foul easily worthy of a second yellow card and be let off. One of the reasons for giving a card in the first place is to attempt to change the behaviour of the player receiving it. By showing that he has been unwilling or unable to change his behaviour, surely the player is not deserving of leniency.

It is also common to see blatant dissent during top level matches and very rare to see it being punished. This sets a terrible example for grass roots players. It certainly isn't tolerated in rugby, where the punishment is usually to move the restart forward ten yards closer to the goal-line.

Ultimately, once again, what is needed is consistency. It is understood that all games are different and no two incidents are exactly the same, but there is enough obvious inconsistency to confuse people who play, coach and watch the game.

Of course there are occasions when cards are correctly given early in matches. Here's the Colorado Rapids goalkeeper being given a red card for DOGSO in the first thirty seconds of an MLS game. The incident occurs about 57 seconds into the video.

Here's a second yellow card wrongly awarded to a player removing his shirt as he is walking off the field to be substituted, meaning he is now sent off and cannot be replaced. According to the LOTG, the yellow card for removing a shirt only applies to celebrating a goal.

6. Denying an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity

Note that "Denying a Goal" ONLY applies to handling the ball to prevent it entering the goal, as in the aforementioned Luis Suarez incident against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.

"Denying an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity" (DOGSO) can apply to any foul that results in a free-kick to the opposing team. There is disagreement among some as to whether this can also include handling the ball because the argument goes that handling is not an offence committed against an opponent, but instead against a team. My interpretation is that it should be included. Otherwise a player who handles a stationary ball to prevent an opponent from kicking it into an empty net could not be sent off. Likewise, a goalkeeper who leaves the penalty area and handles a ball that is flicked over him but would not reach the goal without an additional touch from an attacker could also not be sent off for DOGSO if handling doesn't count.

There is huge inconsistency in the interpretation of DOGSO between countries and referees. In England, many people believe, "If he's the last man he has to go." In the United States the four D's are used (Direction of play, number of Defenders, Distance from the ball, Distance from the goal). If any of those four criteria doesn't check the right box, DOGSO is considered not to have occurred.

In the real world, DOGSO is probably located somewhere between those two extremes. The referee should try to subjectively determine the likelihood that a goal would have been scored considering the four D's but not being a slave to them.

Certainly being "the last man" should not be, in and of itself, the sole criterion for the referee giving a red card, as happened to Mikel Arteta of Arsenal in a match away to Crystal Palace in 2013. The clash happened near both the centre circle and the touchline and there were defenders racing back who could conceivably have prevented Marouane Chamakh from even being able to attempt a shot. Ignoring the fact that the collision was as much instigated by Chamakh, who was running away from the ball, as it was by Arteta, who was running towards the ball, it is certainly questionable as to whether it was an obvious goalscoring opportunity. (The cynics among the Arsenal fans were heard to mutter that even if Chamakh were two yards out with the ball at his feet and an open goal, it still wouldn't be an obvious goalscoring opportunity, but that's a separate issue.)

Another consideration for the IFAB should be how to punish these DOGSO fouls. Should it be a yellow card, time in a sin bin, a red card, a red card plus a suspension or some other punishment? Does it make any difference if a goal is scored from a resulting penalty? What if the offence occurred outside  the penalty area? Should the intent of the player committing the offence be taken into consideration? The current 'Triple Punishment' seems especially harsh when a defender receives his marching orders for an unintentional and possibly questionable foul that doesn't prevent an obvious goalscoring opportunity.

7. Encroachment at Penalty Kicks

Penalty kicks are a special type of free kick, awarded to the attacking team when an infringement that would have otherwise resulted in a direct free kick takes place in the penalty area.

There are some significant differences between how penalty kicks are conducted and how direct free kicks are conducted.

On just about every penalty kick taken at the highest levels of the game, it is easy to spot encroachment by players entering the penalty area too quickly, and yet instances where the referee chooses to apply the law and order a retake are so rare as to be noteworthy.

Here's what happens when a referee applies the letter of the law (video quality not the best).

Surely the point of the rules on encroachment is to prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage in the event that the ball remains in play, which happens relatively infrequently. Therefore, I believe it's time for the IFAB to reconsider the law so that it is only applied when a player who encroaches actually touches the ball. And when this actually happens, it should be applied mercilessly.

This would mean that, no matter who encroaches into the penalty area:

a) if a goal is scored directly from the penalty-kick, it would be awarded.
b) if the goalkeeper catches the ball, play would continue with the goalkeeper in possession.
c) if the ball goes directly out of play, the match would restart with a goal-kick (or throw-in).

d) if the goalkeeper deflects the ball out of play, the match would continue with a corner (or throw-in).
e) if the ball rebounds off the post, crossbar or goalkeeper, play would continue if the ball is not touched by a player who has encroached.

