Bam. Bam. Bam. Three red cards. I'd be fine with that.

What can soccer learn from other sports in its perpetual struggle to stem the seemingly endless flood of anger, dissent and disrespect aimed at referees? Or to stop players constantly wasting time and engaging in gamesmanship without suffering so much as a caution? An interview this week in the German press with one Bundesliga referee and two of his colleagues from the sport of team handball threw up some radical but urgently necessary answers.

There’s a reason why there’s so little dissent in handball – it’s because referees are allowed to enforce the rules. And the rules on dissent (a two-minute time penalty, every time) have a far lower bar of tolerance than soccer, where chewing out the referee is a sin that goes unpunished, week after week. And when young players see the pros getting away with it on TV, they will be guaranteed to ape that anti-sporting behavior out on the amateur field the following weekend.

“Soccer has missed the opportunity to establish a proper level of respect,” according to Patrick Ittrich, one of the best refs in Germany right now. Ittrich sat down with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and two top handball referees, Robert Schulze und Tobias Tönnies, and labelled “the eternal complaining” as the game’s biggest problem. Of course, he acknowledged, there are difficult coaches in handball too, but the rule book allows for a much more effective approach to poor conduct. That’s where soccer can learn, and in other areas too.

Take players simulating injury to run down the clock. If a handball player goes down and receives treatment, they have to leave the field of play. Ittrich says that if he could remind every soccer player rolling around dramatically on the floor that on-field treatment would lead to them automatically sitting out at least three minutes, then this particular aspect of gamesmanship would become part of soccer’s past. “Imagine how quickly the player would get up!” (MLS Next Pro introduced such a rule midway through its 2022 season.)

In handball, if a player picks up, moves or even touches the ball to waste time when their opponents have been awarded a free-throw, then the throw’s automatically moved forward to seven meters in front of the opponent’s goal. “In soccer,” says Ittrich, “that could mean a tactical foul in midfield leading to a free-kick 18 yards directly in front of goal. How often would we see tactical fouls after that?”

On a roll, Ittrich then addressed the plague of dissent. “You’ve sworn at me? Then you get 10 minutes off the field to cool down. Go on an exercise bike, like they do in gridiron, so you don’t get cold. And how is it possible that after making a decision I’m then being harangued by 10 players? OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, it’s more like six or seven. We call it mobbing the referee. As far as I’m concerned: Bam. Bam. Bam. Three red cards, or if one player already has yellow then they get yellow-red. And then we play 11 against seven. I’d be absolutely fine with that.”

My own refereeing blog is now in its seventh season of documenting the abuse I get for whistling games in German youth and amateur soccer. It’s no coincidence that there’s a refereeing recruitment crisis worldwide, at all levels and in all sports. The reaction that Ittrich hears when he tells people what he does at weekends will be familiar to every ref on the planet: “Why on earth would you put yourself through that?”

It's a question that’s becoming increasingly hard to answer in the face of FIFA’s inability to change soccer’s culture. The World Cup would have been the perfect time to advise referees to clamp down hard on dissent, right from the opening whistle. We saw no such thing. While the added time was piled on at the end of almost every half to compensate for time-wasting, the issue of time-wasting itself was ignored, despite there being multiple sanctions for such behavior in the game’s rulebook.

The "Laws of the Game" have long since been crying out for a radical overhaul. Not only to streamline and simplify them, but to make them consistently applicable across all levels of the game. In our online monthly tests, we are required to answer the questions by the exact letter of the law. On the field, we are advised to judge the games by a completely different set of criteria. For example, don’t yellow card players for dissent – that’s bad game management, and “emotions” are all part of the game. Don’t yellow card time-wasting, that’s just fussy refereeing and you’ll end up looking like a poor ref if you caution a dozen players.

The players love that approach to refereeing. It means they often dispute every decision and use every trick in the book to run down the clock. It also means a game that’s devoid of respect, decency and honesty. That’s pro sport, you could argue in return. Well then, let’s try a more robust approach that may be better appreciated by sport’s rugged competitors. Bam. Bam. Bam. Three reds for mobbing the ref. I’d be absolutely fine with that.

11 comments about "Bam. Bam. Bam. Three red cards. I'd be fine with that.".
  1. Paul Cox, January 6, 2023 at 1:08 a.m.

    The online class for renewing my USSF license was all about dissent and dealing with it quickly and effectively. The federation is finally urging refs to enforce the LOTG on that count.

