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The art of ignoring rules -- and blaming them when things go wrong
by Paul Gardner, February 14th, 2014 4:14PM

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TAGS:  fifa, mls, referees, toronto fc

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By Paul Gardner

I have some strange statements from top soccer people to deal with. We'll start at the top. With Sepp Blatter, who has been giving us his opinions on the "triple-punishment" dilemma.

The supposed dilemma, I should say -- to make things clear that I don’t see any problem here at all. We’re talking about penalty area incidents where a defender gives away penalty kick (punishment No. 1), gets himself red-carded (No. 2), and is subsequently suspended for at least one game (No. 3).

That is what the current rules call for, and it seems perfectly logical to me. But not to “the coaches” who, we are told in a Reuters story “have long complained” that the punishment is too harsh.

You can be pretty sure that when “the coaches” complain about rules being too harsh, their objection is going to be against something that tries to put tighter limits on defensive play. In particular, rough play.

Their argument in this, as in other, cases is specious. To start with, part of this triple punishment is the award of a penalty kick. That does not automatically mean a goal. If the goalkeeper, who may well have committed the foul, is not red-carded, he then has the chance of becoming the hero by saving the PK. In which case you can forget about triple punishment -- there may be no punishment at all: No ejection, no goal and no suspension. At worst, the offender may get a yellow.

One of the specific reasons for red-carding a defender who fouls in the area is when he denies his (fouled) opponent an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity (OGSO).” That is not easy to define, and to read the criteria that referees apply to it is to understand that they are trying to avoid making the call (the fouled attacker was too far from the goal, he was heading away from the goal, the angle was too narrow, there was another defender lurking who might just have got to the ball, the attacker was not in full control of the ball, and so on).

Possibly the only unarguable OGSO occurs when an attacker is confronted with an open goal ... but as players have been known to miss those gifts, we may have to narrow the definition down to extinction.

Blatter seems not to have a problem with the rule, but calls on referees to be more selective in giving out red cards. Fewer red cards, he means, therefore fewer “triple” punishments. More relief for the defenders. Which is something that soccer, already overloaded with attitudes that condone, even encourage, rough play does not need.

I think the rule should be left exactly as it is and that referees -- far from reducing red-card calls -- should possibly increase them by being less miserly in their definition of an OGSO. If coaches -- and defenders -- don’t like it, then they could do something that would actually be a positive contribution to the sport: Cut out the rough tackling.

And so to Toronto, where MLS regulations seem to be causing problems for Toronto FC as they try to build a team that will actually win something. This has to do with Designated Players, DPs. Toronto now has four of them, when MLS regulations say you can only have three.

Evidently someone at TFC either doesn’t know the MLS rules, or can’t count. Neither option seems likely. Earlier this year, TFC signed up a new GM in Tim Bezbatchenko. He arrived from the MLS offices and was boosted as someone whose particular strength was .... knowing all the ins and outs of the various MLS regulations.

Yet here is TFC having recently signed three DPs (Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto) when it was well aware that they already had a DP on their books, the young Argentine midfielder Matias Laba. Who was certainly one of their better players last season. But who would now have to be re-signed as a non-DP at an appreciably lower salary or, more likely, off loaded.

But Coach Ryan Nelsen really, really wants to keep Laba: “I love Matty, and he is such a good player.” An odd statement from a coach who has gone along with a situation that makes it almost inevitable that Laba has no future at Toronto. But the strangest comments come from Bezbatchenko, who told MLSsoccer.com that the MLS Designated Player rules are forcing TFC’s hand.

Agreed, MLS regulations do not, are not designed to, make it easy for its clubs to retain a lot of players on high salaries. Rather the opposite, in fact. Is that news to anyone? How can Bezbatchenko be in two minds about that? He is the expert, he knew the rules when he got into this.

We’ve witnessed exactly this tearing of hair and wringing of hands before -- in 2012 when Seattle, already carrying three DPs, decided to bring in a fourth, and were “forced” to unload Alvaro Fernandez (who they really, really, wanted to keep) to Chicago. Fernandez, a Uruguayan World Cup player, is now out of MLS, back to playing in Uruguay. It is quite possible that Laba, too, will leave MLS. Can it really be good thing for the league to lose players whom their coaches really, really want to keep? To blame MLS for these screw-ups shows, I think, a remarkably impudent lack of candor from the clubs.


11 comments
  1. Travis Solin
    commented on: February 14, 2014 at 5 p.m.
    The 3 DP rule is just that -- a rule -- and rules force you to do things. That's the point of them. So if you get a 4th DP, you are therefore forced to get rid of one. I think just because coaches or teams are "forced" to do something does not mean they are complaining or blaming, which is how you've framed your article. I don't really think that's a reasonable stance.

  1. James Buckner
    commented on: February 14, 2014 at 5:15 p.m.
    becoming the hero by saving the PK. In which case you can forget about triple punishment -- there may be no punishment at all: No ejection, no goal and no suspension. At worst, the offender may get a yellow. Are you saying that a card is not given until after the PK is taken?

  1. Zoe Willet
    commented on: February 14, 2014 at 6:25 p.m.
    I am in favor of anything that will decrease "rough play". As admittedly someone who has never played soccer, I don't think it has to be part of a central defender's (or others as well) job description to brutalize opponents. As for the DP issue, I don't understand why it is necessary to limit the number. Granted, without the limit the deep-pocketed teams (as across the pond with, say Man City) can garner more high-priced (and therefore better?) players, but so be it. Gives other billionaires a chance to splash in the pool.

  1. Gus Keri
    commented on: February 14, 2014 at 7:47 p.m.
    OGSO is not always the same. When a defender fouls an attacker, there is still a goalkeeper in the goal; while if the goalkeeper fouls an attacker, there is no body left in the goal. This makes PK equal to OGSO denied by a defender. Solution: Either PK and yellow card if inside the penalty area or red card and foul call outside the penalty area. It's fairer.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: February 14, 2014 at 8:14 p.m.
    The purpose of a red card for denying OGSOs is not to cut down on violence (fouls that lead to ejections in such cases need not be violent), but to eliminate cynical tactical fouls (the defender who takes down an offensive player just outside the box). In other words, the red card it supposed to change the calculus of the player thinking about committing a foul. As such, I think it is a good rule. But the way it is written (and enforced), the coaches are right; it can be too harsh, especially for goalkeepers. A goalkeeper committing a normal, run of the mill foul (accidentally catching the forward's foot as he dives for the ball, e.g.) not only gives up a pk (fair enough, given the foul did deny the OSGO), but is also ejected. A card under such circumstances makes no sense; this was not the cynical, tactical foul the card was intended to penalize (the gk did not choose to commit the foul). I think Gus's suggestion strikes the right balance; pk & yellow in the box, red if it's tactical foul outside the box (it would be better to give a yellow and a pk in such situations as well, but that's too radical for FIFA, I'm sure). If a foul in the box denying an OGSO were violent enough to warrant a red card, that should still be given, but for the violence, not denying the OSGO.

  1. tomek zaleski
    commented on: February 15, 2014 at 7:07 a.m.
    wrong - not specious in the least since the euro96 denial of ball over the line 'goal' to romania, videorefs marionetting onfield colleague clearly the ONLY way forward - ref decisions wrongly called that could be reversed by videoref in SECONDS are blighting the modern minutely examined from 16 angles game twice weekly and the rest offside rule a travesty, w first phase, second phase, interfering w play gibberish utterly irrational public ALWAYS cheated by dismissals, thus to be avoided wherever possible TOO FEW goals from helenio herrera era onwards : italy v france WC final 2006 has BOTH teams settling for a draw after an hour, ie halfway through actual game b4 dread penalties, which is settling a championship by ADMIN! grist to US sneering mill that 'soccer' is a communist plot ONLY MORE GOALS CAN SAVE 'SOCCER' how? MORE PENALTIES!! second yellow card for technical [non-violent]offence? RETAIN OFFENDER ON field : AWARD PENALTY last man foul outside the box? AWARD PENALTY last man foul INSIDE box? PENALTY GOAL violent/reckless play? RED CARD PLUS PENALTY : offender expelled, replaced by sub [possibly selected from bench by OPPOSITION!! coach] AND other side better compensated by PENALTY goalscoring opportunity AND spectators continue to see the 11 vs 11 spectacle WE HAVE EFFING PAID FOR!! remembering the collective bating of breath among c.36k spectators at the bridge 60 years ago evey time the ball played to tom finney, CFC vs PNE RIP STFinney

