Liverpool loss reminds that rulebook rewrite is long overdue

By Paul Gardner

Poor Liverpool -- everything seems to be going wrong for them. Their loyal fans (frequently referred to as the most loyal fans in England or, if you prefer, in the world) have not had an easy time of it this season.

Having got rid of their American owners --whom they seemed to dislike as much for being American as for their financial faults -- they then welcomed a new owner. An American. Next they suffered as Coach Rafa Benitez walked out on them. In came Roy Hodgson, who never seemed at all right to me -- I have him tabbed as a good coach for making small teams better, but pretty clueless with top teams and top players.

It was painful for everyone to watch Hodgson, a good man suffering, as he tried to pull the team together. Letting the promising young Argentine defender Emiliano Insua go on loan to Galatasaray while bringing in the klunky English fullback Paul Konchesky did not promise well. Hodgson has, inevitably, gone -- to be replaced by Kenny Dalglish, who may or may not be the right guy, depending on whether you think it’s a good idea to build dreams on the coaching abilities of former playing idols.

Again ... poor Liverpool, and poor Dalglish. Awaiting Dalglish in his very first game was Manchester United. Into the furnace, indeed. Liverpool’s subsequent 1-0 loss seems quite a respectable scoreline when you consider this was a team that has virtually imploded, playing on the field of the team that has currently the best record in the Premier League. I suppose so, all things considered ...

Of course, those “all things” revolve around the ever-controversial referee, Howard Webb. ManU’s lone goal came after only a minute when Webb awarded them the crucial penalty for Liverpool defender Daniel Agger’s trip on Dimitar Berbatov.

Not a penalty, but “a joke” said Dalglish after the game. “It was a penalty,” said Alex Ferguson, adding that Berbatov had told him that “he was definitely clipped. The replay shows he [Agger] slightly touched him but the momentum is enough to bring the player down.”

The replay, I’d say, confirms what Ferguson and Berbatov are saying -- that there was contact. Slight contact, for sure, but as Ferguson says, enough to unbalance Berbatov. Dalglish may be arguing that there was no contact or more likely, that there was not enough to cause Berbatov to topple over.

There is a problem here -- not just with this incident, but with the rule itself. As it happens, the rule is poorly worded, and is open to an interpretation that, despite the contact, agrees with Dalglish’s version -- that, in effect, there was no foul.

Rule 12 says that it is an offense to trip, or attempt to trip an opponent. If that were all the rule said, clarity would reign. But the rule complicates matters by requiring that, to be judged a foul, the trip (or an attempted trip) must be committed “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.”

As nobody is arguing that Agger was reckless or used excessive force, his “clip” on Berbatov can only be a foul if it was “careless.”

We are now at the center of a contradiction in the rules that arose when they were re-written in 1994 and the requirement that a foul be “intentional” was removed (except for hand-ball). From 1994 on, the referee was relieved of the mighty difficult, maybe impossible, task of trying to decide whether a player’s action was intentional or not. Instead, came the three-part requirement mentioned above -- which is a very strange grouping indeed.

Two of the criteria make the foul pretty obvious by requiring a level of violence (reckless means a yellow card, excessive force means a red). But for lesser trips -- the Agger type -- “careless” is now the key word, the one that defines the foul. So what does careless mean? The Rules tell us: careless means that “the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.”

That is a nice try, but of course it’s far from a cast-iron definition. It leaves plenty of latitude for the referee to use his judgment. It also creates another point of vagueness by referring to “a challenge,” not specifically to a trip. The rule itself, however, does not mention the word challenge.

But declaring that a trip is only a foul if it is “careless,” also implies that a trip that is not careless (which must mean that the trip was deliberate or premeditated), and that involves no violence -- exactly the sort of light clip that Ferguson says Agger inflicted on Berbatov -- is NOT a foul.

That is the clear logic of the situation. And it applies not only to tripping, but also to kicking, jumping at, charging, striking and pushing an opponent. So, if Agger’s trip was intentional it should not be punished as it could not be described as “careless,” and only if the trip was accidental should the penalty be given.

Obviously an absurd situation -- and one that has existed now for 16 years merely because everyone pretends that it doesn’t exist. The rule needs rewording. Certainly, part of the problem is a semantic confusion arising from the desire to avoid using the word “intentional.” But replacing it with “careless” has introduced new ambiguities that have the unintended consequence of exonerating certain intentional fouls.

Yet another example, I’m afraid, of the feckless way in which the International Board goes about its key tasks as creator and guardian of the playing rules of the sport.

5 comments about "Liverpool loss reminds that rulebook rewrite is long overdue".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, January 10, 2011 at 6:29 a.m.

    I don't think it's so complicated, just a minor issue of semantics. "Intentional" is certainly covered by "excessive force" (no one on the soccer field uses excessive force unintentionally - if they do, then they're too dumb/clumsy to play the sport and should take up rugby instead), and is arguably covered by "reckless" - if you challenge for the ball recklessly then on some level you have made a decision to play that way, knowing that there's a risk of committing a foul. When refereeing, I don't find the current three categories of foul problematic (in fact I find them more than helpful), though I'd be interested to hear what others think.

  2. Gus Keri, January 10, 2011 at 7:25 a.m.

    You can change the wording as many time as you like. Even you can rewrite the whole book over and over again. It all comes down to what a certain referee does on a certain day. Howard Webb had a bad day. He fell into the same trap that all English referees fall into when Man Utd is playing. If you err, make sure you err on the side of Sir Alex Ferguson.

  3. Tim Mccoy, January 10, 2011 at 8:27 a.m.

    It's ludicrous arguments like this that make the rules more complicated and the rule book thicker. What's the spirit of the law? DO NOT TRIP your opponent...pretty simple. Agger stupidly tripped his opponent...intentionally or not...slightly or not...doesn't matter. Foul in the box, albeit a pretty weak foul, means PK. Let's leave semantics out of the game and play.

  4. Austin Gomez, January 10, 2011 at 12:40 p.m.

    Soccer is a 'Game of Angles'......the Referee usually has the Best Angle on the entire Field-of-Play!

    Bravos & Kudos for FIFA Referee Howard Webb: a courageously correct Penalty-Kick decision issued as well as a 'message-filled' (courageous) Red Card
    given for 'Serious Foul Play,' wherein the Liverpool player knowingly had his Studs Up, Lunging from a far Distance with Excessive Force employed & not playing the Ball whatsoever --- Why? in order to 'intimdate' and possibly cause injury toward his Opponent! a classical example with a very proper Rule-Book decision. Thess 'excessive-force' Challenges must be stamped out & destroyed in this universal 'Beautiful Game of Soccer'! ! ! Very well-done, HW.

  5. Bill Richter, January 11, 2011 at 11:58 p.m.

    Intent isn't judged by referees, as it requires the referee to "read the mind" of the player. Instead they look at the foul to determine if it was deliberate (the player moved his body in some way to commit the foul), or if it was accidental.
    The "careless" part comes in AFTER determining if it was deliberate, because we wouldn't want to award a foul for completely accidental contact, such as the player being run into and knocked off balance or off his feet by another player and then getting tangled up with a 3rd player.

    So, the decision-making process is such:
    1) Did the fouling player deliberately act in such a way that resulted in the foul, or was it accidental?
    2)Did he commit the foul in a careless manner, i.e. should he have been more careful to not foul the player? Or was it reckless, or with excessive force?

    There's no gray area here, and referees with any experience know this. Step 1 determines if a foul has been committed, step 2 determines any additional action taken in response to the foul other than the restart.
    Paul Gardner, however, doesn't grasp that concept (as it is with many announcers, coaches, and players), as you can see by his later statement that handling the ball must be "intentional".

    I've got news for you, Paul, Law 12 STILL says that the player must handle the ball "deliberately", not "intentionally" as you quote it.

    The foul was a foul, the referee got it right, and the only possible result for that foul committed in the penalty area is a penalty kick.

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