IFAB nearly gets one right, UEFA gets it all wrong

By Paul Gardner

Well, well -- how about this? Had to happen some time, I suppose, so here we are: I find myself in agreement with an IFAB decision. At least, partially so.

There was dissension at the annual IFAB meeting this past weekend over the so-called “triple punishment” rule -- under which a player who is guilty of “denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” is automatically red-carded. You add together the penalty kick conceded, the player’s expulsion (leaving his team to soldier on with 10 men), and his subsequent one-game suspension ... and there you have it, a triple whammy.

Not fair, too harsh, says UEFA (and plenty of others, too). So IFAB was asked to delete the automatic red card. A yellow card would be quite enough (but not if the foul, in its physical nature, warranted s direct red). Meaning, just the penalty kick and the yellow card. A pretty drastic reduction, really. No ejection, no suspension.

IFAB said OK, a decision I do not agree with. But it then ignored UEFA’s recommendation that a yellow card should replace the red, and instead ruled that the part of the triple punishment to be lifted would be the subsequent one-game suspension.

Which, if the rule must be weakened, is a much more sensible move as it leaves the now-two-part punishment (a penalty kick and an ejection) where it belongs -- having an impact on the game in which the offense was committed.

UEFA has been heard from very quickly, evidently annoyed -- and probably shocked -- at this unwonted display of independence and common sense by IFAB. Here is UEFA’s huffy retort: “UEFA would like to express its extreme disappointment with the decision taken by IFAB to reject our provision regarding ‘triple punishment.’ The problem with the current law is the mandatory sanction of a red card, which in many cases is too harsh and has a killing effect on the games. Therefore, we also fundamentally disagree with the IFAB's view regarding the one-game suspension, since we feel it totally misses the point.”

Which point would that be? Presumably the one about the red card having “a killing effect on the games.” But is this a sustainable argument? I don’t think so. It presumably refers to a team having to play with 10 men. But that is a “killing effect” that applies to all red cards. Why should it be considered unacceptable for just this one offense? Particularly as this is a rather special type of offense, one that destroys one of the game’s climactic moments -- the scoring of a goal.

Frankly, I cannot see any reason for diminishing the triple punishment. From the start, this notion has the hollow ring of a PR campaign. The term “triple punishment” is meant to deceive and to evoke indignation, a sure sign that the case is weak. As it happens, triple punishment -- the team playing with 10 men, the free kick (it doesn’t have to be a penalty kick to be dangerous), and the suspension -- always follows a red card, any red card.

It is presumably the penalty kick, which UEFA seems to think must mean a goal, that makes things “too harsh.” How so? The penalty kick may be missed. Or it may be saved (quite likely by an illegally moving but unpunished goalkeeper, we’ve seen plenty of that). In which case the offending player, and his team, have “got away with one” ... big time.

The UEFA position is worrying because it seeks to claw back one of the few instances where the rules tell defenders, unequivocally, that if they resort to illegal methods, they will be hit pretty hard. This represents a hard-won victory against something that is unfortunately a persistent part of refereeing: The tendency to give any benefit of doubt to defenders. Anyone who still can’t see that should consider two types of action that occur in virtually every game:

* Penalty kicks: Can there be any doubt that referees do not like giving penalty kicks? That the total of genuine PKs not awarded far exceeds the number of doubtful ones that are given?

* Corner kicks: All that holding and shoving that goes on before the kick is taken, the pause while the referee talks to a couple of players, then the kick is taken ... and the referee blows his whistle before any real goalmouth action happens. The chances of that whistle meaning a penalty kick -- i.e. a foul by a defender -- are minimal, virtually non-existent. The vast majority of those calls are made against attacking players. Well, we’ve all seen the replays and the videos, we know that defenders and forwards are equally to blame ... so how come the forwards rarely get a break?

And need I mention the almost scandalous indulgence that referees routinely show to goalkeepers?

As for UEFA’s argument that red cards have a “killing effect” on the game -- well, of course they do. I am on record, have been for years, as not liking the idea of teams having to play with 10 men.

That brings us to another aspect of the red card controversy -- namely, that overly harsh punishments are likely to be counter-productive. Juries will refuse to convict. Referees will avoid making the call. In both cases, out of a feeling that they are doing right thing, that they are being fair.

This is something that should be looked into by IFAB and its advisory panels. But the investigation must be a game-wide project to assess the overall effectiveness of the red-card-ejection process. What is not needed is what UEFA is pushing: a contentiously selective attempt to weaken the rule in just one situation. An attempt that tells defending players that, once again, the referees are on their side, and that makes “denying a goal-scoring opportunity” -- a major offense, I would have thought? -- considerably less risky.

