Standardizing subjective decisions

Please note that everything I am writing about today is mostly about professional soccer refereeing. I have written on several occasions that we must have two sets of rules for our game: One for the grassroots and one for the professional game. The Law makers on the other side of the Atlantic seem to be insistent on having one set of rules, but all their recent Law changes are mostly for the professional game.

As the game became more business than just a game, the need for less refereeing errors and standardized decisions became inevitable. In order to minimize refereeing errors, technology was injected into the game: GLT and the VAR system. 

There are two types of decisions in the game: Objective and subjective ones. 

There is a solution for objective decisions or there will be a solution using technology soon. GLT now decides for a goal or no goal. A similar technology could soon be utilized to decide whether a ball is in or out across the goal and touch lines. It is discussed that using AI and machine learning systems the decision whether a player is in an on offside position or not could be used as early as the next World Cup. The other objective decisions like whether the infringement occurred in the penalty area or not, who should be awarded the throw-in or goal kick vs. corner kick can all be decided by technology in the next decade. Let us not forget for all objective decisions the VAR makes the call himself/herself and the OFR is not utilized.

Subjective decisions are the challenging ones. Fouls, misconduct and interference in the offside decisions are all examples of subjective decisions in soccer. For example, in the NFL, subjective decisions are not reviewed or cannot be reviewed by video. Since technology cannot be used to minimize or eradicate refereeing errors with regard to subjective calls, we have to rely on standardizing the subjective decisions using different approaches. 

Standardizing decisions is still a very difficult task. First of all, we are talking about a subjective decision that has to be standardized, which is a task that cannot be done effectively 100 percent. Every subjective call is different than another similar one; both as an incident and its history in that game, especially if it is a foul or misconduct. That is why questioning decisions using clips as a training material has its shortcomings. Especially for misconduct incidents, every one of them has its own history, so that incident – if you want a proper education - must be judged also in the context of the history of that specific game. 

In order to do their best in standardizing fouls and misconduct, IFAB went in lengths to define “handling” by some “objective” criteria like “above the shoulder”. Soon – after four years – they realized that the referees were making decisions by the book – or as IFAB has defined in the handling offense -- which the rest of the football world did not agree with. One of my latest article, I have described how the pendulum swung back. Now IFAB wants the referees to decide what constitutes a “natural” position of the hand without using extensive criteria. 

Handball is always going to be a journey to an ideal but we'll never get there because it's a subjective area. And we have to accept that. That is why applying the spirit is the most important aspect of the law." -- David Elleray, the IFAB Technical Director.

Unfortunately the efforts in standardizing the subjective decisions are not restricted to “handling”. LOTG defines the criteria for DOGSO as follows in order to bring a standard:

The following must be considered: 

  • distance between the offense and the goal 
  • general direction of the play 
  • likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball 
  • location and number of defenders

These criteria are necessary but not sufficient. For example, if a player is fouled only one yard into the attacking field as  the last player, the referees might show a yellow card since the distance between the offense and the goal is too much.

Let us look at a game I watched some years ago.

Team A is losing 1-0. It is taking a corner kick. It is the closing minutes of the second half. Coach of Team A sends his goalkeeper into the Team B’s penalty area as a desperate measure. Corner kick is taken and cleared away by Team B towards the halfway line. A Team B attacker picks up the ball in the halfway line and he is immediately fouled by a defender. The referee showed a yellow card stating that the offense occurred 60 yards from the opposing goal even though there were no defenders -- including the goalkeeper -- between him and the goal. 

Clearly, this was a case of DOGSO but not fulfilling the criteria stated in the LOTG. The referee, like most referees, was a referee by the book and just showed a yellow card. So not only that standards and criteria might not cover all cases but we should always consider the spirit of the Law.

Another set of criteria although not in the LOTG is for serious foul play:

If a challenge is done with:

  • studs up and towards the opponent
  • the leg stretched completely – not bent – transferring all the power
  • the point of contact is above the opponent’s feet

This is very simple and easy to understand. So when a referee sees such a challenge, or he/she misses it and VAR sees this challenge, the end result should be a red card for serious play.

If you remember what happened a few weeks ago in the EPL (West Ham vs. Chelsea), then you will understand what I am trying to say. Fabian Balbuena was sent off after an on-field review for serious foul play. Yes, the studs were up. Yes, the leg was stretched. Yes, the point of contact was above the opponent’s foot. But EPL still rescinded the red card given to Balbuena. 


Simple!  These criteria for serious foul play like the one for DOGSO do not explain and cover all possibilities in a game. The crew acted with the letter of the Law and its associated criteria, and overlooked the spirit of the Law and “what football expects” and acted in line with “refereeing by the book” approach. The EPL board looked at the spirit of the Law and rescinded the red card. 

It is impossible to mechanize or automate the subjective decisions of the game.

The criteria are a good first step towards the impossible task of standardizing subjective decisions. The educational process of professional referees should not just rely on evaluating situations with clips. Since all referees know the letter of the LOTG the process should also include extensive programs to educate them in the History and the spirit of the Laws as well what is meant by “what football expects”. 

Let us not forget according to the LOTG “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.”

IFAB, FIFA, confederations and the leagues should focus on the “spirit of the Game “and “what football expects” as much as spending time and effort to create criteria to standardize calls.

The readers will have to wait for a few weeks to follow what I mean by modifying the approach to modern professional refereeing education. 

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.

3 comments about "Standardizing subjective decisions".
  1. R2 Dad, May 10, 2021 at 7:31 p.m.

    I think IFAB and FIFA should hold off on any more changes to the LOTG until they have a solid handle on "Clear and Obvious". Currently they do not, leaving everyone not only unhappy but confused.

  2. Ahmet Guvener replied, May 10, 2021 at 8:37 p.m.

    Clear and obvious is also a subjective decision...

  3. Bob Ashpole, May 11, 2021 at 5:32 a.m.

    I don't know where this series is leading, but I can't help thinking this approach will place form above function. While this may be comfortable on the business side for fans in the stands and TV audiances, this approach will not please participants.

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