Since the argument of “what professional soccer expects” started some years ago the burden on the referee has increased. The transition in the professional game form “refereeing by the book” to the “management of the game” has been neither seamless nor easy. When Massimo Busacca – then the Head of Refereeing for FIFA - introduced the 2014 World Cup referees with a new set of concepts if not all but most of the referees were confused.
The smarter ones understood what is expected of them faster than the others. One thing is clear what is expected of the referees then and still now is just for the professional game. The expectations of the professional game and the amateur/youth one is diversely different and it should be. The first one: the game is played for money/business. The other is played for fun. The losses caused by refereeing decisions in a professional game are not even comparable to similar losses in an amateur game although at times watching some games might give you another impression.
This is why I had suggested that there should be two sets of the Laws of the Game (LOTG): one for the professional game and one for the rest. The rest of the article will be based on the professional game and the LOTG that are governing it. It is clear that the LOTG must be modified to accommodate “what football expects” in the professional game. There are very positive signs from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to that effect.
One of the critical match incidents (KMI) that the referees’ performance is evaluated is sending off (red card) decisions. The red card not only penalizes the player but actually penalizes the team as well as the game itself. In the last couple of weeks, I watched a number of games in which an early red card shown -- usually in the first half -- shifted the whole balance of the game towards the team playing full sided. According to The Numbers Game (Anderson and Sally), “In the Bundesliga, over the five seasons between 2005 to 2010, a single red card cost a team half of its expected points, slicing 1.42 points per game with no red cards to 0.75 with one card. Red cards are very costly – playing 10 against eleven is a recipe for defeat.” Actually the research does not include the first half or early red cards and its effect on the points expected. One thing is clear a red card has a very strong negative impact on the short-sided team.
Of all the professional sports played in North America, the ejected/disqualified player can be substituted. Only in ice hockey the players sit in the sin bin for up to five minutes when power play resumes. The player in the sin bin joins the game after the penalty is over. The only game that I know of other than soccer where the sent-off player is not substituted is rugby.
The game should be played 11 vs. 11 at least at the professional level. This is what football expects. This is an “off the record” advice made to the referees. The professional game does not want the referees to decide the outcome of the game and red cards -- whether correct or not -- do affect the outcome. That is why VAR and GLT have been introduced. If you look at the cases that a VAR can interfere, they are all KMIs except for a second caution. The referees in the professional game try to avoid the red card as much as possible since they know its effect on the game.
That is why Busacca advised the World Cup 2014 referees to delay the first yellow card as much as possible. This is why Howard Webb, one of the best referees of the last two decades and now the General Manager of PRO, said in a TV interview that he will show a yellow card for a challenge in the second half whereas he will be reluctant to show a yellow card for the same challenge early in the game. That is why FIFA referee instructor Esse Baharmast while instructing national referees in the USA said “Yellow card, yellow card, yellow card first” when talking about Denying an Obvious Goal Scoring Chance (DOGSO) in the penalty area after the LOTG have been changed. Both Busacca and Webb know that an inevitable second yellow card will result in a red card so they prefer to have it later in the game where the impact will be less severe. They all know how a red card changes the outcome of the game and they want to avoid it as much as possible. Some “smart” referees will show an “easy” red card to make 10 versus 11 game into a 10 versus 10 game. They also know “what football expects” in the professional game. Let us not forget that there are mandatory cards in the game as well as some black and white red-card decisions that cannot be ignored. So some red cards can be inevitable regardless of the timing.
But as long as the LOTG is not modified to accommodate “what football expects”, these red card decisions will be a burden on the referees’ shoulders. Either they will be criticized for a decision which is not a black and white red card or for being inconsistent like showing a yellow card in the second half for which they did not show a card for a similar offense in the first half. Once the players realize that the referees are reluctant to show yellow or red cards (for serious foul play especially) early in the game, they might test the referees’ game control or exploit the situation by intimidating the opponents.
I have three suggestions to the LOTG -- the LOTG for the Professional game -- that will remove some of the burden from the referee.
The modern professional game is extremely challenging for the referees as they are. IFAB can help them by modifying the LOTG to accommodate “what football expects” from the professional game and narrowing the gap between the application and the letter of the LOTG. This will remove some of the burden off the shoulders of the referee crew, the lonely third team on the field.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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