Soccer's new-look rulebook (Part 2): Making room for the Spirit the Game

By Paul Gardner

Alongside the changes in the organization and wording that David Elleray and his team have brought to the revamped rule book go what I think of as “mood” changes -- the business of modernizing the rules, of making them “more accessible,” etc. Tucked away in that category is a time-bomb of a phrase that makes its first appearance in Rule 5, which tells us that referees, in making their decisions, will factor in not only the rules but also the spirit of the game.

Most people -- including most referees -- will, I think, find that a sensible guideline. Referees who stick too strictly to the letter of the law are generally regarded with disapproval, seen rather as unfeeling, robo-refs. Here, in black-&-white, is a phrase that allows referees to ease off on the rules in cases where they feel that an injustice would be done by strictly applying them. While rigid application of the rules might be all well and good at the pro level, what sense would it make to call off a youth game because a corner flag is missing?

That’s the good side. But there are also strong arguments against the rules containing anything that allows a referee to ignore the rules he should enforcing. The danger is that refereeing will become too lenient, that referees will “let too much go.” We already see quite a lot of this from referees who like to chat with players, and to issue “oral warnings” when they should be dishing out yellow cards.

The oral warning, incidentally, is not to be found in the rules, not a hint of it. It is, ostensibly, a “spirit of the game” procedure ... but it is always used to allow an offending player one more chance, thus giving the “spirit of the game” a decidedly pro-defense cast.

In theory find myself strongly in favor of the spirit of the game approach. In practice, I’m not so certain when I look at the way oral warnings and the accompanying chats so often end up favoring physical play.

It would greatly help if the spirit of the game were given a positive twist. This could be done with another “mood” change, encouraging referees to be more impartial when they make a “benefit of doubt” judgment. This is another topic on which the rules are silent. At the moment, most of the decisions favor the defending team. A bias which cannot be justified but which is deeply embedded in the refereeing mind - though no referee has ever been able to tell me where it comes from, or to point to any official status for it. A bias in favor of the attacking team - which would do much more to encourage creative, offensive play -- is a much better idea.

One topic that remains unclarified by the new rule book is the duty of the various officials during penalty kicks and shootouts. Encroachment is never mentioned in this context -- we are left to infer that it is the referee who should keep an eye on it, even though his recommended position is not well-chosen for him to do so.

Goalkeeper movement? Well, at penalty kicks the assistant referee (AR) is tasked with watching for movement and with spotting whether the ball has crossed the goal line (in the short Guidelines for Match Officials section, the AR is told to raise his flag if the goalkeeper blatantly  moves off the goal line). If additional assistant referees are used, one of them takes over exactly those tasks.

Positioning at a shootout is shown by diagrams in the Guidelines section, but the specific tasks for the AR and the AAR are not stated.

This is highly unsatisfactory. The duties of the AR and the AAR are ill-defined or not defined at all, while goalkeeper movement must now be blatant -- a slippery word not used in the rules. Encroachment seems to be barely worth a mention -- the otherwise excellent Summary Table simply omits the situation where players from both teams encroach (a step back from previous rule books).

All of the faults I’m picking on can be easily remedied. They seem to me to be nothing more than relics from the previous era of patrician superiority, the days when the IFAB did not feel obliged to explain anything to the great unwashed. How else to explain, in the Guidelines, this advice: “As a general rule, the AR should not use obvious hand signals . . .” Any signals should be “discreet”. Why the secrecy? That is precisely the sort of obscurantism that needs to be swept out of the rulebook.

For me, the only serious disappointment of this revision is that no thought seems to have been given to composing an Index to the rules. This is particularly surprising because so much of the necessary preliminary work must have been done during the many hours that the revisionists spent reading, re-reading, editing and adapting their material. A well-organized rulebook -- which is the aim of this revision -- needs an index.

Overall, Elleray and his fellow revisionists have accomplished a good deal. The birth of the “Details of Law Changes” section is the key, marking a revolutionary change in attitude. There is now a willingness to explain things. That willingness needs to be strengthened, for sure, because it is still detectably tentative.

The Law Changes Explained and the Glossary should be celebrated as two of the brightest innovations, yet they are introduced as ‘new’ sections, with bashful inverted commas. As though baldly asserting that they are straightforward new would be claiming too much. Not at all. Much has been done. And much remains to be done.

On a lighter note: Rulebooks are unlikely places to find knee-slappers, but I find a lovely line of gently hinted humor on page 86: “choreographed celebrations are not encouraged.”

Good luck with that one, guys.

Soccer's new-look rulebook (Part 1): Much improved but still a way to go

12 comments about "Soccer's new-look rulebook (Part 2): Making room for the Spirit the Game ".
  1. beautiful game, May 15, 2016 at 1:24 p.m.

    The game needs a reinvention of some rules. Video replay on any questionable goal scoring to be assessed by an official upstairs. Daylight between players in calling an off-side. Cautioning defensive players for picking up the ball after a foul (delay of game that has not been enforced for ages except in the youth tournaments). Punishing encroachment!!! Professional off the ball fouls caused incidental to advantage situation, hardly ever cautioned, but the rule exists.

  2. Doug Broadie, May 15, 2016 at 1:33 p.m.

    Do the new rules include obstruction? The last time I saw that called was around 1998 in the pro game, but it happens all the time and stops a number of offensive plays. A number of PK calls that I've observed should have been called as obstruction, or nothing at all as there wasn't a physical challenge to the play.

  3. Allan Lindh, May 15, 2016 at 2:01 p.m.

    Right on IW, can't believe there is a comment that I agree with 100%. Except that I would let the 4th official initiate the video replay, and let (s)he and the ref make the final call on the sidelines. Give the 4th official something to do, and involve the ref in the final decision.

  4. beautiful game replied, May 16, 2016 at 9:23 a.m.

    A.L., it would take the fourth official too long to review the play. A fifth official upstairs in the tech room could do it in seconds.

  5. Scott Johnson, May 15, 2016 at 3:42 p.m.

    Why referee decisions have a defensive bias (particularly if you define "defense" as the team whose end the ball is in, as opposed to who may have possession--i.e. a team with possession in their own area is still "defending" until they cross midfield) is obvious: The penalty for a foul on the defense is far harsher for the same foul on the offense, especially if in the box. Perhaps that's the way things ought to be--and if the other team doesn't like it, they should arrange for the ball to be in the other side's penalty box, so they get the advantage of a favorable restart.

  6. R2 Dad, May 15, 2016 at 8:46 p.m.

    “As a general rule, the AR should not use obvious hand signals . . .” Any signals should be “discreet”. This is SOP for ARs. When unsure on the direction of a ball going out of bounds, the AR will indicate with a hand across the stomach (for fat old guys, belly or gut would be approrpiate) which way (s)he thinks the ball should go, before indicating with the flag. That way, both the referee and AR will indicate at the same time, in the same direction. The referee can always override, indicating his preferred direction in a similar fashion. As Mr. Gardner knows, the AR's job is to assist but not insist.

  7. beautiful game replied, May 15, 2016 at 11:45 p.m.

    In most cases the ARs hands are tied by the man in the middle who wants total control.

  8. Charles Stamos, May 16, 2016 at 11:28 a.m.

    Some great comments - obviously some quality refs commenting - I love the spirit of the game emphasis - how about using that to punish the team guilty of feigning injuries to waste time by adding some to injury time.

  9. Scott Johnson replied, May 16, 2016 at 2:04 p.m.

    Feigned injuries are already punisheable with a booking, no?

  10. Charles Stamos, May 16, 2016 at 4:09 p.m.

    Yes, but it's hard to not stop the game for a minor injury with a player rolling around on the ground; you don't book that, yet it wastes time

  11. R2 Dad replied, May 18, 2016 at 12:04 a.m.

    Yes, especially in added time, when players are more likely to participate in that kind of behavior because the referee can't/doesn't add time to injury time. It's not written in the LOTG but that's standard practice.

  12. Scott Johnson, May 18, 2016 at 1:53 p.m.

    Dumb question: When has a youth game ever been called off because of a missing corner flag? I've been to many youth games with substandard conditions (ARs who don't show up; a pitch which is a mudhole, missing line markings and cones used instead; wrong-sized goals), and as long as the conditions affect both teams equally, I've never seen a match protested (or abandoned or forfeited) for that. I'm sure it's happened, but I suspect such things are rare...

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