Haaland vs. Hinteregger: when abusive conduct is not properly punished

One of the best games in the spectator-free Bundesliga this past weekend was Eintracht Frankfurt's home game against Borussia Dortmund. The visiting title-challengers came back from 2-0 down to win the game late by the best goal in five. Within the game was a bruising duel between Frankfurt's uncompromising Austrian central defender Martin Hinteregger, and Dortmund's formidable but explosive young Norwegian striker Erling Haaland. It's fair to say that the two did not spend Saturday evening comparing notes on what a relaxing holiday season they'd both spent with their families.

For most fans, there's only one way to view a clash like this -- with a bucket of popcorn and a keen sense of anticipation. For most of the game, Hinteregger neutralized the demonstrably frustrated Haaland, but late in the game Haaland found more space and was partly instrumental in his team's comeback. The theatrical scene that most fans would have been waiting for duly came after Jude Bellingham equalized for Dortmund in the 86th minute to make the score 2-2. Haaland rushed in to the goal to retrieve the ball for the re-start -- in fact a potential yellow-card offense for 'delaying a restart,' because it's not his ball to retrieve, but pro referees never, ever punish it. Hinteregger blocked his path, and then pushed him hard into the back of the net. There followed the inevitable shoving and shouting, followed by a yellow card for both players from referee Robert Schröder.

So, the fans at home on the sofa got what they wanted. There would have been a certain amount of macho glee about soccer being played by real men, for real men. Referee Schröder was given a high mark by kicker magazine and praised for the "confident way he dealt with the fighting cocks Haaland and Hinteregger." Unlike other media, the publication did not mention that Haaland yelled loudly at Hinteregger (in English) "Fuck you! Fucking idiot!" And that this was picked up by the TV cameras. If the viewers at home heard it, then referee Schröder certainly did too, because he was right there in the melee blowing his whistle and thrusting his cards.

Now, I'm not saying that Schröder didn't deal well with the confrontation under the circumstances. It's just that in Law 12 of the game, under Fouls and Misconduct, it clearly states that a player who uses "offensive, insulting or abusive language" should be shown the red card. Haaland didn't just mutter these words under his breath, he was loud, emotive and most definitely offensive, insulting and abusive. If this game had been taking place on one of the sports grounds just down the road where I regularly referee the city's lower leagues on a Sunday afternoon, I wouldn't have hesitated to order the player off. Maybe both of them - Hinteregger's push on Haaland could easily have qualified as violent conduct.

Ah, but come on, it's a man's game, all part of the spectacle etc. Here's Dortmund's director of sport Michael Zorc on the conduct of his player: "Erling's attitude in the final minutes was not just good, it was top!" Zorc told the broadcaster Sport1. "It's exactly what I expect of him. I find it exceptionally good. We're playing soccer, not chess. He threw himself into the fray and worked for the team. That's how it should be." Haaland, it should be mentioned, still had time after his yellow card to square up to Eintracht's Colombian striker Rafael Borré after being fouled by him, yelling 'Que pasa?' several times in Spanish while gesturing his apparent readiness for a fight. Clearly he'd learnt his lesson from Schröder's caution ...

Hinteregger, who has a refreshing perspective on soccer's relative importance, didn't make a big thing out of the insult. "You don't need to take everything literally that comes out of the emotions of the game," he told the German tabloid Bild. "At the end of the game you shake hands and that's it. Haaland's a top player who does everything he can for the success of his team."

Except that neither Zorc nor Hinteregger will have to referee a game on an amateur soccer field next week where every single player will have watched these scenes, and heard the excuses that the professionals continue to make for this kind of behavior. It's been said a thousand times before, but when the pro game legitimizes this kind of conduct, there's a knock-on effect all the way down to the lower ends of youth soccer. I see it weekend after weekend.

Look, you might now say, Hinteregger's right. No one takes soccer's rules literally, and implementing those rules is all about having a feel for the game and its context. That is certainly true for much of the wording in FIFA's little 17-law booklet. There are many, many clauses that are open to interpretation and that have to be applied in context. But a red card for "offensive, insulting or abusive language" is not one of them. At least, I didn't think so until Saturday. Then Michael Zorc went on the record to tell the world that it's "exceptionally good," and exactly what he expects from one of the most highly rated young players in the world.

Like many of FIFA's rules, this one either needs to be implemented from the top downward, or scrapped altogether, just so that we can be clear on what's expected from us as referees. If it's the former, then show a choleric, screaming professional like Haaland the red card the next time he insults an opponent for all to hear. If it's the latter, the rest of us can quit refereeing and let more tolerant individuals like Michael Zorc take our games at the bottom end, liberally allowing all the players to scream insults and square up to each other as part of their burning desire to win. I'll stay at home and take up chess.

18 comments about "Haaland vs. Hinteregger: when abusive conduct is not properly punished".
  1. Edward Greene, January 11, 2022 at 10:16 a.m.

    Yes, take up chess.  Thin skin is not a way to ref a game where passion and spirit are vital.  If the language is directed towards someone's race, sexual orientation then pull out a red card.  F bomb, manage the situation!

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, January 12, 2022 at 2:59 a.m.

    So if you were refereeing a U12 game and a player (who'd maybe been watching Eintracht v Dortmund at the weekend) called their opponent a "fucking idiot", would you deem that to be part of the "passion and the spirit" of the game?

  3. Peter Bechtold replied, January 17, 2022 at 12:48 p.m.

    I agree(to manage). Ian, I don't know if you were in the States when Michael Jordan played in the NBA as a "super star". His record scoring production was helped,in part, by the referees not calling him when he obviously violated the "no walking" rule. He also was a champion "trash talker"; one could speculate if MJ made trash-talking acceptable in US professional sports. Why did he get away with both "offenses" ? Because the NBA leadership declared him to be a "super star" whom fans come to see play, not fouling out.
    So, different rules for different folks ? Apparently yes, for high profile athletes. This should not affect your refereeing an U-12 team at all. If it does, take your own advice and switch to chess.

  4. Michael Tesla, January 11, 2022 at 10:33 a.m.

    If rules are rules then 90% of corner kicks should end in PK's!

  5. Ian Plenderleith replied, January 12, 2022 at 2:57 a.m.

    Exactly. Another example of a law that needs to be discussed and reviewed. Only three players from each team in the penalty area at corners? No players except the keeper in the six-yard box? Those (as you can probably tell!) are off the top of my head. But there are so many holding and pushing offences at corner-kicks and many free-kicks that the laws just look redundant and/or unjust. And when that's the case, it's time to either abolish or reform the law.

  6. Kent James replied, January 12, 2022 at 10:46 a.m.

    Ian, limiting the number of players (who start?) in the box on corners is not an idea I've ever heard, but it sounds interesting.  Good thinking outside the box (at least then it would be much easier to spot fouls, though I'm not sure (especially with VAR) spotting the fouls is the problem...).

  7. Santiago 1314 replied, January 13, 2022 at 11:09 a.m.

    Doing Field Hockey Corners is NOT the Answer... Imagine all the VAR "Replays" because either Offensive or Defensive Player Cheated into the Box to early.... There is NO answer to Corner Kick Melee...I still say; make them Goal 1 yard Wider and Taller... More Goals will be what they People want to see, even if there is "Mugging" on Every Corner.

  8. Victor Mathseon, January 11, 2022 at 11:23 a.m.

    Referee for 35 years here including a cup of coffee in MLS and over 500 D1 college matches. I simply don't find every usage of the f-word to be offensing, insulting, or abusive. I mean, do a Sunday morning game with a bunch of Brits and you are unlikely to ge through the coin toss without a "F*cking heads, mate! Yeah, ok? We'll take this f*cking end." Emotional langauge outbursts, even when using an official bad word, are probably not going to red cards from me in most situtions. Save the cards for the sticks and stones, not the words that never hurt you. 

  9. Ian Plenderleith replied, January 12, 2022 at 3:06 a.m.

    Funny story - I got my first ever yellow card at the age of 37 in the Montgomery County, MD, Over-35s league when an opponent was trying to hold me back (I had the ball) and actually pulled my shorts down. The ref, right in front of us, did nothing until I cried, "He's pulling down my fucking shorts, ref!" I got sin-binned for foul and abusive language. You can argue about the justice of that, but the difference is that I didn't tell either the player or the ref that he was a fucking idiot for 1. (the player) pulling down my shorts or 2. (the ref) failing to call it. So the context of foul language is crucial here - when it's an expression of frustration, you can be lenient. When it's directly abusing or insulting... well, you've read the column. There's a Law for it.  