The penalty-kick would only be retaken if the ball rebounds to a player from the defending team who has encroached. I was considering the possibility that this should be indirect free-kick, but to be consistent with how encroachment at a direct free-kick is handled (i.e. a retake), I am opting for a retake of the penalty.

In the event an attacking player who has encroached touches the ball first from a rebound, a free-kick would be awarded to the defending team at the spot where the player touched the ball. Indirect or direct, take your pick; it's unlikely to make a significant difference.

On the other hand, encroachment by a goalkeeper (leaving the goal-line before the kick has been taken) should always be punished with a retake when a goal isn't scored, even if the ball is shot high or wide by the taker, because the very act of moving forward reduces the amount of space that is available for the kicker to score into, and therefore gives the goalkeeper an unfair advantage.

Here's an example of a rare, twice retaken penalty in an MLS match between the Portland Timbers and DC United due to goalkeeper encroachment. It still seems to be relatively rare that the assistant referee, whose sole job is to look for encroachment by the goalkeeper, actually flags when a goalkeeper has infringed.

In passing I would note that there have been at least three incidents I am aware of when a referee has made a serious technical error when ruling that encroachment has occurred.

The first occurred in a very important match between Uzbekistan and Bahrain in a World Cup Qualifying match in 2005. I don't have a video of the incident, but the referee ruled that an attacking player had encroached and instead of allowing Uzbekistan to retake the kick, he awarded an indirect free-kick to Bahrain. Uzbekistan went on to win the match 1-0, FIFA ordered a rematch because of the serious nature of the refereeing error, the replayed game ended 1-1, and Bahrain went on to win the two-legged tie on aggregate before succumbing to Trinidad & Tobago in the intercontinental play-off that followed.

The second occurred very recently, in a group match between New Zealand and New Caledonia in the Oceania Under 17 championship played in January 2015 in Samoa and American Samoa. With New Zealand leading 3-1, New Caledonia were awarded a penalty. A goal was scored but the referee ordered a retake because players from both teams were adjudged to have encroached.

From the retake, a goal was again scored, but the referee ruled that an attacking player had encroached. Instead of permitting another retake, he made the same error as the Japanese referee had made in the Uzbekistan-Bahrain match in 2005, awarding an indirect free-kick to New Zealand. New Caledonia went on to lose the match 4-5. There was no FIFA-ordered replay in this game, even though the team that had been cheated eventually lost.

Here's a video of the highlights of the match. The penalty incident begins at 2:30. Even though the goal was disallowed, it isn't obvious in the video.

The third incident occurred in April 2015 in a Women's U-19 match between England and Norway. England scored from the penalty but the referee decided there was encroachment from another England player (honestly, I don't believe there was) and after a brief debate she decided the game should restart with an indirect free-kick to Norway. England appealed successfully and the last few minutes of the match were replayed beginning with the original penalty-kick.

8. Throw-ins Taken from the Wrong Place

Here is a goal from last weekend in La Liga. The ball boy quickly throws the ball to the Celta Vigo player (the visiting team no less) who takes the throw from too far up the pitch and a goal is scored. Most of the players seem to still be watching the ball that has just been kicked out.

Here is a controversial incident from the Finnish League that occurred because the officials didn't insist that the throw-in be taken at roughly the right spot. As a result, two balls are put into play 35-40 yards apart and are briefly both on the field, with a goal scored and ultimately awarded using the ball that was probably thrown in from much too far up the touchline.

At a lot of the refereeing training sessions I have attended I have been told that throw-ins shouldn't be focused on too much, because they are just a fifty-fifty way of returning the ball into play. My response to that is always that the teams these people have been refereeing must be very poorly coached. A well-coached team should retain possession 90% of the time from their own throw-in.

My forty plus years as a player make me fully aware that players who take throw-ins from the wrong place almost always know what they are doing and are trying to gain an unfair advantage.

I especially note that when the ball leaves the field of play near the corner flag, it is almost never thrown back in at the correct spot. Defending players don't want to get boxed in and attacking players want a bit of space to work with. It has got to the stage that I'm thinking maybe it's time to consider a rule change that would permit any ball that goes out of play within ten yards of the corner to be returned to play from any point within ten yards of the corner. At least that way the honest players won't be disadvantaged like they are now. This seems to be pretty much the unwritten rule anyway.

Finally, speaking of throw-ins, if you've made it this far, you deserve a laugh. Here's what can happen when a player encroaches at a throw-in. Perhaps he should have protected his face instead of the part of his body he did protect. Good, proactive refereeing would have prevented this from happening. Opponents must be at least two yards from the player throwing the ball, but this player seems to be about a foot from the line. Unbelievably, he chooses to, and is permitted to, stand in the exact same place again when play restarts.

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