Commentary

LOTG and 'What football wants'

On March 12, during the MLS game between the Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy, the Portland goalkeeper Jake Gleeson got injured in the last minutes of the game. He landed on his shoulder with the ball in his hands. The referee Baldomero Toledo stopped the game immediately and asked the trainers to evaluate the injury of the goalkeeper. After the goalkeeper was treated, the game had to be started. Since the ball was in play when Toledo stopped the play, he had no other option but to restart the game with a dropped ball.  He dropped the ball right in front of Gleeson so that he can pick up the dropped ball. An LA Galaxy player wanted to get closer, but Toledo asked him to move away.

This is a procedure that you see in many games. It is fair and reflects common sense. The goalkeeper had the possession of the ball before he was injured and should keep the possession after he was treated. That is “what football wants and expects.” Football here represents the players, the coaches, the fans, the owners and everyone who is involved with football (soccer) in one way or the other.

BUT, if you go into Laws of the Game (LOTG) under Law 8 “The Start and Restart of Play” you find the following sentence:

“Any number of players may contest a dropped ball (including the goalkeepers); the referee cannot decide who may contest a dropped ball or its outcome. “ This sentence clearly tells the referees not to "manufacture" dropped-ball situations.

Clearly what Toledo has done was not in accordance with the letter or spirit of the LOTG, but it was a fair decision that “football wants."

If the clash between “what football wants” and the LOTG was confined to this case, then I wouldn’t have written this article.

Let us define a couple of things: The letter of the LOTG is what is written in the LOTG without referring to the history or development of the LOTG or why that particular statement is in the LOTG. The spirit of the LOTG tells us why and how the “letter” is there. So the spirit of the LOTG gives us the foundation of Law 18: Common Sense. With the spirit of the LOTG, the referees diverge from being a mechanical letter of the LOTG implementer.

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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 (ahmet@ahmetguvener.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.

15 comments about "LOTG and 'What football wants'".
  1. John Gordon, March 23, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.

    "What the game wants" is one factor in refereeing judgement. A second factor is "what the players will expect or accept". This factor is really important in judging "handballs". An experienced referee has to anticipate that a player has deliberately put himself in position when he is likely have his hand/arm struck by the ball. As an example a slide across the path of a player dribbling or getting ready to strike the ball increases the chance that there will be contact with the defender's arm. Players of both teams recognize that danger and are more ready to accept a referee's award of a foul for handling the ball in such situation. Fans often get their cue on how they view the decision from the players reaction. Good refereeing sometimes means conveying to the players the understanding of the handling rule by verbally conveying "inadvertent" or "no foul" when a ball does the striking of a "passive" player. Then when more aggressive play by a defender creates a higher risk of "handling" and "the game wants the foul called" the referee has that freedom to put more emphasis on the physical contact and less on the intent. The players are more willing to accept the decision because of the nature of aggressive play, higher probability of contact, and confidence in the referee's judgement. And the fans sense the correctness of the call by the players actions.

  2. R2 Dad, March 23, 2017 at 10:54 p.m.

    "What the game wants" is a very slippery slope, as it means referees are to throw out what they've been trained to do in order to make players/fans/coaches "happy/er". I believe this latest IFAB change regarding restarts will be revisited soon, as this business of restarts requires the referee have that flexibility to do the common-sense thing rather than the current wording which has taken that away. I am more familiar with youth officiating, and we see lots of bad habits from the pros filtering down to the kid's behavior. Take the direct free kick restart. Very young kids will now stand over the ball to prevent a restart. Pros do it, so they do it. Unfortunately, since professional referees don't card that cardable offense, the kids think they have every right to do what they see on TV. Instead of caving into "what the game wants" i.e. standing over the ball, I'm an advocate of education so that all players and coaches become more familiar with the LOTG--because in most cases they have a very superficial understanding. Learn the LOTG so you can use it to your advantage, rather than seeking exceptions to laws you don't like. We see too much of this from elected officials already--I'd hate to see this attitude propagate in this sport that we all love.

