A couple of years ago, I started hearing from
top level referee instructors and administrators the phrase “what football wants.” Now even the most conservative organ of soccer, the IFAB, talks about “what football wants.” What is “what football wants”? It is definitely cyclical and
situational. “What football wanted” 10 years ago is different than “what football wants” today, it will be different in 10 years later.
So now we have a third layer -- the letter, the spirit of the LOTG and “what football wants.” “What football wants is not a static written document. The smartest referees understand “what football wants” without being told in the tournaments or games they are officiating and act accordingly. That is why they are the best referees anyway.
My colleagues in Soccer America and commentators think they do not need any changes to the LOTG as long as LOTG are implemented fairly. They get frustrated when they see a playoff game, a final or a tournament in which the LOTG are not applied according to the letter or the spirit. I can assure you that the referees in those games are officiating with “what football wants” in their minds.
In 2014 when IFA’s Head of Refereeing, Massimo Busacca, told the referees in the World Cup to referee the games with “what football wants” in their minds, a majority of the referees got confused. The smart ones did not, because they knew “what football wanted” from them in such tournaments. The instructions included things like no easy or early yellow cards; the second yellow card for a player must be crystal clear. Basically the message was clear: Let the teams decide the outcome and not you.
Let us look into another Law, namely Law 12. Handling is the only direct free offense that does not involve an opponent and is preconditioned by the word “deliberate”: “direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offenses: handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within their penalty area)."
According to this definition, the contact between the hand and the ball must be deliberate for it to be an offense, whereas in other offenses you look at the outcome. Whether a player wanted to kick an opponent or whether he missed the ball and kicked the opponent makes no difference in awarding a direct free kick or a penalty kick. A deliberate action of kicking is not sought in deciding for a foul.
IFAB explains this in the LOTG as:
“Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:
• the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand);
• the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball);
• the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.”
Although not binding, UEFA in its Practical Information for Match Officials gives a number of criteria for deciding on deliberate handling. One of them says, “Are the player’s hands or arms in a ‘natural’ position?" What is the natural position of the hands or arms? For example, if a player loses his/her balance, falls down and in order to protect himself from the fall he expands his arms; are the arms in a natural position? If a ball comes and strikes the arm. is that an offense since the arms are outstretched? Since being in a natural position depends on the situation UEFA put quotes around natural.
Unfortunately, we now see both calls on the field and instruction by high level instructors contrary to the letter and spirit of the Law although they are in accordance with “what football wants.” If ball is kicked away from the goal by a defender and hits the arm of an attacking player and a goal is scored, you are expected to disallow the goal regardless of any criteria. There are instructions which say if a player slide tackles and misses the ball with his/her feet and the ball hits his hand which is a natural position, then you must penalize the player since he/she takes a risk by slide tackling.
I can count a number of more examples which is not in the letter or spirit of the LOTG, but according to the principles of “what football wants” the non-deliberate contact between the hand and the ball is penalized with a direct free kick or a penalty kick. If you watch lots of professional games, you can see an increase in the number of direct free kicks or penalty kicks called for deliberate handling. At least some of those you would not have seen being called some years ago. Many federations are confused between the LOTG and “what the football wants” interpretation of deliberate handling.
I am not saying that we should disregard “what football wants.” Football is the referees’ customer and the customer is always right. What I am saying that the gap between the letter and spirit of the LOTG and “what football wants” is widening. We should modify the LOTG according to “what football wants.” May be we should remove the precondition “deliberate” from handling. Maybe! I am delighted to read that IFAB intends to modify the Law 12 with regard to handling. I hope at least the gap will be reduced between the advised application and the LOTG.
But somehow I should be able to answer the question of beginner referees when they refer to Toledo’s application and the instruction given by the LOTG which prohibits manufactured dropped balls.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.