English football · English league · Laws of the game · Other sports · Playing football · Referees

The Rules of The Game

So another weekend of refereeing controversies:

Referees make mistakes. Over the course of a league season, bad decisions that go for or against any particular club even out, so the final table usually is a fair reflection of the quality of each club.

The controversy surrounding the penalty awarded against Liverpool in its match against Chelsea earlier in the season can be contrasted with the decisions that went in its favour in the recent Merseyside derby.

Unfortunately, refereeing decisions appear to influence the outcome of top level football matches more than referees and umpires do at the top levels of any other sport.

Football is a simple game – a contest between two teams of 11 players in accordance with the laws of the game.

Controversial refereeing decisions, especially on sendings off and penalties, detract from the real contest and spoil the game.

The decision made 6 years ago referees at the top level to be paid has not significantly improved the situation.

Given what is at stake in the Premier League, referees are paid a pittance. As the old adage goes, if you pay peanuts ….

There are still too many headmasters and others of the ilk refereeing at the top level, who are too quick to punish players harshly for incidents that fall within the scope of the normal cut and thrust of a fast-paced, physical game.

Perhaps training former professional players to become referees would be one solution, and paying them a salary commensurate with the pressures and demands of refereeing in the Premier League would be one step forward. Referees who have experience of playing at top levels would be better qualified to make sensible decisions on the pitch and in the heat of the moment.

Games at the top level of English football are faster than they have ever been. No matter how fit a referee, keeping up with the pace of the game is hard enough, without having to make difficult decisions. The authorities need to conduct a thorough review of how to best deploy the referee, his two assistant and the fourth official, as well as modern technology, to minimize, and if possible, eliminate, contentious or controversial decisions.

A fundamental consideration would involve going back to basics, and to interpret the laws of the game sensibly, in accordance with their plain wording, rather than in accordance with a series of FA or FIFA directives.

For example, Law 12 should require intentional conduct before a penalty is awarded or a player sent off.

Unfortunately, the rule that makes it a foul to make contact with an opponent before touching the ball when tackling an opponent to gain possession of the ball is poorly drafted. Taken literally, if a player touches an opponent before winning the ball off him, it is a foul. If so, football would no longer be a contact sport. Clearly, tackling refers to a sliding tackle, but should it apply to all sliding tackles? What the rule seeks to prohibit is reckless tackling, and if that is the case, it should state as such, and not be worded as ambiguously as it is.

What the laws should aim to curtail and punish are deliberate fouls and violent or reckless conduct.

The benefit of the doubt should always be exercised in favour of not stopping play (whether for a foul or offside), and against booking or sending off a player. Referees appear to presume intention whenever the foul looks bad. Such a presumption does not arise from the laws of the game.

Ultimately, and as far as possible, every game should be about the contest and qualities of the two teams of players on the pitch, and not about refereeing decisions.

Surprisingly, Howard Webb, one of the few referees to perform well in a high profile match this season, in the game between Arsenal and Manchester United in November, came in for criticism from Sir Alex Ferguson after the game.

As long as the interpretation of the laws of the game and the manner in which referees handle games give rise to controversy, a significant number of managers, players and fans will continue to feel justified in speaking out against apparent injustices on the pitch, regardless of whether there is in fact any merit to their complaint.

(Article first published on BBC 606:


8 thoughts on “The Rules of The Game

  1. In reply to

    You confuse knowing and understanding the laws of the game with ‘knowing the game’. In non-league football many ageing players take up the whistle as a way of giving something back. On course they are often heard to say “Well I never knew that”.

    Perhaps you missed the point in “training” former professional to be referees. There are of course still minimum standards to be met.

    In the same way that while the vast majority of managers at the top levels of the game are former professionals, not every former professional will make a good manager at the top levels of the game.

    (First posted on BBC 606)

  2. In reply to

    I hate this saying “Over the course of the season bad decisions even themselves out”. We’ll being a Liverpool fan im still waiting for the Chelsea penalty decision to even itself out. Now we have just been awarded another shocker agaisnt us vs Reading???? I hope this does’nt cost us. The Ref saying sorry on a monday morning again (Like the Chelsea game) will just not do.

    Reading’s second and third goals had nothing to do with bad decisions.

    While I won’t deny that Liverpool have been unlucky on many occasions over the past few seasons, over the course of a season, refereeing decisions do tend to favour the big clubs, including Liverpool.

    (First posted on BBC 606)

  3. In reply to

    Having watched the Everton v Arsenal game on Saturday it seems that Arteta was very harshly dealt with in being sent off as Fabregas completely over-reacted holding his face when he was struck on the neck.The elbow was only slightly bent and not lifted or swung with any force and seemed to have to been put up to hold off Fabregas whose arm was also raised at shoulder level.Where one cannot condone a full violent swinging arm done with intent to cause injury this was certainly not that but met by the same punishment and it seems clear as seems to be the way now that Fabregas collapsed he was looking to get Arteta sent off.
    Referees are being conned by players in a number of ways and this seems to be an increasing trend.It was made even more ludicrous by Alan Shearer-the great leader into contact with his arms up saying what a dreadful challenge it was on MOTD,when TV replay should it wasn’t.
    There has to do more done to prevent genuine physical contact in football being outlawed by cheating players conning referees eg evertime someone raises their arms up it is a red card.It can is done in a fair way and without intent to cause injury.

    We should actually go back and look at the laws of the game.

    Many of the ex-footballers on TV calling for players to be sent off seem to have forgotten what actually playing is about.

    (First posted on BBC 606)

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