Rethinking the red-card rule

By Paul Gardner

A great shame, this. What promised to be -- what surely should have been -- an immensely pleasing semifinal between Switzerland and Colombia at the Under-17 World Cup was quickly turned into a disappointing occasion -- by the referee.

That much is quite certain. But whether any blame attaches to Referee Michael Hester for ejecting Colombian defender Santiago Arias just 13 minutes into the game -- of that, I am not so certain.

This was the situation. Swiss forward Nassim Ben Khalifa, having beaten goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla to the ball, shot toward the empty net. Then, quite definitely, there was solid contact between the ball and the right hand of Arias. That much is indisputable. What happened next is a matter of interpretation.

The referee did not hesitate. He saw the handball as a deliberate attempt by Arias to keep the ball out of the net -- and thus red-carded Arias and awarded Switzerland a penalty kick. Ben Khalifa scored from the kick -- giving Switzerland an early 1-0 lead, and leaving Colombia to play the remaining 75 minutes with only 10 men in the sweltering heat of Lagos.

Switzerland emerged as comfortable 4-0 winner -- a result that was made more than likely, possibly inevitable, by that early referee decision. I should say, at this point, that I think Switzerland would have won the game even had it remained an 11 vs. 11 contest. This is a very good Swiss team -- it had beaten Brazil, Germany and Italy to reach the semifinal, and had always played excellent soccer.

So, while the referee's decision may not have altered the result, it did ruin the game, draining it of any suspense or tension, turning it into a poorly written play of which one already knew the ending.

A farce then, rather than the anticipated drama. The ostensible culprit for this distortion was referee Hester. But culprit is too strong a word. There was no crime here. The referee called, at once, what he believed to be a deliberate piece of impromptu goalkeeping by Arias. So the red card and the penalty kick followed automatically.

The handball was obvious, clear to everyone -- so clear that it almost demanded to be punished. How could the referee ignore it? Nevertheless, it's not by any means clear, even after repeated replays, that this was a deliberate play by Arias. It could be interpreted as a ball-to-hand -- i.e. unintentional -- incident. While it is reasonable to praise Hester for making a brave decision by issuing a red card that early in the game, I think an even braver decision would have been to judge the handball unintentional and make no call at all.

There is a further point -- a rather picky one, admittedly -- which is that Ben Khalifa's shot did not look like a particularly accurate one, and may well have missed the goal anyway. In which case Arias, even if judged to have deliberately handled the ball, did not prevent a goal -- hence a penalty kick, but a yellow card rather than a red.

But to make that sort of judgment is asking too much of a referee. And so to the real culprit here: the rules of the game, which demand that a red-carded player cannot be replaced.

This is a rule that needs revising. Unbalancing a game in this way is hardly a sensible move, if only because it is almost certain to wreck the game as a spectacle, as a real soccer encounter, i.e. an 11 vs. 11 game.

Reducing a team to 10-men should be the ultimate punishment, reserved for straight red cards given for violent play. For other ejections -- for technical offenses or following a second yellow card -- a team should be allowed to replace the ejected player.

Maybe only one replacement should be allowed; a second red card in the game, for whatever reason, would mean that a team was down to 10 men.

No doubt there are many variations that could be introduced. They should be investigated. We are talking about a game-distorting, if not game-destroying, rule. Common sense dictates that it should be used sparingly -- much more sparingly than at present.

Under the current rules any red card means playing short-handed. To insist on the same draconian punishment for such a variety of widely differing offenses -- they can range from an utterly trivial second yellow to a violent, leg-breaking tackle -- smacks of medieval laws that demanded the death penalty for anything from minor theft to murder. That is manifestly unfair, which is bad enough. It is also not too bright, as it calls for virtually unthinking application of a rule that is more than likely to ensure a poor game.

8 comments about "Rethinking the red-card rule".
  1. David Hardt, November 13, 2009 at 9:49 a.m.

    This is the game -- why is a hand ball early to prevent a goal and different from a hand ball later? Why is the referee the culprit? Did he create the hand ball or simply call the game as he saw it? The culprit is the player who committed the hand ball. Did he do everything in his power to avoid it? The person who ruined the game is the player not the ref. Does he then ignore off sides early on? Pushes, shirt tugs because it is not the second half yet. They don't have slow motion to check the play over and over to see "maybe" it was not intentional and "maybe" it would have been wide. These guys get it wrong enough. Lets not lambaste them when they actually get it right but we don't like what that does to the game. Yes it is a major penalty to a team, then how about you don't do the crime?

  2. Daniel Oleary, November 13, 2009 at 9:52 a.m.

    The referee had the call and made it. Quite often we complain because the referee will not make this call. You can not have it both ways. Support a referee that has the courage to make a difficult call.

  3. Brent Crossland, November 13, 2009 at 9:55 a.m.

    One has to wonder what your column would have said had the referee "bravely" ignored what must have appeared to him as deliberate handling and then Columbia had managed a one goal victory over an apparently stronger Swiss team. Would you then be castigating Mr. Hester for 'gifting' the game to Columbia? Or is fairness not the issue and the only concern should be the entertainment value of the remaining 77 minutes?

    Goals are precious things in our sport. There have to be serious sanctions for players who resort to cheating to prevent an opponent from scoring. And when that happens the consequences belong to the player not to the referee.

  4. Tim Mccoy, November 13, 2009 at 10:03 a.m.

    Now I've heard it said of referees many can't call a PK or show a red in the last 10 minutes or overtime. Never, until now, have I heard a referee's call of an obvious foul early in a match questioned as having been too early.

    The problem here...Mr. Gardner wants all his games to be perfect. Nice flow with artistry (probably why he has a prejudice against the English game)...fouls called only at the right time...the correct starters (at least in his mind) replaced by the appropriate subs at the appropriate so on.

    Reality check...that's not soccer. The human influence is too great. Games are rarely going to be "perfect" and to expect every match to be a thing of beauty with great drama is a fool's dream. We should expect the flawed game that so greatly represents the human existence (they provide as much drama) and relish the "perfect" games when we're fortunate enough to get them.

  5. Barry Ulrich, November 13, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.

    As all teams generally do, it makes several substitutions in the course of the match. A player is fouled and is too injured to continue, so the team makes its third substitution. Later in the game, a player breaks a bone and cannot continue, but the team cannot make a substitution - that is not only draconian, it's also not fair. While this is not a basketball game where you can use all the players on the bench, you'd think if FIFA wants Fair Play, that the team would be able to substitute for a badly injured player.

  6. Austin Gomez, November 13, 2009 at 2:15 p.m.

    SAFETY is the FIRST & FOREMOST Factor in a Soccer Match --- the primary reason for the existence of a Referee, I would believe! The Referee therefore must address this most important aspect of Soccer, along with the 'whistling' for careless Fouls & the issuing Disciplinary Cards for reckless/excessive Misconduct, whenver they might occur in a Match, be it at the 1st.minute or the 89 minute of play --- 100% Misconduct must always be PUNISHED!
    I would praise a Referee, such as Mr. Hester's COURAGE, in issuing a deserved Red Card for this "cheating" misconduct of the Player's "Handling of the Ball" that took place early in this Under 17 'semi-final' World Cup Match!

    But, maybe in the next decade or so, FIFA will rethink its strict policy of Player Replacement of Misconduct, depending upon the its "level" of Crime (Violent Conduct & Serious Foul Play, of course, versus a Second YC or a 'DOGSO' Event), depending upon this Misconduct that actually took place!

    If I am correct, Futbol (Soccer in the USA) is the only Pport that does NOT allow a Substitution for a Red Card or if a particular team has used its 3 Substitutions. I would hope, perhaps, a "rethinking" of this 'legendary' Law may be modified in such a way that all Teams could play 11 v.11 (unless the CRIME on the Field-of-Play was a "capital" one). Just a thought, my opinion!

    But until then, Law 12 must be strictly, properly, courageously ENFORCED!
    Bravos to Mr. Michael Hester!!!

  7. David Bristol, November 13, 2009 at 7:50 p.m.

    It sounds like the referee made the right call. But another prime example of the punishment not fitting the crime. FIFA needs to do a better job of reviewing the laws of the game to keep up with the modern game. Players and coaches quickly find any place the punishment doesn't fit the crime in their favor and then exploit it, then not until these tactics become ingrained in the game are they looked at.

  8. Kent James, November 17, 2009 at 9:09 a.m.

    I think many of the posters are missing the point in defending the referee. The point was not that the ref screwed up, it was that the rule is screwed up and the ref followed the rule (as he's required to do). The main problem with making the team play short after a red card is that the team is punished for the infraction committed by an individual. Additionally, since referees are always told not to determine the outcome of the game, forcing teams to play short after a red card makes referees reluctant to hand out red cards because doing so obviously changes the dynamic of the game. So eliminating the requirement that a team play short after a player is ejected should actually allow refs to clamp down harder on illegal behavior, by punishing only the offender, rather than the team (or even worse, the game itself).

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