    Bam Bam Bam, fine by me

  2. Mike Lynch, January 6, 2023 at 12:28 p.m.

    Until laws enforced and greater consequences are approved such as free kick for tactical fouls, min time off the field after treatment, and sin bin for dissent, behavior will not change. Pleased to see these types of changes being talked about, some even being tested. Thanks Ian for sharing. 

  3. R2 Dad, January 6, 2023 at 2:10 p.m.

    I'm coming around to the idea that amateur and professional leagues need separate LOTG. Segregation would allow stronger penalties against the worst offenders. I avoid tournaments these days as it brings out the worst in coaches, while tournaments are vulnerable to retaliation threats from "big" clubs.

  4. Peter Kurilecz replied, January 6, 2023 at 4:34 p.m.

    nope same rules apply, just as in golf doesn't matter if you are youth, amateur or pro the same rules apply. start changing the rules at different levels and you have to adjust your play as you go up. I played under international rules when I was in HS, when I went to college I found the NCAA rules ridiculous

  5. R2 Dad replied, January 8, 2023 at 4:37 a.m.

    To use your golf example, imagine if field Marshall's gave penalty strokes but that each hosting club got to override those penalties because they didn't want to hurt the feelings of the players. THAT'S what refereeing is like when individual leagues refuse to punish coaches. Verbally abusing 14 YO refs? "We'll give him a good talking-to". Red card to a coach? "Three match ban is too long --how about just one?" Something has to change, though neither FIFA nor USSF doesn't really want to do anything about it.

  6. James Madison, January 6, 2023 at 3:18 p.m.

    Laxity may be allowed in the professional leagues in the interest of "fandom," but not in my world of Sunday and youth soccer.  And a tight leash definitely makes a difference.

  7. Peter Kurilecz, January 6, 2023 at 4:33 p.m.

    I've long said that soccer needs to institute a "sin bin" like hockey where not only do you get a yellow card but you are sent off for 2 or 5 or 10 minutes depending upon the severity of the yellow card foul. The 2 minute send off would be for dissent and would also be a yellow card. you might have to hand out several such yellow cards before the players get the message. Reinforce that only the captain can speak to the referee


  8. uffe gustafsson, January 6, 2023 at 8:45 p.m.

    How about just starting to hand out yellow cards to players coaches and unruly parents, and have the leagues backing you up. That would change things and League would indorse refs to just do that. I had parents told to leave at multiple times and some coaches and then got the same coaches writing in to give me a bad write up.
    instead of league suspended the coach for bad behavior until they do that nothing will change.

  9. S Nissen replied, January 6, 2023 at 9:47 p.m.

    +1 !

  10. Bob Ashpole, January 7, 2023 at 12:10 a.m.

    I have always seen coaches as having shared responsibility with the officials for ensuring fair and safe play. I bet Ian shares this view. The "professional attitude" is to cheat whenever it is to your advantage. Okay I can see that as a reality at the professional level even though I don't like it and would not cheat. But what absolutely enrages me is see youth coaches teach their players how to cheat. Even if I believed in teaching youth how to cheat (I don't) I would understand that you first have to teach them how to play fairly before teaching them how to cheat. Otherwise how are they to be effecitve after a caution?

    I agree with those that complain about failure to enforce the laws. Perhaps the biggest failure is in dealing with persistent fouls. The typical referee never enforces this. There are exceptions. I saw a referee in a professional match who after play stopped pulled out a yellow card and cautioned a player for successive fouls while the referee had allowed advantage. I almost fell out of my chair in shock.

  11. Ric Fonseca, January 10, 2023 at 3:45 p.m.

    PeterK:  I agree vis-a-vis the NCAA "rules" that for some reason or otehr seem to be more sophomoric, picayunish, and wishy washy.  From my memory bank, here's one for the books.  During a "final four game" between UCLA and St Louis at Edwardsville) one of the dual system refs stopped the game, called over a UCLA player, removed him from the field and resumed play until the coach demanded why the player was removed.  The ref in question said he was wearing unauthorized shoes - the player had been playing with shoes with aluminum studs, the whole season and was not questioned.  However, the ref finally relented only and if the player changed shoes, did he allow play to resume.  It must be pointed out, however, that the St. Louis Coach supposedly intervened and convinced the ref to allow theUCLA player onto the field.  

    The point here is that the NCAA rules were not followed by the very same official to have "inspected" both team's shoes before the game, but only when someone from the home team called it to the game official's attention.  The UCLA player, a foreign student from Ethipiopia - shoa Agonafer - was completely baffled - as St Louis won.  If there was any consolation to the situation, that game over 50 years ago, was very improperly managed/officiated from the git-go, and played under archai and sophomoric ncaa rules.   

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