If such a move has to be made (frankly, I think it’s a rotten idea) then I think IFAB, by lifting the player’s suspension rather than removing the red card as UEFA wish, has got this one right. Partially right, that is.

16 comments about "IFAB nearly gets one right, UEFA gets it all wrong".
  1. Glenn Auve, March 1, 2015 at 7:36 p.m.

    This article is very unclear to me. What did IFAB say "OK" to exactly?

  2. John Soares, March 1, 2015 at 7:39 p.m.

    This is good news!!! This rule has been problematic from day one. In most cases the "goal scoring opportunity" is just that....a MAYBE, while the PK is a 90%+ certainty. A yellow card for the foul + a PK (red if violent) IS the correct action.

  3. Rick Potts, March 1, 2015 at 7:56 p.m.

    Too much of what you have written about in this article, denying a goal scoring opportunity, holding in the box on corner kicks, and I'll throw in embellishing a foul and or injury to draw a call or a card, have been ignored by professional referees for so long that is now considered in most of the soccer playing world as "part of the game". BS! These nuances of the modern game, in my opinion, are ruining it. The professional level of football is based largely on decision making. Those making more good decisions quicker than his opponent will usually prevail. In your article above, the decision to make a risky last grasp tackle in a goal scoring situation and failing resulting in a foul, is a BAD decision and needs to be punished. Most players at that level know EXACTLY what they are doing and what the consequences are if they don't get it right. I feel there needs to be no changes in the triple punishment and refs need to be MORE diligent in calling these fouls and dives that are NOT PART OF THE GAME!

  4. Ric Fonseca, March 1, 2015 at 9:08 p.m.

    so Paul Gardner, is the glass half full or half empty? Methinks you're not even sure yourself!!!

  5. Ric Fonseca, March 1, 2015 at 9:11 p.m.

    Hey Senor Pablo Jardinero, please, pay tell is, if, outside of schoolyard-street football, did you ever play the game, officiate a game, or even manage a full side, or have you just honed your football-soccer knowledge with the stroke of the mighty pen???

  6. John Soares, March 1, 2015 at 9:52 p.m.

    Ric, Sometimes you are right on... and sometimes, it's "What the hell". It is you that failed to make "your point/opinion. Many of the top "experts" of any sport were NOT "field" experts/experienced. Paul, often (I think intentionally) challenges the norm/standard. In this case I agree with him. if you don't...OK, Why not? present your case??

  7. John Soares, March 1, 2015 at 10:10 p.m.

    Also Ric, your translation of Gardner-Jardinero is at best childish. Is Fonseca very good Portuguese Porto) wine. A relatively unknown bay. Or in this case "simply" your name?

  8. Kent James, March 1, 2015 at 10:34 p.m.

    Sorry Paul, I have to agree with UEFA on this one. Cards are designed to change the calculus that determines whether or not a player commits a foul. As John says, most players are unlikely to consciously choose to give away a PK; yes, a PK might be worth it if the alternative was stopping a sure goal (handling on the line, e.g.), but not just a 'goalscoring opportunity'; as a long-time devotee of the game, I'm sure you know that most 'goalscoring opportunities' do not become goals. I have less of a problem with the "triple" punishment than with the "double" (the red card and the PK). This is especially true for keepers, since almost any time they are committing a foul, they are denying a goal scoring opportunity, and it is rare that such a foul is purposeful. Eliminating the automatic red might encourage referees to award more PKs (since when the decision is "PK and red card v. no foul", most refs will only call the former if they are 100% sure, which probably means they let a few go that they shouldn't). On the other hand, I agree that this should probably be done in reconsidering the whole role of a red card; I'd suggest that a player should be tossed (and PK awarded for any DGSO), but the team should be allowed to replace the ejected player with a sub (if they have any left). More ejections and more goals, but fewer games with 11 v 10.

  9. Zoe Willet, March 2, 2015 at 12:10 a.m.

    For what it's worth (I have absolutely no creds), I agree with UEFA, Soares, and James. As for he wearing a straw hat and pushing a wheelbarrow, it seems he has gotten to be more and more just a crotchety old man.

  10. Scott Johnson, March 2, 2015 at 1:42 a.m.

    One part of the problem is that refs are loathe to call borderline fouls in the box (even if no card is warranted), because if they do, then they must award a PK. For fouls in the box the ref has only two options (ignoring bookings): do nothing, or point to the spot. (Or call diving and book the defense, if you're in the EPL...) On the other side of the coin--some professional fouls in the box really do merit serious discipline; think Luis Suarez's flagrant handball vs Ghana in the 2010 World Cup. For offenses in the box, I would instead give the ref three options instead of just one: for minor violations (particularly off-ball), a free kick from outside rather than a PK; for stronger violations--a PK as is done today. And for egregious professional fouls like Suarez' handball--simply award the attacking team the goal.