  3. Mark Landefeld, March 23, 2017 at 11:17 p.m.

    Does "What the game wants" translate to "we can't seem to articulate how we want LOTG enforced, so just follow our European referees' example"?

    Does the game want all the grabbing and holding that occurs before and during a corner kick?

    Does the game want all ceremonial restarts in the attacking half, because no team thinks they'll have their FK protected if they try a quick kick?

    If the game "wants it", put it in writing -- preferably in LOTG or perhaps a worldwide ATR.

  4. Kent James, March 23, 2017 at 11:42 p.m.

    While I have generally been impressed with Ahmet's columns, this is an exception. It's a bit of a mess. First, he uses the "letter and spirit of the LOTG" as if they are the same thing, when they're not. There's the letter of the law (being a "by the book" referee) and the spirit of the game (achieving the ends the LOTG are trying to achieve by interpreting them and doing things like allowing trifling fouls to be ignored, e.g.). I also think the concept of "what football wants" is not well-defined, though I think R2 is right, that it is attempting to please coaches & players (and fans and owners?). But "what football wants" may also be decided by which team "football" is supporting (at least as regards to referee calls).

    I understand that what Ahmet really means is that the LOTG should be considered in context, sort of like a more liberal interpretation of the constitution that incorporates how views have changed since 1787 as opposed to an originalist interpretation. But I do not think referees should (as individuals) decide what football wants and base their calls on that decision. And it certainly should not be left to the players (if the players on both teams want the hack the crap out of each other, should the ref let them? I don't think so). Referees have an obligation to try to maintain the integrity of the game, by enforcing the rules consistently (consistent with the way the rulemaking bodies have decided they should be enforced) and while using common sense. If those rulemaking bodies want to incorporate "what football wants", that would be fine.

    I do wish the rulemaking bodies would spend more time clarifying the rules so that referees could be more consistent, with the ball hitting an arm out for balance (while slide-tackling, e.g.) being a prime example. I would argue that the spirit of the game would be that if you are not putting your arms out to try to block the ball, you should not be called for handling if the ball hits them while they are outstretched for balance. You should not be punished for having arms, only if you try to use them to affect the path of the ball. But FIFA should make that sort of judgment (rather than having it vary from referee to referee).

  5. Ahmet Guvener, March 23, 2017 at 11:59 p.m.

    To Kent James: I wanted the article to be a mess. Because with this undefined - or at least not well defined - "what football wants" sentence the referees are messed up and confused. Either they should stick the with letter and the spirit of the LOTG (I do define them both seperately in my article) and forget about "what football wants" OR change the LOTG according to "what football wants". This ambiguity must end. That is why I wrote the article.

  6. Kent James replied, March 24, 2017 at 10:39 a.m.

    Fair enough. I agree with the thrust of the article (that how referees call the game should be determined by the LOTG). I also recognize that how a ref calls a game depends on the context of the game (U10 travel game is refereed differently than a professional game). But as you point out, there are some pretty common areas where the LOTG do not match what officials call (though it's less clear if this is because this is "what football wants" or caused by something else). In addition to handling, two other areas are the shoving and grabbing that goes on before(and during) corner kicks, and the delay of the restarts. The LOTG are pretty clear about what should happen in these areas, but it's just as clear they the LOTG are often ignored. Does football want all this clutching and grabbing and obvious delays, or do refs just allow them to get away with it? I certainly don't want to see it, and I'd argue that if refs called the clutching and grabbing consistently (and carded the delays), they would go away and we'd all be better off. But that is where the authorities have to enforce consistency. One ref can't do it on his own. It is a complicated subject, but I thought the thrust of your column got somewhat lost in the confusion surrounding the issue. But keep on addressing those tough subjects!

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, March 25, 2017 at 1:09 a.m.

    The phrase I know and use is "spirit of the game." The LOTG are not more important than the game. I like this old 1998 explanation: "A basic difference between soccer and other sports is that the referee is a 'judge' who interprets the LOTG and applies them as needed to settle disputes between players and teams, not a policeman who applies every LOTG exactly as written to every single case where the law is violated." -- The Soccer-Coach-L LOTG Collective.