  1. tomek zaleski
    commented on: February 15, 2014 at 7:26 a.m.
    apologies : I have abandoned full stops for para spacing, but this is not recognised on this format, so result is impenetrable congestion of non-sentences above. here is an attempt at clarification : wrong - not specious in the least... since the euro96 denial of ball over the line 'goal' to romania, videorefs marionetting onfield colleague clearly the ONLY way forward... ref decisions wrongly called that could be reversed by videoref in SECONDS are blighting the modern minutely examined from 16 angles game twice weekly and the rest... offside rule a travesty, w first phase, second phase, interfering w play gibberish, utterly irrational... public ALWAYS cheated by dismissals, thus to be avoided wherever possible... TOO FEW goals from helenio herrera era onwards : italy v france WC final 2006 has BOTH teams settling for a draw after an hour, ie halfway through actual game b4 dread penalties, which is settling a championship by ADMIN!... grist to US sneering mill that 'soccer' is a communist plot... ONLY MORE GOALS CAN SAVE 'SOCCER' how? MORE PENALTIES!!... second yellow card for technical [non-violent]offence? RETAIN OFFENDER ON field : AWARD PENALTY... last man foul outside the box? AWARD PENALTY... last man foul INSIDE box? PENALTY GOAL... violent/reckless play? RED CARD PLUS PENALTY : offender expelled, replaced by sub [possibly selected from bench by OPPOSITION!! coach] AND other side better compensated by PENALTY goalscoring opportunity AND spectators continue to see the 11 vs 11 spectacle WE HAVE EFFING PAID FOR!!... remembering the collective bating of breath among c.36k spectators at the bridge 60 years ago evey time the ball played to tom finney, CFC vs PNE, RIP STFinney

  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: February 15, 2014 at 12:58 p.m.
    Tomek, your suggestion that more penalties is preferable and keeping all 22 on the pitch sounds decidedly...American. Part of the beauty of the game is the non-stop play. To halt play at one end to administer a PK at the other is anathema to the sport. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cxAuU5nReU

  1. tomek zaleski
    commented on: February 15, 2014 at 1:57 p.m.
    why anathema? to whom in the sport? videoreffing will ACCELERATE play w advantage played to a resolution, ball out, then retroactively adjusted. and he [she!] will stop the clock whenever the ball is DEAD : aleluja america!!! there is more timewasting in football than any other sport - the maureen complained that WHU were timewasting within TEN MINUTES of league match last month at the bridge. no such thing as non-stop play in football, 'professionalism'and cynicism have long, long destroyed it, first blatantly brought to uk shores by teams in euro games in early 60s awarding penalties for outfield offences will hardly decelerate anything at all. only by fully embracing technology can the spectacle be saved. today one man's split second, possibly badly sighted, decision can destroy the justice of an entire championship, as TWO BILLION viewers have that decision instantaneously stripped to bare bones by the 16 piranhameras around the ground, even as the spectacle on the pitch struggles to restart. I truly hope brazil are robbed of the WC by a reffing error this summer. only a concatenation of diabolical refs' decisions [poor sods, cannot ever again regain whatever authority they may have had] can create a pungent enough stink to redress the nonsense of ostrich head burying before the implacable revelations of the replay

  1. James Madison
    commented on: February 16, 2014 at 6:29 p.m.
    Rarely do I think and even rarely to I say huzzahs to Paul, but this is one of those cases. He's right, both with respect to the officating "dilemma" and also with respect to Toronto's whining.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: February 17, 2014 at 1:06 p.m.
    Tomek is right about video review of ref decisions (where it is available). This should not slow down the game appreciably if it were only done on game changing situations (pk fouls, goals and red cards). Close offside decisions would be allowed to play on (negating the bad offside call that denied a goal) because anything close would be reviewed if it mattered (led to a goal), so play would be stopped less often for offside restarts. I think the 4th official (or a specialized video official) would make the call as to whether a call should be reviewed. My only concern would be whether the center ref should be the one to make the ultimate call (since it is "his" game); the downside would be that it would take longer (for the CR to go look). A compromise would be for the 4th to be able to call the CR over (or the CR could choose on his own to review it). The bottom line is that there is no reason not to eliminate the most obvious bad calls that have an impact on the game.


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