FIFA proposes lighter punishment for foul play

By Paul Gardner

Coming up shortly, the next meeting of the International Football Association Board, IFAB, the curiously composed little group that dictates what soccer's rules should be.

The agenda for the meeting has been published, and it is the usual hodge-podge of the good and the not so good. And, this year, of the very bad indeed.

The good is a proposal that would allow an extra (i.e. a fourth) substitute to be used in overtime periods. A sensible move and one that (says he, keeping his fingers securely crossed) is not open to abuse.

The very bad is the eighth and last of the proposals that IFAB will consider. It is designed to abolish what has become known as “triple punishment” -- a phrase that is as misleading as it is pernicious. We’ll come to that.

At the moment, the offense of “denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity (ogso)” -- i.e. fouling an opponent who is about to score, or at least get off a shot on goal -- brings an automatic red card. If the foul was in the penalty area it also brings a penalty kick. That is when the complaints start about triple jeopardy -- red card (hence the team reduced to 10 men), penalty kick, and subsequent player suspension.

This, says the proposal (it comes from FIFA) is “widely considered to be too severe.”

What the amendment is seeking to do is to abolish the automatic red card for denying an ogso, when the offense is committed in the penalty area. A red card would be given only for certain offenses -- they are spelled out as handball, holding, or “an offense committed from behind.” For all other offenses whistled as denying an ogso , a yellow card will be enough.

But a player will still get a red card for denying an ogso if his foul (whatever it may be, no exceptions) is committed outside the area. Which gives us the strange notion that a serious red-card foul committed outside the penalty area becomes a lesser yellow-card foul when committed inside the penalty area. That is the sort of precedent that rulemakers are usually careful not to set. It is also worth pointing out that this apparent non-relaxing of the red-card rule is something of a sham, given that referees, probably correctly, do not make many denying-ogso calls from that distance.

Anyway, why should the rules be lenient to a team that has illegally prevented its opponent from scoring? Given the low-scoring levels of the modern game, denying an ogso is a serious offense, a game-winning or game-saving offense and -- in terms of tournament qualifications -- quite probably a multi-million-dollar-saving offense.

Under those circumstances (those temptations, one might say), the punishment must be harsh. The triple jeopardy is not too severe. It does not present a problem. Though -- and this is a different matter, one not mentioned in the amendment -- it may become a problem if referees, affected by the propaganda against it, become reluctant to enforce it.

And there is, of course, some evidence of that. But the answer is not to cave, but for the authorities to insist on the rule being applied, and to back the referees when they do that. Instead we have a pusillanimous FIFA proposing that the sport back down and withdraw a sensible rule in favor of one that will encourage more rule-breaking and fouling.

Getting back to the core of the matter, the nature of that triple punishment. It’s not clear that a penalty kick should be regarded as a punishment. What the penalty kick does is to re-establish the goalscoring situation that the defending team’s foul play destroyed. You can argue that there is an element of punishment there, because the PK almost certainly (but not always) will be a more favorable situation for the attacking team.

If denying an ogso were followed by the award of a goal, now that would be real punishment. But that is not what happens. The penalty-kick taker’s direct opponent will be the goalkeeper -- who might well be the opponent who committed the foul. The pressure, of course, is all on the kicker. The goalkeeper, either as the fouler or simply as the keeper, has nothing to lose in this situation. If he saves the penalty, then we might well have another “triple” situation but one that works in favor of the offending team. The goalkeeper becomes a triple hero -- firstly for getting away with a red-card foul, secondly for making the save, and thirdly for ensuring a crucial win.

There is a strong flavor to this attempted rule-change suggesting that one of the main considerations is to avoid ejecting goalkeepers.

It is also odd to find a player’s subsequent suspension included in the trio of punishments. Again, why is FIFA suggesting that the rule-makers take the side of the offending team? If being concerned about losing players for later games is to become a matter for the rules, then it would make much more sense, and be much healthier for the game, if FIFA were to propose a rule amendment showing consideration for the victims of fouls, rather than for those who commit them.

Consider one of these triple punishment situations. What if the player dribbling in on goal is injured by the foul? Not too badly injured, but enough for him to miss the next two games. The equivalent of a two-game suspension ... is that not an extra punishment for the innocent team? Why should they not be in some way compensated for that, especially if the rules are now going to look more kindly on the offending player and his foul?

As for the nature of the penalty area fouls that would still require a red card, the wording of the FIFA amendment raises a massive question. The defender will be red-carded if he denies an ogso by handling, or “by holding or an offense committed from behind ... when he has no opportunity to play the ball.”

Whoever wrote that needs reminding of the history of his own rulebook. Back in the early 1990s the sport became concerned (at last!) about violent tackling. The tackle-from-behind was singled out as presenting the gravest danger, and after several years of temporizing on the issue, FIFA finally got round to banning it in the 1998 rulebook -- although the reference appeared in the “Decisions of IFAB” section of Rule 12, rather than as part of the rule itself: “A tackle from behind, which endangers the safety of an opponent, must be sanctioned as serious foul play” - i.e. red-carded.

Things were complicated in 2002 when the rulebook added a new “Additional Instructions” section which included, under a definition of serious foul play, challenges endangering the safety of an opponent “from the front, from the side or from behind ...” - a definition that obviously deprived the tackle from behind of any special status. Yet that wording, and the original wording introduced in 1998 -- which clearly does give special status to the tackle from behind -- continued to appear in the same rulebook for three years.

The ambiguity continued until 2005 when the IFAB Decision in Rule 12 was amended to remove the reference to the tackle from behind. It now read: “A tackle which endangers the safety of an opponent, must be sanctioned as serious foul play.” In the current rulebook, the IFAB Decision reference no longer appears -- but the reference to dangerous tackles made “from the front, from the side or from behind ...” remains in a new “Interpretation of the Laws” section.

It seems quite plain that the rulemakers decided to avoid singling out the tackle from behind for special punishment, presumably because it implied that other forms of tackle (from the front or side) were less dangerous. A debatable, but certainly not an idle, point.

But the proposers of the new “triple punishment” amendment seem to be unaware of that history, and have now re-introduced the idea of offenses committed “from behind” as warranting harsher punishment. Obviously this flies in the face of what the current rules say ... so how can IFAB even accept the amendment for consideration?

In short, the “triple jeopardy” amendment is ill-thought out. It is also badly worded. But above all it is a dangerously retrograde proposal. Those who propose it cannot make a serious case for it. Nor do they admit that its acceptance would increase the likelihood that last-ditch, denying-an-ogso type fouls will be committed. Especially ominous is the fact that the amendment is an attempt to undo an existing rule, a rule that comes down harshly on negative, destructive and frequently cynical play.

IFAB should seriously consider that. But we are probably about to witness another example of why IFAB itself is a problem. IFAB has eight voting members: 4 Brit members, representing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 4 members appointed by FIFA.

Under IFAB regulations, six votes are needed to change a rule. As this amendment comes from FIFA, one can safely assume that the four FIFA votes will support it. If all four, or three, of the British members vote against it, the amendment will fail. To pass, the amendment needs the votes of two of the British members - two votes from four countries whose referees are already more reluctant to give red cards than any others that I am aware of. Which leaves little room for optimism that this wretched revision will be rejected.

10 comments about "FIFA proposes lighter punishment for foul play".
  1. Scott Nelson, February 3, 2012 at 3:03 a.m.

    Is the thinking that the referee will be more likely to award a penalty if he doesn't have to send the player off as well? It's a moot point if the ref is afraid to award PK's in the first place. Despite penalties being far from automatic, most referees seem to equate awarding a penalty with awarding a goal, not awarding a goal scoring chance. Would PK's be awarded more frequently if they were a bit harder to score? There must be enough stats out there to calculate what percentage of scoring opportunites in the box are converted, and adjust the penalty spot to match that percentage. Also, I wonder why no one has ever even considered what might happen if the penalty box were made smaller. Would refs be more willing to make calls around the dangerous area at the top of the box if they were awarding direct free kicks instead of penalties? (and do goalkeepers really need to control that much space, anyway?)

  2. Kent James, February 3, 2012 at 8:08 a.m.

    The current rule is too harsh in one respect; goal keepers trying to play fairly can be ejected if they make a mistake. The red card for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity was designed to change the calculus of a player who was essentially choosing to commit a foul in order prevent something worse (a goal), and I think it's generally done that successfully. But many keepers are ejected not because they tried to foul, but rather because, by the nature of their position, many regular fouls they commit do deny OGSOs. And in these cases, the red card is unduly harsh because those cards do not affect the goalkeeper's decisions (so they're wasted). But PG is right; the change would make things worse. A fairer result might be for denying an OGSO in the box to result in the award of a goal (instead of a pk), without the ejection, but I'm not sure we want to go there. It's a difficult situation; I guess I'd like to see an exception for the goalkeeper, so that a goalkeeper would only be ejected if he committed a tactical foul, one in which the foul was purposeful. It opens of another can of worms (defining purposeful), but I guess you've got to make a judgment call somewhere. That's why the refs get the big bucks....

  3. Joe Hosack, February 3, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.

    Ohhhh I get, they want more of these fouls to occur. Will become like checking in hockey.

  4. Steve Greene, February 3, 2012 at 10 a.m.

    Either "requirement" is wrong, if the foul (wherever it occurs on the field of play) is careless - no card, reckless - yellow, excessive force - red. Requiring anything additional is where this goes wrong. A tactical foul is cautioned (yellow) so if a player commits a tactical foul that does not use excessive force then its a yellow, if its excessive force, red. If it is in the penalty area the restart is a penalty kick, otherwise direct free kick from the spot of the foul.

    The laws already address all the situations that this addition attempts to clarify. Let the referees do their job using their experience and expertise, if they fail that they should be removed from future matches until they prove they are able to correctly enforce the LOTG.

  5. Austin Gomez, February 3, 2012 at 10:08 a.m.

    A very interesting, provocative SA-article, as usual from Paul (who seems to do his typical methodological approach & research into the 'Laws of the Game' quite thoroughly.....(this is
    my opinion, only -- but I don't see any solid evidence or practical reasoning to change/rescind this part of Law 12, because "The Punishment must fit the Crime," always. If a Defender so wishes to take a "dangerous RISK" in order to stop & "DENY an Obvious Goal-Scoring Opportunity," then that Player should take one's due & proper Punishment for that seemingly apparent 'deliberate Action'! I am from Missouri ("The Show Me" State), I need to be truly SHOWN why 'Triple Punishment' isn't truly justified!!! Especially, with the distinct possibility of a PK-Kicker missing this PK, (via this newly-proposed 2012 IFAB Decision), then the Defense may be the actual Winner: i.e., No Goal, a 'possible' Victory, that 'offending' Defender now being able to commit that same 'crime' again without any fear of taking another chance in the next game (that a PK may be missed again)! Is that proper PUNISHMENT -- I think not! .......(imo).......

    Finally, Paul, the word "ogso" seems a bit flimsy --- a more accurate 'Acronymn would be "dogso" ('D-letter'), not forgetting this important ingredient: 'DENYING'.......btw, that might possibly lead to a future ACRONYMN in the LawBook: "CATSO" (my favorite Animal, who knows?!?

  6. Gus Keri, February 3, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.

    There is one important problem with the current law. Consider this: If there is a 50/50 ball and both the attacker and the goalkeeper go for it in a "fair" way; if the goalkeeper is a fraction of a second late, his punishment is triple (red card, PK and suspension). But if the attacker is a fraction of a second late, his punishment is very light (a simple foul). Is this fair? there must be an exception to this rule.

  7. beautiful game, February 3, 2012 at 11:10 a.m.

    I agree with the severity issue...unless a foul in the penalty area is extremely malicious and considered so, a red card is justified; otherwise, yellow card and a PK should be sufficient.

  8. R2 Dad, February 4, 2012 at 1:25 a.m.

    My belief is that DOGSO was not primarily written for goalkeepers, but it seems most instances I've seen involve keepers. As pointed out, the difficulty is in making the laws more fair without contradicting other laws or precedences. Because it so rarely comes up, it seems referees fall into two camps: those that have been waiting so long to give it and those that are afraid to. Good article on the minutia of the LOTG--didn't think anyone would care much but there are plenty of responses here.

  9. Mike Nuelle, February 5, 2012 at 8:10 a.m.

    Let's start by agreeing that this special level of punishment was really designed to punish the "cheating" aspect of the foul, not the foul itself. Everything about the foul itself should not change, including what card - if any - should be given. Therefore, fairness is restored if the PK results in a goal, in which case the punishment can be Yellow (assumed to be tactical). If the PK is missed, THEN Red, since the cheating was rewarded. Fair and Simple. And... having the offending player leave the field until after the PK is taken (and his fate is determined) avoids the issue of having a player playing with a second Caution if the PK is missed and the ball stays in play...the administration would occur at the next stoppage in play.

  10. Al Gebra, February 7, 2012 at 1:20 a.m.

    Hey not-so-Superman
    you would be better for all of if you started to comment on baseball...slower,straight lines, mainly white guys like you except for a few Domicans. no more input or your ISP address is mush...try sorry

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