You might wonder ‘What are the unwritten Laws of the Game (LOTG)?” You might think that maybe I am referring to Law 18 Common Sense – the unwritten Law of the Game. Well not really, although Law 18 might add a flavor to my explanation. Basically, the unwritten LOTG is the result of “what football expects” especially at the professional level. Since IFAB is insisting to apply the same LOTG to both professional soccer and grassroots we must concentrate on the professional side and might have to ignore the consequences of the unwritten LOTG for grassroots soccer.
These unwritten LOTG have existed for a long time but only recently the “patron saints” of the game started to mention them. Before we go into the details of the topic, let me ask the readers whether they have ever heard of or came across a “soft penalty kick” term in the LOTG? We heard this term several times during the Euro 2020 from Roberto Rosetti, who is the Chief of Refereeing for UEFA.
Recently my colleague at Soccer America Paul Gardner wrote “PGMOL has instructed EPL referees to ignore 'minimal contact' fouls. Which, we are told, will reduce the number of penalty kicks. No doubt it will, but no explanation is given as to why that is seen as a good thing.” What is a minimal contact foul? Is there any reference to it in the LOTG? The IFAB decision “Constant whistling for trifling and doubtful breaches produce bad feeling and loss of temper on the part of the players and spoils the pleasure of spectators” have long left the LOTG book.
So why is there a change in the soccer lingo?
Everything kicked off with the age of industrial soccer. Once the game became monetized, the pressure on the officials increased. Every direct or indirect game-changing humanly error by the officials meant some financial loss for the teams involved. Instead of autocriticism, the clubs or federations – in the case of national teams –pointed the finger at the refereeing system. IFAB decided to at least remove “scandalous decisions” from the game by using technology and hence introduced the VAR system. So, we do not anymore see the “hand of god” offenses. But still there are a lot of erroneous subjective decisions that are not scandalous, but still might change the outcome of the game. Most of these are not in the domain of the current VAR system. At this point comes the unwritten LOTG. These unwritten LOTG were never mentioned until recently but were understood by the elite and smart referees of the soccer world and were used. Now most are mentioned in professional referee development processes even though there is no mention of them in the LOTG.
Football at the professional level does not want the officials to change or to decide the outcome of the game in any way that might be argued or challenged.
These unwritten LOTG are to reduce controversies in the game as well as the “gray” decisions that might change the outcome of the game. Gray decisions are those decisions that are correct according to the letter of the LOTG, but football does not expect them to be called. Gray decisions are not in the domain of the VAR protocol. The best example is the penalty kick awarded to England against Denmark at the semifinal of the Euro 2020. According to the letter of the LOTG that was a correct penalty but a “soft” one. Football does not expect to change the outcome of a game or a tournament by a “soft” or gray call. That is one of the unwritten LOTG.
So, what are those unwritten LOTG.
Let us start with the easiest of them.
If two carbon copy fouls occur one by the attacking team and one by the defensive team in and around the penalty area, then the foul committed by the attacking team is expected to be called more than that by the defending team. Especially if those two carbon copy fouls are “minimal contact” or “soft” fouls. The reasoning is simple: The ensuing free kick or penalty kick by the defending team for a “minimal contact” or “soft” foul might result in a game-changing situation, but a similar foul called on the attacking team might just stop a “controversial” goal from being scored. Whether you like it or not, this is what football expects.
Football does not expect the referees to award penalty kicks for “soft” fouls. This fact is articulated by the sentence used by referee pundits: “The contact was not strong enough to award a penalty kick.” Once a referee says that, she/he is off the hook from the VAR. It means “yes I saw a contact, but it was not strong enough or did not have maximal contact to award a penalty kick.” Naturally, the exception is handball, which still is very controversial and subjective after years of modification of the Law by IFAB. Actually, the spirit of the Law also does not want the referees to award penalty kicks for the “marginal” fouls. For that you should try to understand why penalty kicks were included in the LOTG in the first place. Penalty kick in a way is the capital punishment in the soccer legal system. Research done in 2018 shows that between the years 2009 and 2018 the average of penalty kicks being converted into a goal was 75.6%. So, referees are asked to avoid penalty kicks unless it is black and white or as one my good friends in UEFA said “ a call that can be called from the moon.” This is especially true in the last minutes of games where the score is tied or has a one goal difference. In such a situation a “soft” penalty kick is a game changer, and the referee would be deciding the outcome of the game.
Professional football expects games to be played 11 a side or at least “equal” a side. Research done in 2018 shows that in a “the total of 7,979 matches in La Liga, EPL and Serie A. A total of 1,859 red cards.” were shown.
Below are the results from these games:
It is clear that, red cards – even one - affect the outcome of the game drastically. There is other research that supports these findings. Naturally the earlier the red card is, the more serious its consequences will be.
Red cards and yellow cards are key instruments in keeping the game under control, but they are not the only instruments. The patron saints of the game want the referees to refrain from showing cards as much as possible and instead use their personality and body language to keep the game under control The only reason for that is the above statistics.
There are two ways for sending a player off the field: One is a straight sending off for serious foul play or for violent conduct or for DOGSO. (There are other straight red cards, but they are rather rare at the professional level.) With the VAR system, most straight red cards can be monitored and controlled. The problem is, with second yellow cards they are not in the domain of the VAR protocol. The unwritten LOTG says that the second yellow card should not be in any way disputable. One can ask: “What about the first one?” That is why the unwritten LOTG tell the referees not to show “gray” yellow cards early in the game so that if a second card is warranted for the same player the sending off will be later in the game. The whole process is trying to avoid red cards for a second yellow card and hence the referees should be stingy in showing the early yellow cards. That means the referees must use man-management techniques in the professional games before using cards.
You might disagree with unwritten LOTG, but I tried to explain the rationale for all these unwritten LOTG. Like it or not, they are here to stay with us. If you think that the above are all the unwritten LOTG, then I should tell you that you are mistaken. There are a lot of unwritten LOTG that conflict with letter of the LOTG but in line with its spirit.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer 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 Georgetown, TX.