As usual, confusion reigns when a referee explains

By Paul Gardner

I have been campaigning for decades now -- obviously, in a totally ineffectual way -- for a set of obligatory referee signals to be introduced in soccer so that we know, instantly, which offense has been called.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to referees and coaches and administrators and other biggies about this. Of course -- even though most of them have never given the idea a moment’s previous thought -- they immediately raise objections. That is what people tend to do when confronted with something new, an idea that upsets their comfortable mindset.

From referees, the most common thumbs-down goes like this: “Listen, we already have enough on our plate without having to explain every call we make.” No doubt. But they have not been listening. My intention is to get referees to identify their calls, not to explain them. Explanations may, or may not, follow later, after the game.

As it happens, I’m not wildly excited by referees explaining their calls, because they usually make a hash of things. Assuming that they graciously avoid the temptation to blame their assistant referee, there are still plenty of ways of confusing matters, and, in my experience, referees are pretty good at that.

There is also the unarguable fact that any explanation is likely to involve a defense of the rules. Here the referees have my sympathy because in many cases the rules are simply unclear and therefore cannot be relied on. More on that shortly.

Sitting up on the official MLS website right now, is a page titled “Referee Week.” In it, we find some comments from Paul Tamberino -- a vastly experienced referee who is “a director in the league’s Competition Department.” An authoritative person, then. He has been asked to revisit, and give an opinion on, an incident that took place back in April, when D.C. United’s Charlie Davies was awarded a 89th minute penalty kick (from which he tied the game) after a foul by the L.A. Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez.

At the time, the incident caused much expostulating, rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among the sporting moralists (a decidedly motley drew, that lot) who swore that Davies had dived, and was therefore a cheat and scoundrel.

There is a lot wrong with this page. Before we get to Tamberino, we find a heading referring to “Davies’s Drawn Penalty” -- which already seems to imply that Davies was being sneaky. Then it poses the question: Dive or PK? A stupid question, because the incident does not have to be either -- it could simply be the famous “incidental” contact, with the referee taking no action.

Tamberino gives his opinion: it was a dive, there was no foul, there should not have been a PK, and Davies should have been yellow-carded. Tamberino gives his reasons for his opinion and -- as usually happens with referee explanations -- that is when things start to fall apart.

He lists five points to be considered. We need not bother with No. 13 -- the position of the referee -- because Tamberino says the ref was in an “excellent position.” Point No. 5 -- deciding whether this was a dive or a foul -- we can also leave till later.

Point 4 involves a look at the wording of the rules -- really the key to his explanation.

But Points No. 1 and No. 2 need to be dealt with first, because they are totally unacceptable:

No. 1 -- What is the time of the game?

No. 2 -- What are the player’s intentions?

I would strongly protest that the time of the game has nothing to do with anything. There is nothing in the rules referring to the time of the game as a factor to be considered by a referee in making his decisions. In fact, it is generally held -- I have heard it so maintained what must be hundreds of times -- that the referee must ignore that factor, must make the same decisions whether it’s the first or the last minute of the game.

Tamberino evidently senses that something isn’t quite right here, for he launches into a justification of his statement, and merely makes matters worse: “The time of the game is important as it is near the final whistle. Players that are looking to find the equalizer or the go-ahead goal will make every effort to score a goal at all costs.”

This is absurd. Not least because one can say the same of defenders -- that they will “make every effort to prevent a goal at all costs.” So the two will neutralize each other anyway. But Tamberino has already shown his hand -- he is looking for the attacking player to be the culprit.

As for the players’ intentions, this is even more puzzling. When the rules were extensively revised in 1995, the word “intention” was almost entirely removed -- it remains only when dealing with hand-ball offenses. It was removed, as was explained to me at the time by Scottish referee George Cumming, one of the authors of the new wording, because referees should not be “required to be mind readers.”

I simply do not understand what Tamberino is up to here -- his explanation merely says that Davies “knows that he needs the goal and the point.” While the role of defender Gonzalez “is to make every effort to prevent the attacker from getting the shot off.” Well, did you ever? A forward trying to score a goal and a defender trying to stop him. Amazing. And a meaningless consideration.

