Dempsey reminds us how few read the rulebook

By Paul Gardner

I must say, for at least the 10,000th time, that it is a decided scandal that so few players are familiar with the rules of soccer. (I could add TV commentators to the culprits list, but most of those are ex-players, so their ignorance is to be expected).

A scandal, then -- but also a shame, something to be regretted, because knowledgeable players might well have a positive effect on the way that the game is played. And refereed.

We need to make the trip to Seattle for a good example of what I mean. Now, Seattle is not a place where I expect to find much common sense about the rules. The Seattle view is that the rules, and the refereeing, are good only when they work to the Sounders’ advantage. Reversing that, we get the unpleasant implication that when the Sounders lose, the refereeing must have been shite.

As an overall philosophy of the game that is just neither tenable nor constructive. It surfaces at its most vindictive, of course, when the Sounders are struggling. Which they clearly are right now.

But this time, the Sounders, or one of their players, has got it exactly right. The player is Clint Dempsey, and the fault he is complaining of is the tactical (sometimes called the professional) foul. Specifically, a foul committed in a recent game by the Portland Timbers’ Diego Chara on Dempsey. The foul was, shall we say, brusque -- Dempsey suffered a shoulder sprain as he went to ground.

The foul was called, but that was all. No card. Dempsey later said he was disappointed that Chara was not shown a yellow. His reasoning: “I think the refs need to do a better job when people make those kinds of tackles. It’s on the counterattack, it is stopping the attack and most of the time those are situations where you get the yellow card.”

Dempsey is absolutely correct that any player committing such a tactical foul should be yellow-carded. But he is surely wrong to say that “most of the time” that is what happens. If only.

Dempsey has an important point to make, but he weakens it in two ways. To start with, he is evidently unaware that the rulebook supports him -- unequivocally. It states that a player must be cautioned when he “commits a foul for the tactical purpose of interfering with or breaking up a promising attack.”

So we have to assume that, in this case, referee Hilario Grajeda did not judge the foul to be a tactical one. A pretty atrocious collapse of judgment, frankly.

Tactical fouling is rife in the modern game -- far more frequent than the dreaded diving, and a far more disruptive element in the game. And every player on every team knows that the earlier he fouls an opponent on a breakaway, the more likely he is to get away with it. Taking down an opponent as he begins to sprint upfield from his own penalty area -- when he’s some 60 yards away from the enemy goal -- well, the referee probably won’t find that a case of “breaking up an promising attack,” so a card is unlikely.

Chara’s foul was committed just inside the Portland half, as Dempsey began to turn on the burners. As Dempsey sped away, Chara lunged in with no chance of getting the ball and flagrantly tripped him. Grajeda ran up, called the foul, and then did exactly what no referee should ever do in such a circumstance. He delivered a short lecture to Chara. Why? The foul was blatant, it was dangerous -- the yellow card should have been out at once for a reckless challenge -- quite apart from the tactical aspect.

Frankly, this was very poor refereeing. If Grajeda didn’t see the tactical intent of the foul, TV commentator Taylor Twellman did at once. He then broadcast to his audience, young players and everyone, that there is no place for sportsmanship in modern soccer by praising Chara: “That’s a good foul because Clint Dempsey had him beat.”

A good foul. Way to go, Taylor. That snickering praise for a player who has just gained an advantage for his team by cynically breaking the rules of the game represents the second way in which Dempsey undermines his excellent point, because he went on to call Chara’s foul a “smart foul.”

Dempsey brings up a vital point about the playing of the game of soccer, one that is too often evaded by referees. Yellow cards for tactical fouls -- wherever and whenever on the field they are committed -- must be given. Said Dempsey: “When you start reffing in that way, it changes the way people play. They aren’t going to be as reckless, they are going to be more controlled and they have to be more careful when they go to ground and the fouls that they commit. That’s how I look at it.”

That’s more like it. The pity is that Dempsey seems not to know that the rulebook is on his side here. And surely working against him is his own praise of such fouls.

MLS could quite easily do something about this. A clear directive, at the start of next season, proclaiming zero-tolerance (and that means an end to those dopy little referee lectures) for tactical fouling would set the tone nicely.
26 comments about "Dempsey reminds us how few read the rulebook".
  1. Paul Spacey, October 18, 2013 at 2:25 a.m.

    As an ex-semi professional player (and now both a UK and US soccer referee), I can confirm that the large majority of players are not familiar with most of the laws of the game. In fact, they are only aware of the basic ones which in a way is understandable; I've never met a player 'geeky' enough to have read the LOTG.

    I agree that more players should read the laws, in fact it would be a good idea to make it part of their education as young players that they learn the LOTG and take a test on it. They would actually be better players for it in my opinion and they would certainly be able to relate better to referees' decisions.

    Will this stop them making tactical fouls though? Of course not; if you're chasing an attacker with your team 1-0 ahead in the dying minutes and you feel he has a chance of breaking into a dangerous area of the field, you will most likely consider fouling him (intentionally obviously) and possibly taking a yellow card for the team.

    It is part of the game, even if it is "cynicallly breaking the rules" as Paul puts it; yes, referees should punish offenders with a yellow card (every time) but it's not something that should be frowned upon, it is simply a tactical move that is part and parcel of soccer. has more insights for coaches and referees.

  2. Howard Wright, October 18, 2013 at 4:25 a.m.

    Paul Gardner, as an ex- player of numerous years, a coach and a referee myself, I do agree with you but it is not only players but also most coaches do not know jack about the LOTG. "Jack is still in the Box" as far as they are concerned. I have been saying that for years now & is very happy that someone has brought that up being that I've had issues with numerous Leagues especially youth, semi-Pro Hight and various Adult & other USSF affiliated leagues especially here in New York where even the Referee Associations seem to be in fear of standing up for fear of losing that particular League. "Politics or Politrics as usual". There are sad to say also referees out there solely for the money and refuses to have the integrity or courage to do what is right or make the unpopular calls so as not to be seen in a negative light or questioned by ignorant players, coaches or fans. Then again some of them rarely attends these clinics or just like I've stated before are out there solely for the money. When one refuses to make the right calls you are only doing an injustice to the other team and when a player deliberately commits a fouls such as this, he is asking for that deserved card and one should oblige him or her without feeling any guilt & if the coach or any other player dissent say "hello" with one of their own.

  3. Howard Wright, October 18, 2013 at 4:30 a.m.

    My correction to previous comment.
    On line 4 after Semi-Pro where it says "Hight" should read "High School".

  4. Jogo Bonito, October 18, 2013 at 6:50 a.m.

    I see this everyday. Nearly all Academy, college and pro coaches I see praise this foul. Refs do nothing 95% of the time.

    Taylor Twellman is so annoying that I'd rather watch a game with commentary in a language I do not speak than listen to him and his British buddy regurgitate the nonsense that so many coaches spit out daily.

    the coaches have become the enemy and only the refs can keep this game beautiful and they almost only disappoint.

    The MLS spent all this money bringing in British refs because, I guess it somehow must have become 1966 again and the Yanks must not know the game well enough to ref it correctly.

    Despite the efforts of the MLS geniuses - nothing changes.

  5. Ryan Dunfee, October 18, 2013 at 8:15 a.m.

    The praise for the foul stems from the fact that it does stop the attack and allows the team to recover to defend the free kick. I'd rather have the whole team to defend than a few defenders scrambling to recover. As a coach I would have no problem with my player receiving a yellow card in the situation, and would still praise the foul because it makes the situation a lot less dangerous.

  6. Jogo Bonito, October 18, 2013 at 8:31 a.m.

    Ryan, while your tactics are clearly part of the problem, you're in the majority of coaches out there. My point proven that coaches are the enemy and only refs can fix this. So far they are not helping.

  7. Kent James, October 18, 2013 at 9:05 a.m.

    PG is right on this one. The ref in the US v Panama game was even worse. A US player was breaking away at the top of our box, a Panamanian behind him reached out and grabbed his arm to slow him down so he could catch him; the US player (Castillo?) broke free, dribbled at speed about 30 yards and then the same Panamanian again grabbed him from behind, and brought him down. The ref called the (obvious) foul, but no card. Without the cards, players are rewarded for this cynical behavior. There should be no such thing as a "good" foul. While it should not be entirely up to the refs, they need to take the lead and punish these cynical, tactical fouls with cards. Since these are calculated fouls, so if you change the calculus, they'll stop. Any commentator praising fouls should be taken behind the wood shed and tactically fouled...

  8. Nick Bruskarito , October 18, 2013 at 9:10 a.m.

    Another smug article from Grandpa Gardner stretching and hoping to make something out of nothing. If you're Portland its a smart foul. If you're Seattle its a reckless yellow. This isn't a 'modern game' issue. Before the 'modern era' these rule book crybabies were confined to the pub - now we have the interwebs. I hope one day Gardner actually gets a reaction from a real player so he can feel vindicated.

  9. Charles O'Cain, October 18, 2013 at 9:21 a.m.

    I am in almost complete agreement with Mr Gardner on this one, except that in my estimate not all tactical fouls are "professional" (a foul which injures the opponent might better be characterized as "un-professional"). Certainly, tactical (intentional) fouls deserve immediate cautions, but dangerous "tactical" fouls deserve something more. But to Jogo, I would say that this has nothing to do with British refs (I'm pretty sure Hilario Grajeda is not British). EPL refs are not at all reluctant to show yellow for tactical fouls, while perhaps being at times too lenient with "honest" challenges.

  10. Andrea Hana, October 18, 2013 at 9:52 a.m.

    Regarding Mr. Gardner's comment:" The Seattle view is that the rules, and the refereeing, are good only when they work to the Sounders’ advantage. Reversing that, we get the unpleasant implication that when the Sounders lose, the refereeing must have been shite."
    I have to say that, I disagree. While in previous seasons we had some referee problems that were quite apparent, I am happy with the recent refereeing regardless of calls made against the Sounders. They were deserved. So, I have to disagree with you, Paul. We just want to be fair. Since you don't obviously follow many of our games, you would not be any kind of authority on that, anyway.

  11. stewart hayes, October 18, 2013 at 9:58 a.m.

    Nick/Ryan sorry but the ends don't justify the means. There are many more examples of gamesmanship such as attackers stiff arming defenders as they approach(a Brazilian art) and defenders obstructing players off the ball. These kinds of fouls as well as the fouls PG refers to should be addressed either by rule changes or fines or player suspensions. As a player, coach and spectator, regardless of the team I am supporting, I want to see the rules applied correctly and consistently. I want to see obvious cheaters penalized in the pocketbook as well. The recent case of Joey Campbell of Costa Rica feign a foul that resulted in a Besler yellow card and him missing the USA/Mexico match is one example. In these cases I feel the player, the coach and the federation should be fined as well as a player suspension. In addition if for example a player commits a foul that results in an injury I feel the fouling player should be held out of competition until the injured player returns. There are many rugged types, dinosaurs of yesteryear, that should get knocked down for their crude play.

  12. beautiful game, October 18, 2013 at 10:11 a.m.

    This type of tactical fouling and other related significant fouling/ issues (encroachment, the 10+ yard walk up for a throw-in, or keepers crossing the penalty box line on punts, persistent 'team' fouling, etc.,) need to be addressed by the league supervisor for refs. As far as the MLS is concerned, the refs appear to not have been given specific instructions on such matters and their inconsistency throughput the season points the finger at the head man. The rules of the game are being bent to extremes and these officials are delinquent in their responsibilities to enforce them. The refs should make it loud and clear during the pre-game review and advise the players of what will not be tolerated, and they should stick to it at all times.

  13. Glenn Auve, October 18, 2013 at 10:29 a.m.

    Well, when you have the guy who is the head of PRO publicly saying that his officials should chat with the players instead of disciplining them, this is what you get. It's the Brit style, no?

    I agree that most players don't know the rules. It would definitely make them better players. And they would have a better idea what they can get away with. And frankly it would also give them a better means to "work the refs" if they spoke the same language.

  14. Kenneth Elliott, October 18, 2013 at 10:44 a.m.

    To start, I'm not sure why PG felt compelled to dis Seattle in that way. I don't watch much MLS, so certainly can't speak to the specifics one way or the other, but any such comment is purely an emotional slight and not necessary.

    But, his point on who knows and effectively interprets the LOTG is spot on, as they say in the land of brutal soccer. Parents of young players, coaches, the players themselves . . . they all seem to enjoy taking umbrage at perceived slights from calls and non-calls by the officials. My favorite parent reaction of all time was a high school game in which I was working as a linesman. A parent standing just beyond the goal line vehemently disagreed with my non call for offsides. Emotionally I just wanted to go off on this gentleman. Intellectually, I desperately wanted to engage in a discussion with him to determine how in the world he could come to such an ironclad conclusion from his disadvantaged vantage point.

    My other favorite situation is the tendency in the U.S. for parents of young players who have not grown up with the game, who have never played, have never watched professional soccer on TV, but who get up in arms whenever a dribbler loses possession to a good defender who cleanly tackles the ball in stride. There is going to be some contact, and at the younger ages it's typically well within allowable limits without the shirt/arm/torso tugging employed at the professional level, but the reaction from the sidelines is a fervent and furious uproar that play isn't stopped and free kicks awarded to the poor dribbler who couldn't maintain possession. I attribute that sort of reaction to a basketball mentality. Further proof that soccer is a superior game to either american football or to basketball. In soccer you are allowed to play defense. Granted, in the professional ranks that allowance has gone way to far in an inappropriate direction. I don't know which would be worse, the current situation in which 22 guys are tugging stuff throughout the game so it's never called, or a constant whistle for any contact on a player in possession. I'm going to go with the latter, although I would dearly love to see the former cleaned up significantly. It would be a brutal process, though.

  15. R2 Dad, October 18, 2013 at 11:28 a.m.

    Stewart, there is a whole range of uses for the arm (tool vs weapon) some allowed, some a foul, some a card. Straight-arming a defender is an accepted use of the arm as a tool (as long as it is not to the head or neck). I rarely see the arm used in this manner in youth matches but it is allowed. So, the Brazilians must know the LOTG well enough to gain advantage over those who do not. In any event, good article by PG addressing an important point.

  16. Larry Geib, October 18, 2013 at 12:34 p.m.

    The laws of the game also say that a player holds another player, Especially, but not only in the box, he MUST be cautioned.

    How many times have you seen play stopped for a holding foul and no caution given?

  17. The Real Pico, October 18, 2013 at 1:27 p.m.

    I remember a long time ago a game in South America between two bitter rivals who had engaged in some very dirty play in prior encounters. Before the start of the game, the main ref called the two captains and tore up the yellow card right in front of them. Both teams were warned, and by the end of the game each one ended with 9 players. I believe the matched ended in a tie, and no-one complained about the result.

    The rules of engagement were made very clear from the start and those who decided not to abide by them paid the price. That was a gutsy ref performance!

  18. John Soares, October 18, 2013 at 1:37 p.m.

    Paul, make up your mind..."Seattle not a place that knows the rules..., of common sense..., blames the ref for their losses". Yet you later state; "Frankly this was VERY poor refereeing". You can't have it both ways... well YOU can:) "Dempsey doesn't know the rules....yet he is absolutely right"?!
    Could it be he actually knows the rules, but as you state he would hope they be consistently applied?! It seems to me (and you got around to saying it) It's the ref that needs to, not only know the rules but apply them. Your article would be just as valuable, perhaps more so without the slam on Seattle and Dempsey.

  19. Tony Marturano, October 18, 2013 at 2:35 p.m.

    Paul, good points but you missed Dempsey's point ... Demspey knows the rules well enough to know that the refs can't call everything yet must call - and card - the fouls which lower the quality of play and punishes players while rewarding the thugs.

  20. Chris Sapien , October 18, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.

    Pico, very smart and appropriate post! I usually do something similar reffing upper divisions.....I tell teams from the first engagement on the field, whether Centering or AR, "I want to see clean & fair challenges only, anything questionable beyond that, expect to see color". I let them figure it out from there. Even before the start whistle, I kindly remind them...... R2, I somewhat disagree, as a straight-arm that initiates contact is a form of a push, or impeding if the one straight-arming is not engaged actively with the experience is to not allow this type of play, since it almost always escalates into the grabbing of that arm by the challenger, or the straight-arming player pushes the challenger as he/she tries to hold them off. You are correct though, Brazil knows they can get away with it....

  21. Kent James, October 18, 2013 at 11:48 p.m.

    Stewart and Pico, I'm with you on the stiff-arm. Although the LOTG do not specifically prohibit it, they should. It is often a push (and many times the player doing it grabs the jersey, if he's not pushing), and 95% of the time leads to the defender grabbing the arm, so it encourages situations outside the laws. I instruct my players when faced with this sort of shielding to knock the arm away. The problem with a stiff arm is that it does not allow a defender to challenge for the ball. I think shielding should be with a bent arm (so the forearm is what holds off the defender); then the defender can still challenge for the ball while the player with the ball gains time to move it under the challenge.

  22. Kent James, October 18, 2013 at 11:54 p.m.

    While we're on pet peeves, can we enforce the laws against encroachment? The laws of the game specifically require a card when a player delays the restart by failing to withdraw 10 yards, yet at the highest level of the game, EVERY restart in a remotely dangerous area is immediately stopped by a defender standing on the ball, waiting to be told by the ref to move back. This completely takes quick restarts out of the game, and makes a mockery of the rules. At this point, players from the team that committed the foul seem to think they have the right to ask for a whistle, not the offensive players. If refs immediately issued cards to any defender less that 5 yds away, this would stop quickly, and we could get on with the game.

  23. beautiful game, October 20, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.

    Bravo Kent. Unfortunately, refs try the 'friendly' approach and the games usually become out of control.

  24. Margaret Manning, October 20, 2013 at 4:03 p.m.

    Sheesh. I know that you need to write something every so often to get paid, but what claptrap. Pretending that the rulebook has much to do with officiating, and dumping on Dempsey for not making an ABSOLUTE statement (for which he likely would have been fined, BTW), is just ludicrous. Claiming that Seattle is unique in its reactions to poor officiating is just as much garbage.

    How about working toward better officiating? I realize that having to exclude reference to a big hit search term like "Dempsey" would reduce the hits on your column, but if you are anything more than a poseur, you'd be writing about substance, not controversies created out of thin air.

    The problem with media these days is the drive for "content" over substance. If you have nothing more coherent to say than that Dempsey was right but didn't complain strongly enough about the ref's clear error, then you have nothing to say. To try to draw a conclusion that the players don't know the rules of the game from Dempsey correctly noting that it was a yellow cardable offense is, well, unintelligible.

  25. Margaret Manning, October 20, 2013 at 4:09 p.m.

    Here's a thought--how about a review of the blatant and cynical dive by Will Johnson that led to a red card for Alonso? Did you catch the balletic grace of the dive and the smirk when he got his result? How's that fit in sportsmanship?

  26. Kent James, October 21, 2013 at 9:09 a.m.

    Margaret, while Johnson did embellish the elbow to the face by dropping to his knees, I don't think he dived. Many players in similar situations clutch their face, go to ground and roll in agony (yes, it's embarrassing to watch such histrionics). It was almost as if Johnson was going to do that, then when he got halfway their (to his knees), he said, "nah, I can't go that far..." and stopped there. As the commentators asked at the time, would Alonso have gotten a card had Johnson not gone to his knees? Probably not. Did Alonso deserve to be ejected? He did intentionally elbow Johnson in the face; not hard, but there was no question about whether he did it. One could argue Johnson provoked it by getting into Alonso's space (I think he bumped him), but Alonso can't complain. The rules call for an ejection of a player "striking or attempting to strike" an opponent, and there is no doubt Alonso did that.

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