  11. Gus Keri, March 2, 2015 at 10:03 a.m.

    I disagree with IFAB. Look at this way: When there is a 50/50 situation in the PK area (and this is the majority of them), both the attacker and the goalkeeper will go for it. If the attacker is a fraction of a second late, the ref whistles for a foul only. No further punishment. If the GK is a fraction of a second late, he gets red card (now without the suspension) and a PK. It's completely unfair. Secondly, Red card is given for denying a goal scoring opportunity (GSO). But the attacker has more chance to score from a PK than from a GSO. The punishment by giving PK to the attacker more than compensate for the GSO and there is no need for sending off. My solution is: if the foul took place inside the PK area, a PK and a yellow card is enough punishment for the GK. But also, the attacker should be punished with a yellow card if he is late. You can't just let the attacker get away with something you are willing to punish the GK for.

  12. Scott Johnson, March 2, 2015 at 10:51 p.m.

    One problem: I think the definition of a "professional foul" is a bit too loose, given the consequences (automatic red). Handling in the box, ala Suarez, sure. Tacking a player who is facing an open net from behind, OK. But a goalie fouling an attacker who is in front of him probably should be not red-carded for a professional foul--as he was still between the ball and the goal, a "clear goal scoring opportunity" wasn't there. A PK is probably still in order, but such plays (assuming an ordinary foul) probably don't merit an ejection.

  13. Scott Johnson, March 2, 2015 at 11:02 p.m.

    One particular "professional foul" that annoys me is the open-field tackle from behind, particularly if the keeper is still guarding the net. A simple restart (allowing the defense to set) is too lenient, but a red is too harsh. Instead, I would propose this: For open field tackles from behind where the ball-carrier is in the attacking half (but NOT in the box--in that case, a PK instead), and has no more than one defender between him and the goal (including the keeper), the penalty be as follows: No cards issued (unless the severity of the foul merits additional discipline). Play is restarted from the spot of the foul. Defending goalie must start from his line. All others players except the player restarting play (who may be anyone on the offense, not just the player who was fouled) must line up ten yards behind the ball, or ten yards behind the top of the box (in case the foul occurs beside the box), whichever is further from the goal. The goalie may not come off the line, and the other players may not cross the line they are positioned behind, until the restarting player touches the ball. Unlike most free kick restarts, the restarting player need not pass to a teammate; he can keep the ball for himself. The offside rule is not in effect (the restart begins in an offside position, after all) until the ball goes out of play, or is possessed by the defense, or a goal is scored.

  14. Rick Potts, March 3, 2015 at 11:09 p.m.

    Scott are joking right?

  15. Alex Michalakos, March 4, 2015 at 2:48 p.m.

    As usual, the rule Amendment has swallowed the rule. The impetus for giving a red card for Denying a Goal Scoring Opportunity was defenders deliberately taking down from behind players on a breakaway outside the box. It was a good decision for the defender because he gets only a yellow card and there's no PK--the offensive team get only a free kick (so good that we were TAUGHT to do this in the Chicago ethnic leagues). With a red card to deter him it may not be worth it for the defender to take him down. In other words the red card would discourage those professional fouls in which a player was in on goal. But now that's been expanded such that ANY foul in the box can be a red card, even when it is accidental. When a goalkeeper arrives an instant late, the PK is enough, especially as often the attacker was going nowhere. Let's be honest--there are few instances where a player will deliberately foul someone in the box, so adding a red card on top does nothing to affect behavior.

    It's been the same problem with offside. Before the amendment ANY player being in an offside position--even on the opposite side of the field, on the ground, or running the other way--could be the basis for denying a goal or a breakaway. Everyone agreed it wasn't good because they were without a doubt not interfering with the play. But instead of keeping it to that, we broadly interpreted that language to allow players to come within a few feet or inches of the ball or the goalkeeper and then assert that they were not interfering, on their esoteric level.

    If we remember why the amendments came about, and we take into account deterrence and behavior, we can have some sane interpretations or re-writes.

  16. Scott Johnson, March 4, 2015 at 4:04 p.m.

    Thinking outside the (penalty) box. I know, such proposal would ignore decades of soccer history and will go nowhere. OTOH, the idea of Ronaldo with a ten yard head start from 40 yards out, bearing down on a keeper...

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