Purists vs. Pragmatists

During the last four years, we have witnessed some of the most radical changes to the Laws of the Game (LOTG) since 1990s when a deliberate pass to the goalkeeper was banned as well as denying an obvious goal scoring chance was penalized with a red card. It is obvious with new changes to the LOTG the purists of the LOTG are losing the battle against the pragmatists of the LOTG.

“What football expects” is determining the rule changes more than the history of the LOTG or its letter or even its spirit. “What football expects” should actually be read as “What professional football expects” -- otherwise, there would not be so many references to technology in the recent changes of the LOTG since the grassroots game can neither afford those technologies nor can request such technologies. Technologies or use of technologies like VAR, GLT, EPTS are all very new to our game. Even the changes in the LOTG for DOGSO or SPA (stopping a promising attack) in the penalty area came from demands in the professional game through the lens of ‘What football expects."

I am personally writing this article neither as a purist nor as a pragmatist but rather as an observer to the changes in the LOTG. 

Recently, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) came up with Law changes for 2019-2020. The interested reader can read the new Law changes and their clarifications at the IFAB site.  On the other hand, in this article I will talk about the new Laws in terms of the history of changes to the LOTG and their relation to “What football expects”.

The first important change involves the substitution process: " A player who is being substituted must leave the field by the nearest point on the touchline/goal line …” This Law change is for stopping wasting time by moving slowly at the halfway line. This Law change is intended definitely for the professional game without really considering the difficulties involved in unlimited substitution/return substitutions in grassroots soccer. Especially in the USA, in youth games when more than one player is substituted, this new Law will bring an extra burden on the referee team to make sure that the same number of players are substituted with the ones going out. This is yet another case which supports my assertion that there should two sets of LOTG -- one for the professional game one for the grassroots. I strongly believe in the next 10 years soccer will have “time referees” -- naturally just for the professional game just like VAR -- and this will remove the burden of changing the LOTG for “time-wasting."

IFAB had been trying to find a solution to the handling call, which had been plaguing the game for many years. Purists would like to return to the “intentional handling” days whereas the pragmatists would like every contact between the ball and the hand to be penalized. IFAB had a very tough decision to make: Whether to remove the word “deliberate” from the LOTG and to define a few cases when a direct free kick or penalty kick should not be called for a contact between the hand and the ball or keep the phrase “deliberate handling” in the LOTG without any major changes. IFAB this year tried to please both the purists and the pragmatists. They kept the word “deliberate” in the LOTG but included some cases of accidental contact between the hand and the ball as an offense. So deliberate handball remains an offense but some “handball’ situations, even if accidental, will be a free kick. Those situations are exactly “what football expects”: Directly or indirectly scoring a goal with accidental handling. The new law also explains cases when a contact between the ball and the hand should not be penalized. The whole clarification of this new Law change revolves around “what football expects” and Law 18 common sense. What the new law does not address is what happens if a goal is prevented by an accidental contact between the hand and the ball.

The purists -- who are usually from the British Isles -- had criticized number of decisions regarding “accidental” handling. There are two worth mentioning: One of them is the cancellation of the goal by Neymar for handling the ball in the Champions League final in 2015. He accidentally played the ball with his arm prior to scoring. Purists thought that the goal should have been allowed since the contact was accidental. Now the new LOTG clearly says that such a goal should be disallowed.

The other one is more recent: The Champions League game between PSG and Manchester United was decided by a penalty kick decision for United. The call came after an on-the-field review which was initiated by the VAR. The purists thought that the contact between the ball and the arms of the PSG player was not deliberate and hence the penalty kick should not have been awarded. The new LOTG says: If “the ball touches a player’s hand/arm which has made their body unnaturally bigger” then a free kick or penalty kick should be awarded. In this case, PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe’s arm made him bigger and the referee decided that it was unnaturally bigger and decided for a penalty kick. So the new LOTG will justify the referee’s decision in this case. 

In both cases, the referees made the decisions based on “what football expects” and not in the letters of the LOTG that were applicable in those years (2015-19). Now, the letter of the new LOTG (2019-20) supports their decisions. So it is time for the purists to reconsider their stand with regard to handling.

Even with the new definition and interpretation of handling, the law as it is leaves a lot of room for subjectivity. Especially the term “unnaturally bigger” will be a cause of a lot of headaches for the officials.

There are two other rather important changes in the new LOTG. One of them now allows referees to caution (yellow card) and send off (red card) coaches and other team officials. (IFAB is working on defining what constitutes a yellow card or a red card for team officials.) This is in line with the high school and college soccer rules in this country. This new change will be very helpful especially in youth games for young referees.

The other Law change puts the ball in play as soon as the ball is kicked for goal kicks and free kicks in their own penalty area. This, I believe, is another change that football expected. It will speed up the game and stop possible “time wasting”. 

Another change in the LOTG that will make the purists unhappy is the inclusion of distances other than 10 yards: Players now have to be two meters/yards away from the player taking the throw-in: players that are not part of the drop ball procedure now has to be four meters/4.5 yards from the ball: during the taking of a ceremonial free kick the attacking players cannot be closer than one meter/yard from the wall. 

A few words about the new drop ball Law change: It leaves no room for manufactured drop balls. 

What is happening is that IFAB has decided to narrow the gap between the letter of the LOTG and what is being implemented and executed by referees following “what football expects.”  For this effort, IFAB should be commended.

Well, this much news might be too much bad news for the purists but these changes are “what football expects”.

Ahmet Guvener ( 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.

4 comments about "Purists vs. Pragmatists".
  1. beautiful game, April 5, 2019 at 9:59 a.m.

    Neymar's goal would suggest that the hand directed the ball from the forehead into the goal...rightfully it was waved off. My biggest peeve is that referees are instructed to mange the game in a "selective" interpretation of LOTG in order to keep the game moving. That to me signals that players can challenge a specific rule without being carded; and that happens throughout every single game. IMHO, "purist v pragmatist" argument is not " what soccer expects"; it's all about a level playing field without referee intrusion and the latter's common sense in enforcing LOTG. I would have been more satisfied that during a substitution, the player leaving the field would receive a caution for stalling his exit off the field. The caution carries more weight when counted for its accumulation & suspension.

  2. Randy Vogt, April 5, 2019 at 12:56 p.m.

    An excellent summary above of the rule changes. One of the many reasons for soccer's worldwide popularity is the simplicity of the rules with the exception of offside. But with black-and-white sometimes now being replaced with gray, the rulebook is unfortunately getting longer. Two examples: DOGSO has been a sending-off offense for the past generation but, in the past 2 years, that has changed IN SOME INSTANCES if a defender commits a DOGSO foul inside the penalty area. Add another gray change above, accidental contact with the hand cannot result in a goal, moving away from a handling offense being a foul only if it's deliberate.

  3. R2 Dad replied, April 6, 2019 at 6:04 p.m.

    Agreed. From 2000 to 2015 we seemed to have little change in the LOTG and this simplified the job teaching and implementing them. The past couple of years has seen more complication due to technology for the professionals but also DOGSO and Offside that requires the amateur officials to be at the top of their game. Hopefully IFAB and FIFA can let these changes set for a few years before stirring things up again. 

  4. John Soares, April 10, 2019 at 4:54 a.m.

    r2, for once I agree with you....kidding!
    Any intentional/unsportsman delay of game could/should be punished with a yellow card.
    Last thing I need as a ref is players in uniform walking along the side or end line often within a couple of feet of those on the field. Yeah not a problem with the pros.
    But just this weekend I watched a player take a good five minutes walking around the field shaking hand, hugging... fans. Yet another distraction. Not good for the game.
    Must be missing the point on this one.
    Goal kick and free kick starts with a dead ball.
    Any time waisting was "before" the kick took place. Just how much more time does it take for the ball to go from the 6 to 18 yard line?

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