Take the rule on throw-ins, for example. When a player takes a throw-in, both feet must be on the ground, and on or behind the sideline. The ball must come from behind the head. Compared with the offside or handball law, it's an oasis of clarity, and as a referee you should have no trouble recognizing it, especially if you are working with half-awake ARs. And yet, at the game's highest level - where an offside calf muscle can cause a well-worked goal to be canceled out by computer - you see foul throws that would make a U-7 rec team blush with shame.
First, let me state that obviously you should not be calling foul throws against a U-7 rec team. By the time such players are 9 or 10 years old, though, a referee can guide them and ask for re-takes, pointing out the correct stance. By the time these players are teenagers, their coaches should have long since taught them the art of the throw-in -- take it correctly, quickly and preferably toward your opponent's goal before all your players are marked up.
Union Berlin's Cedric Teuchert was smart enough to do just that against Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga the weekend before last. His swiftly executed throw-in down the left wing to Robert Andrich led to a cross and a late equalizer by substitute Marcus Ingvartsen. Except that Teuchert clearly raised his right foot off the ground in order to get more weight behind his throw-in. That was decisive in helping Andrich reach the ball ahead of Bayern's Tanguy Nianzou to supply the game-saving cross.
It was a clear and obvious error from referee Tobias Stieler and his AR not to spot this highly visible infringement. Surely, the VAR must have intervened. After all, the error was far more clear and obvious than a slither of offside thigh muscle, or an 'unnatural' arm being hit by a shot at point-blank range.
There was no intervention from the VAR in the Munich-Berlin game. And why? Because there is an unspoken acceptance of foul throws at the professional level. Teuchert's raised leg was nothing unusual, we see it on TV screens week in, week out. And no, I have no explanation for the laxity on this particular rule, any more than I can explain why holding, pushing and shirt-pulling are also ignored by referees in the pro game.
This particular foul throw was much discussed in the German media simply because it lead to a goal, and one against the all-conquering Bavarians at that. Normally, the issue is ignored. Except that at amateur level, we referees have to contend with players wondering, with some justification, why their foul throws are called by the pernickety guy with the whistle when every weekend they see similar actions ignored by my colleagues at the top of the game.
In our monthly refereeing exams, we are constantly told what is right and what is wrong according to the FIFA rules. You are marked down if you do not give the exact correct answers, and will be demoted to lesser leagues for poor scores. Yet, in practice, we see the same laws ignored. We need to be told why.
If holding is not to be punished, then FIFA should make it legal and we can merge soccer with rugby. If shirt-pulling's allowed, allow the laws to let them at it - there's surely an untapped market of wrestling fans out there we can attract to soccer stadiums/rings. And if foul throws are not fouls, let players hurl the ball into play like a pitcher or over-arm like in cricket. Hey, it's all part of the entertainment -- fans will love it! New fans, at least. Maybe.
Now, I'm not party to the discussions that federations have with their top referees, but you can bet they go something like this. "Don't be a fussy ref. Holding and shirt-pulling are now part of the game, it's a contact sport after all, just leave them to it. Let foul throws go, they don't affect the game, you'll just look petty." Except that, as Teuchert proved, a foul throw can affect a game, and even a championship.
Furthermore, it's worth reiterating how VAR has become the patron saint of fussy, petty and flow-interrupting game management. It's hypocritical and inconsistent to unofficially ignore select rules at the highest level (foul throws, holding), while taking several minutes to analyze on screen the pettiest, fussiest infringements of all -- for example, an offside toe that annuls a goal scored after a five-player move.
The International Football Association Board, FIFA's paralytic law-revising arm, ignored these (and several other) issues at its annual meeting last month. Watching games right now is a crapshoot because you really don't know what to expect next. Celebrating or emoting can be placed on hold for so long that we frequently lose the greatest joy in watching soccer -- the thrill and rush that comes from seeing a goal scored.
Meanwhile, when millions of amateur referees finally resume officiating, the paucity of wise guidance from on high will continue to make our virtually unpaid job a combination of frustration, confusion and vituperative verbal conflict.
• All hail the gridirony of the announced new European Super League, featuring the predictable villains led by Juventus, with the notable exception (so far) of Paris St. Germain and Bayern Munich. An NFL-style closed shop with a sole goal -- revenue, and lots more of it. Expect more commentary on this cash-driven power-game over the coming weeks as we await UEFA's reaction.