What are soccer's standards for 'unsporting behavior'?

There was a curious incident during stoppage time of VfB Stuttgart’s Bundesliga game at Werder Bremen on Sunday. With Stuttgart leading 1-0, Bremen was throwing everything into attack. After a long Stuttgart clearance into the Bremen half, Bremen’s defender Ömer Toprak chested the ball back to his keeper, Jiri Pavlenka. Pavlenka was too slow to the ball, however, and Stuttgart’s alert forward Silas Wamangituka  nipped between the two and was able to score his second goal of the game. Zero-two, game over.

The curious part was the way that Wamangituka scored. He walked the ball toward the net in what kicker magazine described as “a provocatively slow fashion.” He waited until Pavlenka, who knew he was beaten, had run almost all the way back towards the goal. Only then did he push the ball across the line. We used to do this when we were kids in pick-up games – taunting the beaten keeper/friend, then waiting until they had rushed back before rolling the ball into the goal just out of their reach.

Bremen’s Davie Selke was so incensed by what he saw as the Congolese striker’s disrespectful conduct that he immediately confronted him, close up and angry. Both he and Wamangituka saw yellow cards, but referee Frank Willenborg said afterward that the cautions were due to the confrontation. Yet Wamangituka had remained completely calm in the face of Selke’s anger. Any yellow card for the Stuttgart player should have been for showing, according to that shady clause in Law 12, “a lack of respect for the game.”

A few weeks ago, I was faced with a question on my monthly online refereeing exam that read as follows: "A forward has taken the ball beyond all his opponents, including the goalkeeper, and is standing alone in the six-yard box. Now he kneels down and heads the ball into the goal. What decision should you take?" The ‘correct’ answer is: an indirect free-kick, with a caution for the goalscorer due to “denigration of the opponent.” That is, the goal itself should have been annulled because of the scorer’s unsporting behavior.

You can certainly make a moral case for canceling the goal. However, I can’t find anything in the rules to support this case – nowhere does it specifically state that kneeling down to head the ball is not allowed. And if the hypothetical scenario in my exam results in the goal being annulled, then should not Wamangituka’s goal have been overturned as well? This is one of those grey areas in soccer’s rules where five different referees will come up with five different answers, and then the International Football Association Board (IFAB) will issue a clarification or a rule change that will serve to confuse us even more than before (see the history of Law 12, Clause 1: ‘Handling the ball').

Wamangituka, by the way, claimed that he was walking with the ball in order to eat up more time. Is that not also ‘unsporting behavior’? Only, it’s no different to players running with the ball to the corner flag to run down the clock. It may be ‘unsporting,’ but it’s also perfectly legal under the current rules, and there’s nothing a referee can do about it.

Or is there? One rarely cited FIFA rule is No. 5, The Referee. Clause 2, ‘Decisions of the Referee,’ reads: “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.” This has to be the most nonsensical paragraph in the book, and it’s up against some pretty stiff competition. What is the ‘sprit of the game’ (note how FIFA encapsulates that phrase within quotation marks)? How much of their own opinion can the referee express? At what point do the game’s spirit and the referee’s opinion collide with “the framework of the Laws of the Game”?

Let’s apply this to Wamangituka’s slowly executed goal. Pretend that you are the referee, and that you have a different moral worldview to that of match official Frank Willenborg. Your opinion is that Wamangituka’s conduct is contrary to ‘the spirit of the game’. Before he can roll the ball into the net, you blow the whistle for unsporting behavior, caution the striker, and award an indirect free kick. The Bremen players applaud (especially the morally impeccable Davie Selke) and quickly take the free kick so that they can chase the equalizer. But you are now surrounded by furious Stuttgart players, less than courteously enquiring how your decision to blow the whistle fits into “the framework of the Laws of the Game.”

All that without even broaching the wider question of what really constitutes ‘unsporting behavior,’ and how it should be handled. Every game throws up dozens of examples of deliberate foul play, gamesmanship, verbal insults and intimidation, simulation, time-wasting and dissent, the majority of them escaping sanction. Yet there’s rarely much outrage at these offenses because they are considered ‘part of the game,’ like the English fouls on Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup that we looked at last week. And if they are ‘part of the game,’ are they not also automatically ‘the spirit of the game,' however spoiled that spirit may be?

Wamangituka’s conduct may not have been a delight to behold, but the outcry at his goal-line dallying only serves to highlight soccer’s selective morality. That ethical grey area is enabled by the messy, ambiguous FIFA rules and their total failure to define what we should understand as the spirit of the game, and what we should punish in the way of unsporting behavior.

7 comments about "What are soccer's standards for 'unsporting behavior'?".
  1. Seth Vieux, December 7, 2020 at 2:57 p.m.

    I for one think Wamangituka's conduct was perfectly fine. If he'd done the heading in from the knees (as I've seen and maybe even done once or twice in pick up games with FRIENDS) maybe my opinion changes, but in this scenario, up 1-0 shortly into extra time, eating up a few extra seconds was intelligent and FAIR. This is easily morally defensible unless you think Strikers are second class citizens to goalkeepers in our sport. Nearly every close game you'll watch will include a goal keeper just standing on a ball in his box, and nothing will compel them to restart play but a striker having to slowly jog in at him knowing he will them pick the ball up, bounce it a few good times to make sure it hasn't deflated, then certainly have to take some time to decide whether to restart play through a full back or a punt. This happens many times every match day and those keepers waste 5-10 seconds, often with the chance to rack that wasted time up to 30 seconds or more in the closing minutes. Wamangituka wasted what, 3-5 seconds if that? I'm sure the Bremen team didn't appreciate the unexpected turning of the tables, but in my mind Selke (who scored just 2 minutes later) should potentially have been red carded.

  2. Paul Cox, December 7, 2020 at 3:12 p.m.

    The spirit of the game is whatever the referee says it is. That's why refs make the big bucks. 

    I don't have a huge issue with Wamangituka's action. They're in stoppage time and he wasn't directly taunting, just taking all the time he could. 

    crawling and heading it in? That's showboating and taunting. Different situation. 

  3. Mark Landefeld, December 7, 2020 at 3:37 p.m.

    Upon the GK being beaten, there are a couple of seconds before Bremen choose to challenge for the ball.  Why not book their closest player for bringing the game into disrepute?

    Once there is clearly going to be a challenge, Wamangituka shoots.  No probem, no misconduct. 

    Had he gone to his knees to head the ball in, I'd have an issue with taunting and with the possibility that an ill-timed showboat move might create an unnecessarily dangerous sitution should the recovering opponent challenge the ball.

    How about some analysis of the UEFA TV series "Man in the Middle".  I love watching the interaction of these crews, but I wonder how UEFA can serve the referees who don't have a VAR crew supporting them.  Assuming not all domestic leagues ave VAR, especially at a lower division -- there are simple questions about how a higher degree of teamwork is being achieved when there is no as much technological support.

  4. Michael Saunders, December 7, 2020 at 3:39 p.m.

    Ian ....  Pleased you are not on any committee influencing rule changes, otherwise there would be an appendix to the LOTG multiple pages long.   Perhaps you should stop taking your Twitter self description as a "rogue" referee so seriously. 

    Actually, your commentary on the deliberate foul play, gamesmanship, verbal insults, and the like that  exists today without sanction is one that should be addressed.  

    A perfect example occurred this weekend between Liverpool vs Wolverhampton when the Wolve's player attempted to "buy" a penalty by falling in the PK area seemingly fouled by LPL's Mahne.  The VAR clearly showed that it was simulation, which the replay verified to the referee.  Unfortunately, the referee should have IMO cautioned the Wolve's player accordingly pursuant to existing rules & guidelines.  When more referees applying the existing rules,  as was clearly confirmed by the VAR, one would see less flopping in and around the PK area. 

    Register that complaint with examples and not a frivolous one as you did. 




  5. R2 Dad, December 7, 2020 at 6:58 p.m.

    Good points, all. I like the questions Ian poses, though in the back of my head I hear Ahmet asking, "But what does the game expect?"
    At the professional level, and even for the most respected referees, to pull a card on this stunt is to poke a hornet's nest. It doesn't solve the problem (setting an example never works), its puts a heavy referee hand on the scale of football justice (which we are taught to avoid at all cost--"it's not about you"), and (as mentioned) it's not specifically forbidden by the LOTG. All we really have is the ill-repute clause which I find more appropriate to youth matches than professionals.
    Lastly, there is variation between confederations on how this act incites the crowd and opponents. It's my perception that to do this slow-roll in central or south america is to chance violence, where other confederation countries might not respond as harshly or vehemently. But my bias is based on  watching so many videos of south american players beating up referees, so maybe it's just that more south american matches are videoed vs African/Asian/European matches.

  6. beautiful game, December 8, 2020 at 10:12 a.m.

    Agree with R2DAd. The referee wanted to make a statement; a hollow one IMHO. 

  7. Karl Sonneman, December 10, 2020 at 11:22 a.m.

    The LOTG are beautiful.  If you want to see how to screw them up, read the National High School Federation version, which goes on for pages trying to answer every possible situation that could arise in the flow of the game.  And of course, this misses the situration that happens in your next HS game.  Americans dislike the uncertainty of discretionary laws.  Yet we have statutes - state and federal - that give great discretion to unelected officials to interpret and apply these ambiguous laws. This occurs because we cannot agree ourselves what is a good or moral or just law. At least referees have to attend courses and pass tests about how the LOTG should be understood - including what is unsporting conduct.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications