Foul throw lenience reflects crass inconsistency of top-level officiating

One of the most challenging aspects of soccer's rules is their openness to interpretation. The introduction of micro-refereeing through technology (that is, VAR) has brought this into fresh focus. Barely a weekend passes without an extended handball debate about whether a certain defender's arms were or were not in an "unnatural" position. Some laws, however, are thankfully much more straightforward.

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.

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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.

16 comments about "Foul throw lenience reflects crass inconsistency of top-level officiating".
  1. James Madison, April 19, 2021 at 4:12 p.m.

    Occasionally missing or allowing a leg off the ground is the least sinful aspect of officating throw-ins at the professional level.  Much more egregious, IMHO, is allowing the thrower to move up as much as 10 yards, or even more in some cases, from the point where the ball went into touch to the point where the throw is released.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, April 20, 2021 at 11:27 p.m.

    I used to Love it when the Ref, "Turned the Ball Over", When Player took throw from Wrong Place... Did they get Rescinded.???

  3. Andre Bell, April 19, 2021 at 4:22 p.m.

    Ditto for enchroachment on just about every free kick and swarming the referee especially on penalties no matter how obvious the foul.

  4. Bob Ashpole, April 20, 2021 at 4:31 a.m.

    In my view this is a debate about trifling offenses and the officials role. 

    Ian uses an example where a foul throw was not trifling and lead to a goal. So I think Ian recognizes these issues which I think are more interesting than foul throws.

  5. beautiful game replied, April 20, 2021 at 3:55 p.m.

    What about the step-off by the referee from the free-kick point to the wall marker which if caught on camera are less than 50% correct, usually 8-9 yards instead of 10. Once referees start to acclimate to their own delinquences, those deliquences begin to multiply: free throw violations, failure to card off the ball takedowns, 10-yard rule(s), etc. Is that "trifling offenses"? Is it a LOTG violation? What it has become is delinquent behavior by referees and for some spectators trivialities. 

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, April 20, 2021 at 5 p.m.

    This is the example I would use--when was the last time you  saw a penalty kick taken without an infringement of the area prior to the ball being struck?

  7. Kent James replied, April 21, 2021 at 1 p.m.

    Bob, you are right that for most throw-ins it makes no difference in the game, which is why referees often ignore it (whether they should or not is a different matter).  I also think they don't watch as closely as at the youth levels because theoretically pros all know how to do a proper throw in, and there are a lot of other things to watch (that shirt-pulling, e.g.).  

  8. Doug Broadie, April 20, 2021 at 2:55 p.m.

    I agree with Andre about enchroachment on free kicks.  Where is the "FREE" kick if a player is standing in front of the ball.  When I was refereeing, I told the players once, 10 yards NOW.  And if they didn't, I gave them a yellow card.  I remember a kid said as I gave him a yellow, "My coach instructed me to do it".  I told him, "I'm not giving your coach a yellow card, I'm giving you a yellow card."
    How about obstruction -- it happens in every top level game.  a player is trying to get to a ball and the defender runs between the ball and the player without the ball being in playing distance.  As Phil Shane on Bein sports says, "I remember an obstruction call around 1998" and that is the truth.
    I've always said, there are enough laws in the game, all they need to be is enforced!

  9. Ian Plenderleith replied, April 21, 2021 at 11:06 a.m.

    Good post. And kudos for laying down the law on an obnoxious, unsporting habit in youth soccer (always at the behest of adult coaches). I think if I tried yellow-carding those 'standing in front of the ball' incidents at free-kicks in German men's amateur soccer I'd be chased off the park after half an hour. As ever, it needs guidance from Fifa/FAs and model refereeing at the top, or a different set of laws for the amateur game. 

  10. R2 Dad replied, April 21, 2021 at 11:32 a.m.

    Many/most players view a card for Obstruction or Impeding Play as too harsh as it's not a foul against a person per se. Then they can't just run around, a headless chicken like they normally do as a second yellow would incur a red card. I've issued cards for this as a game management tool, but admit I've not enforced this uniformly across the board at all ages the same way. Which appears to irk BG.

  11. Randy Vogt, April 20, 2021 at 7:50 p.m.

    I "ref" games as I watch them on TV and occasionally spot a foul throw that is not whistled. I believe the reason is most pro officials are many years removed from the youth games where they cut their teeth and they are no longer looking for throw-in infractions, plus perhaps they do not want to embarrass a professional player by whistling a foul throw-in. Somewhat similar to many youth refs do not send off, sometimes don't even give a caution, for a very dangerous studs-up challenge as they do not see this type of foul much at all in the games they are refereeing.

  12. Ian Plenderleith replied, April 21, 2021 at 11:10 a.m.

    If they don't want to be embarrassed, they shouldn't commit a rookie error... When I whistle it during any adult/teen game for the first time, I call out to the whole field, 'Proper throw-ins today, please, you should all know how to take them by now.' It usually holds for the rest of the game.

  13. Santiago 1314, April 20, 2021 at 11:23 p.m.

    Ian, You "Old Curmudgeon"... Tilting against Windmills in the Footsteps of PG.!!! ... Good One, Carry On....

  14. Santiago 1314, April 20, 2021 at 11:29 p.m.

    Looks like SLCo is Dissolving... Before it got Started... At Least XFL got in a Few Games before going Defunct.!!! I didn't even get my T-Shirt Printed up yet.!!!

  15. Ian Plenderleith replied, April 21, 2021 at 11 a.m.

    Yes, I held off on making this week's column about the sl (lower case) because the story was moving so fast. Surprised the whole thing collapsed after two days, though - I thought it would last at least until Friday. 

  16. Kent James, April 21, 2021 at 1:16 p.m.

    My of this goes to the difference between a "by the book ref" (bad) and one who supposedly "knows the game" (good).  While I agree that is an important distinction, I think too often tolerance for poor behavior (the shirt puling, the defense standing over a ball to prevent the free kick) is seen as "letting them play" (good) or not being obsessed with the rules (which would be bad, since "obseessed"  implies being too strict).  But most rules are there for a reason, and if referees consistently enforced them, the game would be better off.  This ie especially true for people who try to take advantage of leniency, essentially doing everything they can get away with.  Consistent calling of the fouls that people think about before committing (stopping a quick free kick, grabbing a jersey) would stop that concious behavior.  While foul throw-ins are the least damaging behavior of this type, allowing blatantly poor throws to go uncalled does set a bad example.  And my guess is that there would rarely be more than one such call a game, so calling them would not detract from the flow of the game.  

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