So Tamberino’s first two Points strike me as nothing more than typical referee obfuscation -- and obfuscation that is not supported in any way by the rule book. Indeed, it tends to contradict what the rule book has to say.

But it is with Point No. 4 that Tamberino runs into the most serious difficulties -- and in this case, it is more the fault of the rules themselves. Tamberino has studied the videos and admits that there was contact between the players. Yes, Gonzalez does reach out with his left arm, does make contact, at which Davies goes down.

Tamberino quotes the rule book -- Rule 12 --which says “a direct free kick will be awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of seven offenses in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force."

Having identified Gonzalez’s action as “pushing” (one of the seven offenses) Tamberino says: “I believe we can rule out that the action is reckless or one with excessive force.”

Agreed. Tamberino then concludes that Gonzalez did foul, adjudging his contact to have been “careless.”

But there is a huge anomaly here, which undermines that sort of flat-out certainty. When a player is running at speed, trying to control the ball, and quite likely trying to sharply change direction, it does not take much contact to unbalance him and bring him down. The slightest brushing of the heel of his raised leg -- enough to knock it into the back of his planted leg -- will send him flying. (And we see plenty of that from defenders who run across the back of a player and then raise their hands in feigned innocence as the player goes sprawling.)

As Tamberino rightly says, such slight contact obviously cannot be classified as “reckless or excessive force” -- so it cannot be deemed a foul under either of those headings. It can, however, be a foul if it is “careless”.

At this point we need a definition of “careless”; the rule book does not supply one. My dictionary includes “not thinking before one acts,” which can only mean unintentional.

Hence the anomaly: if this type of slight-contact trip is careless (i.e. unintentional) it is a foul. With the inescapable corollary that if the trip is intentional, then it is not a foul. So -- if Gonzalez pushed Davies carelessly (unintentionally), it was a foul -- but if he did it intentionally, it was not.

That is the tangled reasoning on which Tamberino is relying for his opinion. It is utterly shaky, and it really calls for the rule to be re-written to get rid of the contradiction (after all, it applies to all of the seven fouls, not just pushing).

Tamberino completes his indictment of Davies by asking: “Is this careless action that warrants a penalty?” Then comes his Decision: "Although there is contact to the attacking player, the contact is not in a careless manner and therefore should not be considered a foul, and a penalty kick should not be awarded. On the question of simulation, the attacking player pretends to have been fouled and should be cautioned for simulation.”

It is an unsatisfactory conclusion, because Tamberino admits that there was contact, he defines that contact as “careless” -- which means it was a foul -- and then states that Davies “pretends to have been fouled.”

No wonder referees are wary of explaining their actions.

9 comments about "As usual, confusion reigns when a referee explains".
  1. James Madison, October 10, 2011 at 10:36 p.m.

    Both Tamberino and Gardner leave out of account the question of whether Gonzalez's "careless" contact was significant or, in the former words of the laws, "trivial." If the latter, no foul was to be called. If despite insignificant contact, albeit careless, such that no foul should be called, Davies decided to fall in order to induce the referee to call a penalty, that was cheating and, if necessary in order to convey to the players that this manner of cheating would not be tolerated, merited a caution.

  2. Alberto Mora, October 10, 2011 at 10:42 p.m.

    I have read your comments every now and then, but in this one you are telling that it's time for you to retire for good.

    In Soccer if you know the game you don't need to add anything.

    What USA need is to learn the game and carry it in the blood, otherways we'll never be among the top four teams in the world.

