Commentary

Battle of Stamford Bridge, a case study of how soccer would not want or expect a game to be officiated

Some years ago -- maybe 10-15, I cannot be exact -- there was a change in how the games were officiated. FIFA wanted less of officiating by the book and more of man management. (The use of man in the phrase does not imply gender discrimination). I can see what they were getting at. Especially among those referees who did not play the game, I can also see this letter of the Laws of the Game (LOTG) refereeing. For example, they ask me why the caution was issued for a case. They are worried whether it was because of unsporting behavior or delay of start of game. They do not understand that the key part is the game control and to know when to issue a caution. The detail why a caution is issued might be useful only when you file a game report. For example, for them the reduction of cautioning reasons from seven to six was more important than why it was reduced. Unfortunately, we have a good number of referees in this country that never played the game.

That is understandable at the lower levels of the game. Every referee should know the letter of the LOTG. There is no excuse not knowing them. But when it comes to the “spirit” of the LOTG, “what football would want” and Law 18: Common Sense, it is a different story. You need to know the history of the LOTG and have a lot of experience with soccer whether be as a player, coach and/or referee. For “man management,” you have to know all three concepts – spirit, what would football want and common sense – well.  I must admit that there is a very thin and somehow ambiguous line between the three. It is difficult to tell where one starts and where one ends.

For the novice referee let me give examples of each:

Common Sense: If you are assigned to a U-12 youth game and the field does not have corner flags. Although the letter of the LOTG says you must have corner flags, you should allow the game to be played and report it to the proper authorities. That is common sense. The key thing at that level is for the kids to enjoy the game. You cannot do the same thing for professional games, though. 

For the 2002 World Cup, Turkey was playing a playoff game against Austria. The first leg ended 1-1 in Austria. The referee was Pierluigi Collina, one of the best referees of all time. At the end of regulation time, Turkey was leading the game 5-0. Collina ended the game exactly at 90 minutes without adding any additional time although there were numerous substitutions and injury stoppages. That was common sense under those circumstances. There was no way Austria or any other team would score five goals in a few minutes of added time, instead you as the referee might be opening a can of worms since the losing team might lose their tempers.

Spirit of the LOTG: The spirit of the LOTG now first time is mentioned in the LOTG 2017-2018. Let us think of a league game in which Team A is leading Team B 2-0. At the 30th minute of the game, the goalkeeper of Team B controls the ball with his/her hands for over 10 seconds. If you call an indirect free kick, you will definitely be following the letter of the LOTG -- hence be a “book” referee. But if you do not call the indirect free, then you would be showing an understanding of the spirit of the LOTG and hence “man managing." In this context, the spirit of the LOTG can be defined as the reason for the inscription of the letter of LOTG. This specific Law was written so that goalkeepers will not waste time. Why would the goalkeeper of a losing team waste time?

What would football (soccer) want: Like the spirit of the LOTG “what football wants/expects” is also now in the LOTG 2017-2018. “The Laws cannot deal with every possible situation, so where there is no direct provision in the Laws, The IFAB expects the referee to make a decision within the ‘spirit’ of the game -- this often involves asking the question, “What would football want/expect?”  The application and the answer of “what would football want” might be problematic. Sometimes the application contradicts with letter of the LOTG as well as the reasoning behind the letter or as I call it its spirit.

The best examples are with deliberate handling. I have written an article about six months ago about this topic. For example, FIFA advises the referees to call handling if a player slide tackles and he/she misses the ball and the ball hits his hand. It is a very simple interpretation of handling and lifts a lot of burden from the referee in identifying whether the contact was “deliberate” or not.  On the other hand, this interpretation is neither in line with the letter of the LOTG nor the fact -- or spirit - -that the contact between the ball and the hand must be deliberate unlike all other 10 fouls against a player which does not mention “deliberate” or “intent." IFAB is working on a new definition of handling so “what would football want” is less problematic in terms of “deliberate handling”.

Let us go back to our “man management” approach. Recently, Mark Clattenburg stated that he allowed Tottenham to self-destruct against Chelsea in 2016. Although later he modified his statement a little, the bottom line is that although he cautioned nine Tottenham players he did not send anyone off because he did not want Tottenham to accuse him of losing the EPL championship. (Later on, Mousa Dembele of Tottenham was suspended for six games based on video findings.) Clattenburg did not want to be Tottenham's scapegoat for losing the championship. He says that his philosophy is:  “Manage it, don’t control it. Understand the rules, don’t enforce them. Be an auteur, not a policeman. And above all, let the game play.”

I did not watch the game in entirety. Tottenham was leading 2-0 at halftime and Chelsea tied the game 2-2 with an Eden Hazard goal in the 83rd minute. Looking at a short collage of the nasty fouls, it is obvious that Clattenburg could have easily sent off a few Tottenham players but he did not. He admits it; he says that he did not want the Tottenham players to blame him and wanted the players on the field decide the outcome and not his decisions. It seems a bit selfish, but this philosophy might be appealing to a number of people, including some referee administrators or leagues. Especially in playoff and final games, a lot of people -- especially owners -- think that players must decide the outcome, not the referees’ decisions, and this is not specific to soccer only. The most dreaded decisions in soccer are red cards and penalty kicks. It is also a well-known fact that you will criticized less if you miss those two calls rather than calling a wrong or questionable red card or penalty kick. 

Let us have a look at the Chelsea-Spurs game above from another perspective. The ugly game started before the tying goal was scored by Chelsea. What would have happened if Dembele -- who should have been sent off -- scored a third goal for Tottenham or being intimidated by Tottenham’s aggressive and brutal style of soccer Chelsea did not react positively and score a goal. Wouldn’t Clattenburg influence the game this time in favor of Tottenham? Wouldn’t he be blamed by Chelsea and even Leicester City.

The cautions and sending offenses are mostly subjective. What is reckless and what is using excessive force are very much subjective. There are mandatory yellow and red cards that any referee has to issue, like a caution for removing one’s shirt after scoring a goal. The referees have a lot of leave way when it comes to most of the other types of cautions and sending offs. Clattenburg used this area of uncertainty to “manage” the game. In his words, he managed the game and did not control it. Apparently, he must be proud of his “management” -- he mentions it after nearly two years.

We tell all referees at all levels that the first item for the referee is match control. The referee is responsible for the welfare and the safety of the players. It is obvious that this was not Clattenburg’s first concern in this game. You can both man-manage and control a game. I hope that he does not refer to his style on that match day to “what football would want." Definitely, the way that game was officiated or rather the “Battle of Stamford Bridge” was not what football would want or expect.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of 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, TX.

6 comments about "Battle of Stamford Bridge, a case study of how soccer would not want or expect a game to be officiated".
  1. James Madison, December 14, 2017 at 9 p.m.

    I understand Clattenburg's thinking in the Spurs-Chelsea match referred to, but, as an assessor, would have asked him the question: wouldn't a timely send-off have resulted in the remainderof the game being played more fairly and at less risk of injury to the players involved?  Even at the highest levels, the team of officials is expected to make the game fair, safe and fun.

  2. Kent James, December 15, 2017 at 12:06 a.m.

    I agree with Ahmet and James. Unfortunately, there are referees with Clattenburg's mindset ("I don't want to send someone off in a final").  While I appreciate the idea of not determining the outcome, if a player commits a clear sending off offense, he should be sent off. Not doing so can impact the game as much as doing so.  Certainly one should be sure before sending someone off, but if it needs to be done, it should be.


    This is the same mentality that says if you didn't give out any yellow cards, you must have had a good game.  Or if you gave out a lot of yellow cards, you must have had a bad game.  I once had a college game where I gave out 11 yellow cards, and it was a great game (I think it ended 3-2 in OT) and nobody complained.  In that game, a sub came on and committed a clear late tackle, and I gave him a yellow card.  Five minutes later, he did the exact same thing, and I ejected him. His actions determined his fate.   

  3. Doug Broadie, December 15, 2017 at 2:22 p.m.

    The game was refereed by the English tradition.  I have found that a yellow card in England is equal to a Red in France, Spain and Germany.  Sometimes in Italy!  For my part, I do not find that this style of refereeing adds to the game.  In fact, I believe that it subtracts from the game.  Pep the other day said that English football is the most defensive league in the world and I believe that is because of how the referees perform.  If they would properly enforce the rules, there would be more scoring.
    Now transfer the English tradition to MLS and you have Peter Walton and unfortunately, wind up with the same type of refereeing.
    I'll finish with my two favorite complaints.  Standing in front of the ball by the defensive team on a free kick.  One yellow card issued early in the game would prevent this.  (My favorite line from a kid is "My coach told me to," and I reply to him, "Your coach isnt getting the yellow is he".)  My second one is: Isn't obstruction still in the laws of the game?  As Phil Shane noted on a recent broadcast, he remembers it last being called in 1998!

  4. Doug Broadie, December 15, 2017 at 2:29 p.m.

    As to your comment about an arm on the ground while sliding to stop a shot being a foul.  As a former baseball player, I suggest that you try and slide without your trailing behind you.  You are asking for serious injury to that player.  Is that what they want in the game.  More injuries.  They are way off base on this one.
    As an Internation referee said to me, "There are very few real handballs in the game."

  5. John Gordon, December 17, 2017 at 12:19 p.m.

    As a referee, I have been faced many times by a team going "sour".  You can maybe try to get the game refocused and flowing through advange calls to help refocus the play on skill and tactics.

    You can find an opportunity to stop a game - call a foul - let the players take a breath, regroup - then say a few words of caution as the kick or throw-in is being set up, even just hold the play for five or six seconds - so everyone knows you are watch a specific development and are preparing for action - get players away from emotional reaction to thinking.

    But at some point, for player safety and game control and "to protect the skill and beauty of the game" you have to set standards and you have to be prepared to take firm decisive action.

    The referee of the Spurs - Chelsea match failed his duties and is a bad example of refereeing.

    And there have been games for me where, after sending off a player who earned the red card, the team that was now short refocused and came back and won the game.

  6. R2 Dad, December 17, 2017 at 4:44 p.m.

    I have no experience calling professional matches, but i venture to say amateur referees are much more hesitant to pull a red/second yellow because they don't want to do the additional paperwork; 2 minutes turns into 30 minutes + any follow-on emails/phone calls. This aversion leads to ununiformed officiating from U15-U19 (as most would attest). Professional referees have to do a more extensive game report anyway so the red card papework is relatively incremental. But they have other circumstances to deal with when officiating high level matches.

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