  10. R2 Dad, January 11, 2022 at 11:34 a.m.

    The lack of fans in the stands made Haaland's outburst noticeable; it would normally have been overwhelmed by crowd noise so perhaps it appeared more unseemly in the moment.
    I always thought players should avoid picking up balls outside of throw-ins, but the leagues don't really come down on that. The LOTG don't cover Handling in dead ball situations, but I think this is more a Best Practices issue. When players do decide to pick up the ball, little good comes from it and  it's usually to provoke the opposition. Schroder should have been on hand in anticipation of the scrap, knowing he had officiated a loose match and anticipating the obvious and eventual fallout. I would have rather seen an immediate yellow to Hinteregger and the official in the net to prevent the knock-on whinging. 

  11. Paul Krieg, January 11, 2022 at 11:38 a.m.

    Would have agreed if the example were the similar incidents that happen weekly and where NO card is given.  For my money, yellow vs red is nitpicking.  And when I talk to my team, my explanation is that the laws are interpreted differently, more loosely at higher levels.  EPL physicality is not acceptable at U11.  That action is a straight red (and hopefully being grounded by a parent!) at U11.  But I find a yellow about right for pro.

  12. Mark Landefeld, January 11, 2022 at 1:58 p.m.

    18th Law (for most referees) -- ignore the example of referees at high, professional or international levels.  They are protecting a revenue-producing process.

  13. James Madison, January 11, 2022 at 2:04 p.m.

    Since when isn't it open to Haaland to retrieve the ball and take it to the kickoff spot to forestall Frankfurt delaying the ensurintg kickoff?

  14. R2 Dad replied, January 11, 2022 at 9:52 p.m.

    I have not heard of an actual protocol for this specific issue. I don't see it alot at low level amateur matches, but have normally allowed the first player to get to the ball to pick it up and return it to the center circle via their preferred method. Would like to hear from those Grade 5 and up (state level referees in the old system) how they handle it. Anyone?

  15. Ian Plenderleith, January 12, 2022 at 2:49 a.m.

    It's the same as if the ball's gone out of play in any other situation - throw-in, goal-kick, corner- kick, say. Only the team that is taking the throw-in etc. has the right to pick up the ball, otherwise it's delaying the restart. I was taught this on a USSF refereeing course! Of course, Haaland in this case is doing the opposite - he's trying to hurry the game along, not delay the re-start. The reason it's worth cautioning players in this situation, though, is to prevent exactly the situation that happened - defenders have every right to pick the ball out of the net because it's their re-start (kick-off at the center spot), so of course it more often than not ends up in a  stramash in the back of the net between two or more players. If attackers were always cautioned in these cases then they'd eventually stop doing it and we'd be rid of the lamentable wrestling scenes that follow so many goals.   

  16. Ian Plenderleith replied, January 12, 2022 at 3:08 a.m.

    [That was in reply to James Madison.]

  17. Kent James replied, January 12, 2022 at 10:51 a.m.

    As you point out, the team scored on who is retrieving the ball (slowly) is delaying the restart, not the team rushing to get the ball back in play, so it does seem harsh to yellow card the player trying to hurry the restart (though I understand the reasoning; not sure the players would at the time however...).  This could be avoided if the rules made clear that time would be added to allow for restarts after goals were scored so that there would be no need to rush. 

  18. Kent James, January 12, 2022 at 11:05 a.m.

    I'm of a mixed mind on this one; I certainly agree that top referees should be an example for everyone else, so I get really annoyed when they clearly don't enforce clear violations (players standing in front of the ball to delay a free kick being the most glaring one).  Language is tough; threatening language ("I'm going to F*** you up) should clearly be a red card, as should demeaning language to a ref ("you suck"), since that can undermine the ref's authority.  Incidental foul language is a gray area; I once did a college game (a D-II game with a team full of Englishman, where every player on the team used the F-word in almost every sentence..."pass the f-ing ball," "you've got an f-ing man on" etc.  Maybe I should have carded the first one, but I feared throwing people out for two yellow cards, and once I didn't jump on it (there was probably one in the first minute), it was hard to close the barn door after the cows got out. 

    I prefer to card "real" (physical) fouls, but learned (the hard way) that failing to card dissent can lead to a deterioration of the game.  For incidental foul language, the standard I used was that if only me and a few players heard it, I'd let is slide.  If the stands could hear it, it got carded (a stance that would be made difficult by a stadium with mics on the field and no crowd).

    Bottom line is that I think threatening language should be red card, foul language should just be yellow.  It's also okay for the standards to be stricter for children. 

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