  3. Kent James, October 10, 2011 at 10:49 p.m.

    A player creating a foul out of nothing is diving and should be carded. A player who is bumped and chooses not to attempt to regain his balance (even though he could) is not diving, but should not be awarded a penalty because he is "looking for a foul" (but there was contact, it was just trifling). That contact should be ignored. If the offensive player is fouled, and the foul affects his play (knocking him off balance without the ability to recover, e.g.) the penalty kick should be awarded. If a player is fouled (the defender attempts to kick the ball and the attacker shields the ball with his leg, for example), but the foul is not malicious (the defender kicking harder because the player's leg is in the way would be malicious) and does not affect play, it is trifling and should be ignored. Where it gets difficult (and sorry FIFA, referees must do a little mind-reading in order to be fair) is when an offensive player attempts to portray a trifling foul as one that is significant (the player who feels contact from behind, however slight and incidental, and goes down, e.g.). Or the player in the shielding incident who goes down as if he had been shot, even though the defender realized his tackle would be blocked and therefore held back so that he barely touched the offensive player. I think players have an obligation to play the game, not game the referee (Messi is a shining example of a player who does not attempt to game the system). The only time I think it is acceptable to not attempt to continue to play is if the other player has consciously chosen to foul (usually by pulling a shirt, which is rarely accidental); in that case, if the offensive player decides to go down, I have no problem with the foul being awarded.
    The time of the foul should make no difference (though to be fair to Tamberino, I think he was suggesting that the time might give the referee insight into what to look for, in this case, Davies trying to draw a penalty (as well as the defender's willingness to foul to stop him; in other words, both players are more likely to be desperate). The referee should attempt to let the players who are attempting to play the game fairly do so, and punish those who do not attempt to play fairly. The referee should enforce the spirit of the game.

  4. David Rapp, October 10, 2011 at 10:59 p.m.

    I believe something is wrong with the analysis of the word "careless." Careless means, according to Blacks Law Dictionary, "Absence of care; negligent; reckless." Saying that careless merely means "“not thinking before one acts,” which can only mean unintentional" seems insufficient. Looking further into the meaning/definition of careless gives the impression of inadequately thinking before one acts. Hence the synonym 'negligent.' Black's Law Dictionary states that "(n)egligence is the failure to use such care as a reasonably prudent and careful person would use under similar circumstances. Note the use of 'careful' in contrast to the Laws' use of careless. Further discussion in the rather long definition mentions reasonableness.

    So, would a careful Soccer player act in the manner displayed in the game? I do not know, but wanted to make the point that careless does not equal unintentional.

    One way to be sure of this is to think of this situation and assume the defender had absolutely thought through the rules in completely thorough and exhaustive detail and then mentally deciding NOT to even touch the attacking player, yet still doing so, he would have unintentionally yet not carelessly have created the contact.

  5. Charles Stamos, October 11, 2011 at 12:23 a.m.

    Great stuff to debate - A good referee has to try and get into the head of the players at times. Judging intent is an advanced art that referees will always have a difficult time getting 100% correct. BTW, I have always thought that the most important events in a soccer game - goals, fouls, and PKs have the least recognizable signal - pointing - and that's not even in the laws!

  6. R2 Dad, October 11, 2011 at 12:27 a.m.

    Seems the problem is that a careless foul has been identified, but awarding a PK is too great a penalty to be awarded given the almost-trivial nature of the contact. Half the time play is waved on, half the time a PK is awarded, depending on the view of the referee and their disposition. That's football.
    David, I read your paragraph and my head was about to explode--this is why lawyers are never referees.
    Kent, most referees have a difficult-enough time just knowing the LOTG--requiring the application of the spirit of the laws is beyond most (as well that the spirit changes depending on country of origin).
    Alberto--non sequitor.
    Good article on the challenges to the proper application of the LOTG.

  7. beautiful game, October 11, 2011 at 12:15 p.m.

    Professional fouls should be carded without hesitation...these types of fouls destroy the rhythm of the game...playing the player instead of the ball in order to get 'advantage' should be penalized to the max, not the usual verbalization by the ref who in actuality is being taken for a fool.

  8. Amos Annan, October 11, 2011 at 4:03 p.m.

    Too many cards. Soccer is a contact sport.

  9. Arnie Kriegbaum, October 11, 2011 at 11:23 p.m.

    Soccer to the average person is a mess. Even "FANS" don't realize the crappy product that they are getting.

    FIFA's complete lack of interest in the actual gameplay on the field is a crime. To all those who believe that FIFA must be honored and worshipped since they obviously have soccer's interest at heart, I leave you with one word: QATAR.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications