Foul? What foul?

After his Galaxy had lost a rather tedious Pan-Pacific final to the Koreans of Suwong Samsung, Bruce Arena gave his opinion of the red card given to Galaxy defender Sean Franklin. He was terse: "I didn't see the play, whether he showed studs or not or whatever ... I don't know."

Fair enough. Arena is certainly not the first coach who failed to see a foul by one of his own players. He didn't see the play , so obviously he cannot have an opinion. But even when coaches -- and players and fans and journalists -- do see the play, even when they've seen the replay, even when they've re-run the replay, even then, there are going to be plenty of them who do not see the foul .

Yesterday in an EPL game Newcastle's Kevin Nolan got himself red-carded for a foul -- a tackle that I have seen variously described as "violent" and "a horror." An opinion not shared by all, it seems (I have no opinion on this one -- I didn't see the game). On the BBC's live EPL website, a text message was received: "Anyone that knows how to play football will realize that Nolan actually intended on shielding the ball and was just unfortunate."

Possibly that was a Newcastle fan, showing his home-team bias, maybe not. Such bias was to be heard over the weekend from players -- top players, too. Barcelona's Xavi and Lionel Messi both blamed the referee for their loss to Espanyol, citing his ejection of Seydou Keita as the reason for their problems. This one I did see. I assume the referee was acting under the official Rule 12 interpretation that "A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play." And serious foul play means an automatic red card.

Well, Keita launched himself full speed at Moises, feet first. The tackle was ill-timed. Keita arrived after the ball had gone, and comprehensively crunched into Moises' legs, bringing him heavily down. Careless? Reckless? Definitely. Endangering an opponent? I would say so. But Messi and Xavi saw it differently. Because they are Barca players, of course.

That's the difficulty with fouls. You see what you want to see. Except that the referee -- and journalists -- are supposed to be objective. But of course, they're not -- they can't be, not all the time. It's asking too much.

Referees far too frequently ignore defensive fouls because they don't like having to give a penalty kick. And journalists? Actually I'm thinking more of television commentators -- particularly the Brits we get doing EPL games. Many of them are not journalists, but ex-players. They also -- like referees -- have a bias in favor of defenders. The thinking here seems to be that a rough tackle has to be really rough to warrant a red card -- or even a yellow. A phrase that is heard repeatedly is "he went down too easily" -- it is used to justify a referee's non-call, and is, in effect, an accusation of diving.

The rules do not help; that line about "excessive force" is open to a wide range of interpretations. The idea that there's no foul unless there's a violent tackle was evident over the weekend during the Manchester United vs. Blackburn Rovers game. When referee Howard Webb showed a yellow card to Cristiano Ronaldo for diving, the commentator adjudged that Ronaldo "went over far too easily," and 10 minutes later when ManU's Rafael appeared to bring down Morten Gamst Pedersen, it was Pedersen's turn to be accused of "going down far too easily."

This makes no sense at all. It takes very little force to bring down a player running at any sort of speed, the slightest trip can easily upend a player. Looking at the replays, it is quite possible that Blackburn defender Gael Givet did step on Ronaldo's foot; and more than likely that Rafael did trip Pedersen. In both cases referee Webb sided with the defenders -- though I suppose it must have been Ronaldo's reputation that earned him a yellow, while Pedersen went unpunished. That deepens the mystery of Webb's thinking process: either Rafael fouled (in which case, penalty to Blackburn), or Pedersen dived (yellow to Pedersen) or we're left to assume that Pedersen accidentally tripped himself up.

So what should Ronaldo and Pedersen have done? Even assuming that it was possible, should they have tried to stay on their feet, staggering while losing control of the ball? Would they then have got the call? Of course not ... precisely because they managed to remain upright!

Maybe someone can come up with a finely worded definition of "going over too easily"?

4 comments about "Foul? What foul?".
  1. John Molinda, February 23, 2009 at 12:36 p.m.

    It was refreshing to read an article that for once supports, at least to some degree, the use of red cards to control the game. All of your comments regarding the use of red cards, the bias in favor of defenders etc. are amplified 10 times in the American youth soccer world...especially the womens game.

    I estimate that my daughter, who will be playing at Penn State next year, has played in over 400 youth soccer games between club (including regionals and nationals), ODP, and high school and she has NEVER seen a red card shown for a foul in any of the games...she's probably only seen two handfuls of yellow cards in all those games. She is fortunate to have had only two shoulder separations, a handful of concussions, charlie horses, ligament sprains, muscle pulls etc. Her sisters career ended with two ACL tears due to violent tackles from behind.

    I believe that Rule 12 exists for several reasons, one of which is to prevent careers from being prematurely ended. Most youth soccer referees and officials that I have spoken to don't even know Rule 12 or what it specifies. To them the whole issue on the use of cards comes down to whether the tackle "got ball" or not. Where is this stated in the laws of soccer? A player can crush another player on a recless, clumsy tackle as long as they get a small piece of the ball in the process. Even if they "miss ball" they will rarely get even a yellow card if the official thinks that their reckless, clumsy dangerous tackle was not intended to injure the other player.

    I once had a discussion with the Director in charge of training soccer referees for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association about this and he told me flat out that he believes the FIFA laws of soccer are a terrible set of rules for High School soccer. He said that in order to forster more "inclusion" of athletes of all abilities in the high school game they specifically instuct the referees to avoid the use of yellow and red cards for physical fouls (they are free to use them for language and disrespect). Instead, they are instructed to control the physical game by "coaching" and talking to the cards. This kind of "coaching" or talking to the reckless, dangerous, out of control (or just clumsy) tackler is of little consolation to the player who's MCL was just torn......but at least we don't have games decided by the referees (sarcasm intended).

    The game is transitioning from simply a "contact" sport to a "collision" sport like American football or Hockey and it is not good for the players.

  2. Kent James, February 23, 2009 at 1:18 p.m.

    As you make clear, refereeing is very difficult. Any fouls that adversely affect the team being fouled, should be called. But there are lots of trifling fouls that are not and should not be called, and doing so would prevent the flow of the game for no purpose. And the expression "going down to easily" refers to someone who takes a trifling foul and pretends it is significant enough to affect play, and that is against the spirit of the game (not quite as bad as diving, but on that slippery slope). Soccer is a contact sport, and while any attempt to play the man instead of the ball or intentionally injure should be punished, honest attempts to play fairly that incidentally result in contact that is not significant enough to affect play should be ignored. Of course, this judgement is made more difficult when players feel such contact and exaggerate its affects. These are the cases where the team fouled believes there was a legitimate foul, while the other team accuses them of making it up, and the ref has the difficult job of making (or not making) the call. As an example, how should a referee deal with a forward who is being chased by a defensive player into the defender's own penalty area. As the defender moves around the offensive player's right, the forward, sensing this, purposely moves in his path to either shield the ball (legitimate), draw the foul (against the spirit), or both. To me, the offensive player should expect some contact (and it will be from behind). If the defender does nothing to avoid the player's new position and just bowls him over, not a problem, it's a penalty kick. But if the defender adjusts his path to avoid the collision, but still makes minor contact (especially if the forward purposely moves past the spot required to shield the ball), the forward, since the contact was unintentional and not sufficient to knock him down, should stay on his feet and the game should continue. But if the forward chooses to use that contact to pretend it was sufficient to knock him down, I do not think he should get the call (though his teammates would certainly let the referee know that he was "taken down from behind"). In this case the key can be something as subtle as the forward choosing not to take a half step forward which would have easily allowed him to regain his balance, and just letting himself fall (no call, but no card for diving either, since there was contact, and the forward did not really do anything to make it look worse, he just chose not to continue to play), Or it can be blatantly launching himself forward, while crying out in pain and throwing his head back and arms skyward (cardable, because he's actively trying to deceive).
    I think most referees at the professional level get it about right, especially with the red cards. I think few are undeserved. While I agree that clumsy or intentionally malicious defense should be punished, I disagree that there is no such thing as going down to easily. Perhaps the offending team uses that as an excuse too often (certainly), but players going down too easily actually make it more difficult for refs to call the real fouls, because nobody likes to look foolish (refs included), so the dangers to the game of going down too easily (and it's evil brother, diving) should not be underestimated. If people who go down too easily occasionally get cards for legitimate fouls, it is no worse than people who commit too many fouls getting a card occasionally for a legitimate tackle. In the long run, one would hope that the legitimate cards would discourage the habitual behavior that is detrimental to the game.

  3. Rob Schneiderman, February 23, 2009 at 3:30 p.m.

    This is an important issue that FIFA should deal with. In general it is easier to find physical, destructive players, and the more tactical, repeated, and violent fouls there are, the more it becomes "the norm" in referees judgment. I would much prefer to see the interpretations favor the creative, skillful, attacking players -- even if we have to pass through a time where more cards are handed out until the "the norm" has been changed. This would allow better players to thrive, and would lead to more entertaining and attractive games. The reality is that clean well-played soccer is an all-around incredibly demanding sport, requiring athleticism, commitment, concentration, imagination, teamwork, and toughness -- I do not buy the argument that studs-up slides and macho-body blocks should be "part of the game", or that tactical fouls are "smart". There are plenty of other sports which supply deliberate physical pounding.

    An example of a positive direction to go was seen in this past Euro, which provided about everything a fan/player would want from a tournament. I believe that Platini gave the referees a directive not to tolerate tactical fouls or retaliation of any kind -- which facilitated the quality of play. Yes, this was an international tournament; but rather than allow refereeing to descend at the domestic level, it should remain consistent. If done uniformly, this would set a tone that lifts the entire game -- I hope it happens.

  4. Scott Fraser, February 23, 2009 at 7:43 p.m.

    I didn't see the game because it was @11:00 pm on the East coast of the USA.

    I was wondering if the "MLS" Teams challenge the new "WPS" Teams in pre-season games to see where they are right now??

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