  8. Mark Konty, March 24, 2017 at 12:17 a.m.

    Here's a "what football wants" that I believe is artificially applied by many referees in the states: referees who "let them play." I have no idea what this means, though it seems to refer, at least as it applied in games, to NOT blowing the whistle and "disrupting" the game. In practice, however, the result is very physical games where tactics and technical ability become nearly irrelevant. Instead, the players, who are very competitive and want to win, push the limits of the referee's whistle. Inevitably, the game devolves into something they'd have recognized at Rugby in the 19th century. When I broach this with referees, they tell me that no one (i.e. "soccer) wants the referee stopping the game by calling "tacky-tack" fouls. They claim that the flow the game will be disrupted if the referee actually enforces the LotG. This is fatuous nonsense. If referees call a tight game from the opening whistle, the players will adjust their game and get into the flow of a more technical and tactical game. They will foul less and, thus, the game will not be continuously disrupted by the referee's whistle. Over the last 15 years, I've read a lot about "what is wrong with American soccer." One item consistently cited is our lack of technical ability and our tactical acumen. It seems to me that if our referees continue to insist to "let them play," then they are actually creating the conditions where technical and tactical play is less valued. How can you play technically when every time you're on the ball someone slides at your feet? How can you play tactically if every run is met with a shoulder charge? I'm frankly sick of the "let them play" mentality and I truly wish someone would point out to American referees that "let them play" and "tacky tack" appear nowhere in the LotG.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, March 25, 2017 at 2:18 a.m.

    There are two important concepts that support this. 1) Advantage. Don't take away an advantage of the victimized team to stop play and award a free kick. 2) Trivial violations. Minor technical violations of the LOTG that have no impact on the game should not be called.

  10. beautiful game, March 24, 2017 at 11:03 a.m.

    What football wants is a caution for off the ball blatant fouls. What football wants is a caution for is handling or kicking the ball away during an opponents pending throw in or kicking a second ball on the pitch. What football wants is a caution or penalty for the scrum/foul conduct on corner kicks. What football wants is a caution for blatant thuggery in the initial minutes of the games. What football wants is for referees and ARs to comply with TLOG and diminish the tactical player hubris on the pitch. Keeping it simple will make the game better.

  11. Ron Beilstein, March 24, 2017 at 5:35 p.m.

    Rather than opening the article with a dropped ball, Mr. Guvener might have cited another recent Timbers match (vs. Houston) where the referee awarded two (!) PKs for handling the ball. In each case the defender was protecting himself from a hard shot from 10 yards away. The first call came when the defender tried to turn his back on the shot; his elbow was not more than 6 inches from his body. The second call came when the defender raised his hand to his face. In neither case did the defender make his body appreciably bigger. I don't think either of these would have been fouls 10 years ago.
    I am thrilled by the content of Mr. Guvener's articles and by the high-quality commentary in response. Keep the articles and the comments coming.

  12. Eric Williams, March 24, 2017 at 6:25 p.m.

    I more than agree with Nowozeniuk.What happens off the ball in any other context would normally be a criminal assault offence, even one inch over the sideline, but for the referees being in charge of the full stadium in which the offence is committed...including the parking lot?
    Striking the opponent in a reactive aggression in a rough and tumble for the ball should still be treated with the usual red card, but causing any injury to another player off the ball in a premediated and malicious manner warrants a least a 3 year ban or adjudication by local legal recourse outside the FIFA family; this should include medical and loss of wages compensation Paying for pain and suffering could be waved as a culpable assumption of risk that even referees take. Such could also be considered cause to overlook compensation for emotional suffering.
    How much of this is really taking place; could biting be allowed please?

    What clubs really wants is a comprehensive program of club development and performance management that includes a strong technical component

  13. Eric Williams, March 24, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.

    What clubs really want is the Soccer/Football Whisperer...coming soon to your club

  14. Bob Ashpole, March 25, 2017 at 2:24 a.m.

    Good article.

  15. Amos Annan, March 25, 2017 at 8:45 a.m.

    Most handball calls are NOT deliberate and are wrong according to the rules. Stop that.

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