Commentary

Words, words, words ... Part 1 -- Rulebook Words

It happens in every game. The referee goes up to a player, or a group of players, and delivers what looks like a stern lecture. The referee is -- we can assume -- giving the players a warning. They’ve been breaking the rules, and if they persist, they will be called for a foul, and maybe will get a yellow card.

You might point out that referees have been dishing out the same verbal warnings for decades (e.g. at corner kicks), so they don’t appear to be very effective.

You’d be right, of course, but you’d also be wasting your time. Verbal warnings are an accepted part of the game, widely used by referees as the first move in the three-step crescendo of punishments that they can inflict: warning (verbal), caution (yellow card), ejection (red card).

The verbal warning allows the referee to soften his judgment, to administer merely a chat rather than a card. It has its greatest value in youth soccer, where giving a young player a second chance seems more humane than immediately whacking them with the full strength of the rulebook.

Possibly. But verbal warnings at the pro level? Does that make any sense? Not to me it doesn’t. Pro players are supposed -- should be required -- to know the rules of their sport. No second chance for them.

But the truly questionable aspect of the verbal warning is that it is not in the rulebook. I have been scanning FIFA rulebooks for decades, looking for a definition -- even just a mention -- of the verbal warning. I’ve never found one. In fact, I’ve never come across the word “warning.” Caution, yes. That means a yellow card and the occasions when it must be used are elaborately spelled out in Rule 12.

But silence surrounds the verbal warning. It is neither approved nor frowned on. Just ignored. Well, not quite. In the 2018-2019 rule book, lo and behold, the word itself, “warning,” popped up in, of all places, Rule 1 (which deals with The Field of Play).

It was the arrival of VAR that induced the rulemakers to utter the word “warning.” The field of play must now include a “clearly marked” area -- the Referee Review Area, RRA, where the referee can consult a monitor showing replays. Rule 1 now stated that a “team official” who entered the RRA must “be publicly given an official warning.”

That wording didn’t last long. It disappeared from the next (2019-2020) rulebook. But “warning” was gaining ground. It now appeared in Rule 12, under the subhead Team Officials. A warning was now a disciplinary measure issued to team officials (not players) for four defined infractions (e.g. “Failing to co-operate with a match official”).

So a “warning” now has official status in the rulebook. It can be used only in the case of four defined offenses, and can be applied only to team officials, and not to players. The status is confirmed in the current (2020-2021) rulebook.

(And there is, inevitably, an exception, and even more inevitably it’s the goalkeeper, who can be “warned” rather than “cautioned” for committing an offense when defending a penalty kick).

A mess. To put it charitably. The rulebook does, finally, acknowledge the existence of a “warning.” It then severely limits its use: to be used only to penalize four specific offenses committed by team officials. Nowhere do the rules indicate just how this warning must be “publicly given.”

A total mess because in soccer the word “warning” has a much wider -- and much more widely understood -- use as the verbal warning given to players: an almost friendly nudge to let a player know that if he doesn’t clean up his act he’ll be carded.

The rulebook’s refusal to recognize the verbal warning continues, it seems determined to stick with its extremely restricted definition of the word warning.

The thought -- logical enough -- that team officials were being “warned” because they could not be cautioned with a yellow card was quickly squelched by the rulemakers. The 2019-2020 rulebook permitted referees to show yellow and red cards to coaches. But the current 2020-2021 rulebook repeats the narrow definition of warning and its limited use.

So a totally unsatisfactory situation persists. Referees at all levels use a three-step disciplinary approach, where the rulebook, making no allowance whatever for verbal warnings, allows only the two-step caution/ejection path.

There can be little doubt that many a verbal caution is given to avoid having to give a yellow card -- i.e. as a way of not applying the rules of the game. There may well be good reasons for such flexibility in youth soccer.

It should certainly not be permitted at the pro level. Yet it happens in every game.

What is required from the rulemakers is an open acknowledgment -- a welcome, really -- of the verbal warning, with a clear definition of what it is supposed to accomplish.

Plus the introduction of a clear referee signal. I would suggest the use of a blue or a white card. Once that has been decided, those irritating chats should be a thing of the past. You got a blue card and everyone knows what that means. Next foul, you’re on -- at least -- a yellow. No need for the ref to explain anything.

If a blue card is to be seen as the first phase of a three-step disciplinary chain, that should be stated in the definition. If it is to be part of the player’s disciplinary record, then it must become part of the official game stats and part of each player’s profile (and each referee’s too).

The blue card, I think, should not be used at the pro level. What is needed there is a more stringent approach to the award of yellows and reds. And a ban on chatting referees. I fail to see the value of giving experienced pros a second chance to foul.

To follow: Words, Words, Words ... Part 2: Guru Words

7 comments about "Words, words, words ... Part 1 -- Rulebook Words".
  1. frank schoon, September 3, 2020 at 10:25 a.m.

    Paul, I'm a big fan of your articles, but just lately you're getting too involved in discussing the reffing aspects...BORING!!   Maybe once a year  that's fine but now whenever I see anything that has to do with reffing, I skip it and wait for your next article to appear.

    I know these are articles are great for the guys like James, Kent, R2 Dad ,etc., but my main criticism is the frequency of these articles lately on reffing  when comparing it to your last 5years. I think perhaps the institution of the VAR has become a catalyst for these ref discussions.....Just saying :)

  2. R2 Dad replied, September 5, 2020 at 3:20 a.m.

    I'm sitting back, trying to imagine the matches PG watched to be triggered in this way. It seems every 18 months or so some talking English refs must be carrying on and on, with PG blood pressure rising, time is ticking down,  the obvious foul not being whistled, the blabbering heads in the booth exacerbating the situation, PG spilling his tea on the Saturday paper in shaking remonstration of the wittering official on a walkabout just flapping his gums unnecessarily, the official smiling a bit too smugly for Paul, random tabletop items hurled at the screen as his boiling point is reached--and then he's off! Laptop keyboard blazing and his next column is finished in no time. I imagine it's quite therapeutic for him, really. Jon Moss? Kevin Friend? Great source material right there.

  3. Alan Rubin, September 3, 2020 at 11:58 a.m.

    Hi Paul,

    Referering is a much misunderstood and under repported part of soccer.  I was a goalkeeper from 1948-1958, which included being a four year started at Lehigh University.

    Some of the rules at the time do not seem to make sense today, but one was indirect kicks rather than throw-ins when a ball went over the sideline.

    I always asked the ref if a free kick was direct or indirect, just to be safe.  Also, I would warn them when I was being unnecessarily roughed up.

    I was taught an adust education course on www.understandingsoccer.com and had a professional referee teach one of the sessions.  That when I realized that soccer has three teams on the field and develeoped an appreciation for how they should control a game.  Their dialog with players helped to minimize excessive fouling and also alerted the referee to what was happening behind them.

  4. David Kilpatrick, September 3, 2020 at 12:11 p.m.

    Law 18 allows for verbal warnings.
    We need to keep things organic. Why should professionals be subjected to automatic/automated enforcement?
    Don't mind the blue card or a sin bin.

  5. Russel Buetow, September 3, 2020 at 12:16 p.m.

    Paul,  I started one comment and killed it.  But After more thought and reading the column again, I changed my mind.  I am relatively early in my journey as a referee.  But the thing I can tell you is that there is art and science to refereeing.  The science is the difference between referring to the Laws of The Game (LOTG) as rules or a rulebook.  The art is that there are numerous documents published by Referee Associations and governing bodies that are called "Advice to Referees" that cover the art.  In addition, Referee associations provide an enormous amount of ongoing training to their members (of all levels) to continuously learn and improve.  Having said that IFAB (who is responsible for maintaining and updating the LOTG) has their own way of deciding how to modify the LOTG.  And each year every referee must learn what the modifications are AND how to interpret them and put the into practice in game situations.  One example of the law versus practice that was discussed last year was the change requiring a substitute player to leave the field from the closest line, even if they must walk all the way around to return to their technical area (bench).  That is fine for pro's and older youth, but in reality you aren't going to implement that in a U9 game because you don't want an 8 year old player being forced to walk through groups of spectators for other teams at a tournament.  Another discussion point is being right versus being happy and often it makes more sense to be happy than to be right.  And finally, there is the belief that "the game is for the players".  A warning keeps the game from becoming overly regulated and requiring an official stoppage with a restart.  Often, warnings are given because there is a natural stoppage anyway. But more often than not the referee is verbally communicating with players throughout the game during play.  Can you imagine how much harder it would be to watch a referee that had to sop play to give any warning.  And finally, there are different types of fouls.  Your model necessitates that they are all "equally" weighted and it is a 3 strikes and you are out model.  Some fouls are given because they are required, even when in the view of the referee the foul was not intentional.  And the consequence of several fouls given (even when unintentional) can often be a caution (yellow) for "Persistent infringement".

    If you are truly interested in the nuances of refereeing, you may want to look into taking a grass roots course, joining an association, going to some meetings and covering some games.  You might have a totally different perspective.

    I started out refereeing just to help my AYSO Region because we had a shortage.  Now I am doing it because I became passionate about it and want to move onto higher levels.


  6. Wooden Ships replied, September 3, 2020 at 4:55 p.m.

    Good perspective Russel. 

  7. Kent James, September 3, 2020 at 3:16 p.m.

    Paul, I agree with your analysis of the current situation (referees warn players instead of giving cards), but disagree with the solution.  I refereed at relatively high level (the college level and some pro) and I do think it is important for referees to be able to talk to players.  Some refs take it too far (being buddy buddy) but at the highest levels, I think referees can make the game go more smoothly with some intelligent communication.  But I agree, a warning should not be like being forgiven for a cautionable offense.  If a player deserves a caution, he should get a caution, not a lecture.  There is only one type of foul that I think it is okay to talk instead of card; the first is if the offense was marginal (close, but not clearly a yellow card).  If that were the case, I would tell the player that, and warn them that anything else close would be a card (the benefit of the doubt went their way on the first instance, but it would go the other way on the next one).  


    But for your solutions, come on Paul, you've got to do better than that.  Another card?  Now we're going to have a talk before a blue card, then the blue card, then the yellow card...it's also another thing for refs to track (who has blue cards in addition to yellow cards).  


    While it's not the best solution, I think referees just need to be pushed to not let cautionable offenses be avoided by a chat.  Cards are how a ref sets standards of play for all the players to see.  Carding early and consistently usually means you can issue fewer cards overall becaus players urnderstand what the limits are.

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