Commentary

Messi yellow card exposes the soccer rules snafu

Lionel Messi, without any shadow of doubt, is one of the all-time greatest players among the millions who have ever played this game of soccer.

An absolute gem, brilliantly sparkling with soccer skills, a joy to watch -- an enormous credit to the sport. But does soccer appreciate what it has, what Messi means -- in terms of the sport’s image?

On the whole, I’d say yes. The list of his personal trophies is extraordinary -- his repeated winning of FIFA’s player of the year award (six times since 2009), the eight seasonal awards given to him by Spain’s LaLiga for being its best player, are part of a huge list. This year, Messi won the Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsman of the Year -- for awarded to "the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement."

Yet amid all these hurrahs, the sport of soccer manages to introduce a sour note. Just a few days ago, Messi -- playing in a UEFA Champions League game against Napoli -- was given a yellow card by German referee Felix Brych.

A yellow card for a challenge that Brych presumably considered reckless, that showed “disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent.” Well of course, one balks at that ... I mean, Messi a dirty player?

You would be 100% right to question this call. It was blatantly wrong. The culprit, though, is not referee Brych. Nor is it the rules themselves. The guilty party here is “accepted practice” -- the tradition that insists that referees ignore goalkeeper fouls.

Here’s what happened. We’re at the 63rd minute in the Napoli-Barcelona game, with the score at 1-1. Barcelona is attacking. Arturo Vidal, strangely unmarked, has the ball inside the Napoli penalty area, to the right of the goal, just three yards in from the goal line. He slides the ball across, parallel to the goal line, as Messi accelerates to meet it, and Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina dives to his right, stretching out his right arm, trying to deflect the ball.

By any reasonable assessment this is a 50-50 ball -- meaning that both Ospina and Messi have a right to go for it. In fact, Messi appears to be the favorite as he slides in. But he fails to make contact with the ball and Ospina, with a prodigious stretch just gets his hand on the ball first.

The inevitable collision between Messi and Ospina, both of them on the ground, looks very nasty. Did Messi’s cleats slide into Ospina’s face? Fortunately, no. They made contact with Ospina’s right shoulder. Fortunately again, Messi’s slide was not a violent one, so the contact was not heavy. Referee Brych administers the yellow. Players gather around the fallen pair. No one appears to be too upset. Ospina is soon on his feet, moving his arm. Messi appears to be sympathizing with Ospina, then offers a mild protest to the referee. Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne, with a huge smile on his face, says something to Messi. After a delay of two and a half minutes, Ospina has recovered, he and Messi hug briefly, and the game restarts.

Evidently an amiable incident. No damage done. But there might have been a serious injury. At one point, as Ospina and Messi slid into each other, Ospina’s flailing left leg brought his cleats within inches of scraping across Messi’s face.

The sight of a player sliding toward the ball while the opposing goalkeeper is simultaneously diving head-first for the ball -- that’s not a healthy situation.

Why then, is it permitted? Well, you can say, it’s not permitted and the caution to Messi proves it. Except that Messi, in trying to play the ball has done nothing wrong, has done nothing that all soccer players do, probably at least once every game -- contest a 50-50 ball.

The player who has committed an obvious offense here is goalkeeper Ospina. The guy who came off worse, with a bruised shoulder. But that, though inviting our sympathy, gets no sympathy from soccer’s rules. This is what they say -- Rule 12 page 106, talks of a player who “while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone (including the player themself) . . .” That is part of the definition of “Playing in a dangerous manner.”

And that, I submit, is exactly what goalkeepers are doing every time they dive to the ground at an opponent’s feet. I don’t feel any need to argue the point -- it is so glaringly obvious. As soon as the dive -- head first (if not that, then hands first, but the head is close behind, near ground level) -- begins and the goalkeeper starts to go to ground, the referee should whistle for dangerous play -- by the goalkeeper.

The goalkeeper is clearly contravening one of soccer’s rules. The referee is ignoring the offense. Worse, much worse, comes when the referee decides, as did Brych in the Messi-Ospina incident, to punish the innocent party -- which he did by yellow-carding Messi.

But Brych was only doing what, it is safe to say, most referees would do. They are wrong, condemned by their own rules.

This ongoing confusion over just what a goalkeeper can and cannot do was on view in another recent incident during the first half of the English Premier League game between Leicester City and Manchester City.

Leicester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho chased a high ball into the Man City penalty area. Man City goalkeeper Ederson decided he could get to the ball and came racing out of his goal. Iheanacho appeared (more about that in a moment) to get to the ball first, but he was immediately flattened by a violent collision with the onrushing Ederson. The ball went over the goal line, and referee Paul Tierney immediately signaled for a corner kick.

Meaning that he believed that Iheanacho had headed the ball toward goal, but that it had been deflected by Ederson’s hands. Whether Tierney got that right is really irrelevant. For he was ignoring the violent play of Ederson, who -- to get even the slightest touch of the ball -- needed to hurl himself, at full speed, into Iheanacho.

Replays showed that Ederson’s hands and his head made solid contact with Iheanacho’s head, sending him to the ground and necessitating a three-minute delay as he was treated for a head injury.

(As a sad aside, Iheanacho should surely have been assessed for concussion. But was he? He was back in the game after only 3 minutes -- quite possibly the Leicester medical staff have set a world-record time for administering the much-vaunted “concussion protocol”).

TV commentator Graeme Le Saux, watching a replay: “Oh, that’s a penalty, you can’t protect the goalkeeper or give him special status in that situation ... that’s a terrible challenge.”

Yet, the replays were inconclusive. Referee Tierney’s version (a corner kick) was possible, but it was also possible that Ederson had punched the ball onto Iheanacho’s head (which would mean a goal kick).

But it doesn’t really matter which version is correct, because referee Tierney is getting it wrong anyway -- by ignoring the violence of Ederson’s challenge. That is the foul that should have been called, a clearly reckless and dangerous challenge by the goalkeeper, hence a penalty kick to Leicester.

But once again, as in the Messi/Ospina clash, soccer ignores its own rules and tradition dictates that the call will not go against the goalkeeper.

I am greatly puzzled by the attitude of the goalkeeper union toward this. I would have thought they would have found their freedom to maim fellow professionals embarrassing, and a worrisome cross to bear. Apparently not -- for not a word is heard from them.

Whatever, there is some serious work here for IFAB, involving an intricate revision of the rules: To make sure that goalkeepers play soccer according to the same rules that all the other players are required to obey and to ensure the safety of those who play this sport. Soccer may also be interested in avoiding the embarrassment of wrongly convicting players -- I mean any player, not just Lionel Messi -- of reckless play.

12 comments about "Messi yellow card exposes the soccer rules snafu".
  1. Will Shine, March 6, 2020 at 12:30 p.m.

    It is very frustrating.  Paul Gardner is clearly correct.  There are other examples where IFAB should take action but they don't.  There is a tradition of leaving the rules unchanged even when bad habits evolve.  Those in charge think that many rule changes will destroy the Beautiful Game by creating a different sport entirely, but inaction can also destroy the game.  Other obvious examples:  feigning injury and stalling.  These are permitted forms of cheating.  How can IFAB do nothing?  How do they defend the status quo?

  2. Mike Lynch, March 6, 2020 at 2:01 p.m.

    Goalkeepers have gotten away with serious infractions way too long. I've never understood why they are given special privileges, especially when it comes to: careless, reckless or using excessive force: • kicks or attempts to kick an opponent • trips or attempts to trip an opponent • jumps at an opponent • charges an opponent • strikes or attempts to strike an opponent • pushes an opponent • tackles an opponent ... that pretty much covers what we see goalkeepers get away on a weekly basis.

  3. beautiful game, March 6, 2020 at 2:08 p.m.

    It's not the rule, it's the referee culture of denying the obvious. Worst of thses examples are referee Tierney’s version. Where common sense should dictate, it is lacking with the league's head referee in both cited instances. At least commentator Graeme Le Saux objected and called it a penalty when most of his colleagues sit in silence.

  4. frank schoon, March 6, 2020 at 2:42 p.m.

    I think since the VAR we've so many more articles written about ref calls totalling more than I have ever come across in the past 50years. I remember for at least 30years since England vs Germany WC'66 the questionable goal was the only call by a ref ever talked about. But now every other week there some call about ref calls. It's like these this stuff has never happened before in soccer. Sure ,it happens all the time but in the early we just let it go on for it wasn't important. I'm beginning to skip any articles about ref calls for it's just rediculous. Get rid of this damn VAR for it is just making things worse as one of UEFA official stated .It reminds of what one of the greatest coaches Ersnt Happel ever said 'Shut up and playsoccer". 

  5. Wooden Ships replied, March 7, 2020 at 8:18 a.m.

    I'm of the same mind Frank, but we were both old school strikers. Are we still concussed?

  6. frank schoon replied, March 7, 2020 at 10:13 a.m.

    Ships, I hope not.....

  7. Paul Cox, March 7, 2020 at 7:24 a.m.

    I am normally very on-board with Paul Gardner's commentary on this issue, to the point where over the past several years it has influenced my actions as a referee in youth and adult recreational soccer.

    When goalkeepers act like Ederson did, I call it. It's a foul, it's dangerous (depending on the level of intensity and considerations, I'll give a card for it) and it needs to be stopped.

    That said, there is a flaw in equating these two situations.

    GK are allowed to use their hands. As such, when they dive in hand-first to play a ball, they can and should be allowed to do so with different considerations in terms of PIADM (playing in a dangerous manner), and the reality is that they're going to put their heads into a bad spot.

    If, what we care about, is actually protecting the players, and since we've given GK special dispensation to legally play the ball with their hands, we can't turn around and take back that dispensation by saying "but if the ball is on the ground, you can't play it with your hands because then your head will be in a more dangerous spot and it's PIADM". 

    Or, more correctly, we can treat it exactly like this- we simply accept that GK can play that way, that field players need to be cognizent of it, and if/when we have collisions like Messi/Ospina, the field player is going to get charged with a foul and possibly a YC.

    That said, this does NOT mean that GK's ability to use their hands gives them special dispensation to *foul others*, which of course they get away with far too often.

    Tl;dr? 
    The special consideration that GK get to dive at balls on the ground means they get more tolerance for when they put themselves in danger.
    GK should get no special consideration for when they put OTHER players in danger.

  8. R2 Dad, March 7, 2020 at 4:54 p.m.

    Question: should it matter if the contact happens inside the 6, or inside the 18, or outside the 18 like Neuer/Higuain? I know what the LOTG say (contact location is not mentioned), just curious your thoughts on this and whether it should matter. Just like the keeper must now have at least one foot on the line on PKs, keeper behavior can change if they're given enough time to modify mentality and habits.

  9. Paul Berry, March 8, 2020 at 12:48 a.m.

    Emerson should have gone for violent conduct. I've got more sympathy for a keeper who is sliding for the ball and putting himself at serious risk. 

  10. Paul Berry replied, March 8, 2020 at 12:49 a.m.

    Sorry Ederson.

  11. Fajkus Rules, March 13, 2020 at 1:06 a.m.

    Tierney proved his weakness by not even speaking to Ederson about that contact.  But GK vs. attackers is an ongoing high-stakes battle, and referees need to have the stones to discipline GK if they are reckless, commit SFP or DOGSO.  Attackers who run into or play chicken with the keeper also drqw my attention or discipline.  Every once in a whilethere is a true 50-50 challenge, but not as oftern as I see things let go on TV.

  12. Kent James, March 27, 2020 at 1:26 p.m.

    While I generally agree that GK. are given much more leeway than they should be, PG goes overboard blaming GKs. for everything.  First, GKs do not dive "head first" at an attacking players feet.  Most of the time a GK is diving with his body stretched out across the path of the attacking player to cover as much of the goal as he can.  So in that sense, the GK is really committing a full body slide tackle, and should be judged as a field player making such a tackle would be.  If they get to the ball first, no foul; if the attacker gets the ball first, foul. Admittedly, some GKs (as well as some slide tackles) are launched as if the ball were farther away than it is, and these should be carded for excessive force (or for being reckless).  So I think PG makes too much of the distinction between GK and field player.


    Contested balls in the air, where players are sprinting at top speed and from opposite directions, are inherently dangerous.  I would argue that a GK/Fwd clash is less dangerous than a defender/fwd clash, since a fist-head collision is less dangerous than a head to head clash.  While I do think refs give too much leeway to GKs (primarily by allowing them to go through people to get to the ball), the same standards should apply to field players and GKs.  First, whoever gets to the ball first is in the right; you get there second and hit your opponent, you've committed the foul (whether or not you're the GK).  The only difference here is the idea that theoretically, players must jump straight up to head the ball.  If one player goes straight up, while the other is coming from distance, unless the latter gets the ball cleanly, the latter will be committing the foul.  However, if both are coming from distance, then it goes back to whoever gets there first.


    Bottom line is that PG is right to say GKs get too much deference, but wrong to blame everything on them.  Refs should treat field players and keepers equally, giving preference to the first to the ball, penalizing the late challenge, and if the late challenger should have known better than to try, they should be carded.

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