What is the 'spirit' of soccer? And where can I find it?

There's a preamble in FIFA's "Laws of the Game" that comes under the heading, 'The philosophy and spirit of the Laws.' When you read this section, it's best to adopt the lofty accent of a well-heeled Englishman, possibly a condescending headmaster at an all-boys private school. That's because the preamble is a mixture of pompous tosh and vague appeals to some kind of code of honor that only exists in the imagination of administrators sitting at oak desks writing on parchment using a silver-nibbed fountain pen.    

"Football," begins the preamble's second paragraph, "must have Laws which keep the game fair — this is a crucial foundation of the ‘beautiful game’ and a vital feature of the ‘spirit’ of the game." It's telling that the words 'beautiful game' and 'spirit' are bracketed by quotation marks, as though the International Football Association Board (IFAB — the Brit-loaded committee that meddles with soccer's universal rules once a year) is indulging in heavy sarcasm. Indeed, if that sentence hasn't prompted a knowing chuckle (or a sneer), then try its follow-up: "The best matches are those where the referee is rarely needed because the players play with respect for each other, the match officials and the Laws."

Look, I agree with that sentence 100 percent. Please show me where these matches are taking place and I'll be tuning in or turning up at the gate, every week. And don't tell me it's the Montgomery County U-7 Rec League, where they play four on four without goalkeepers and don't keep the score. I've seen those games. The players are great, but the parents are certifiable. This is where the 'spirit' of the game sets out on its short but rapid descent to the filthy, abandoned gutter of sporting values.

"Football’s Laws are relatively simple compared to most other team sports ..." begins the next paragraph. Well, they were until the IFAB started fiddling around with offside and handball (among other areas) and made them much less simple to understand, to interpret or to even remember. On it goes: "... but as many situations are subjective and match officials are human, some decisions will inevitably be wrong or cause debate and discussion. For some people, this discussion is part of the game’s enjoyment and attraction but, whether decisions are right or wrong, the ‘spirit’ of the game requires that referees’ decisions must always be respected."

Must they? Then why are they not?

"All those in authority," this paragraph waffles on more in hope than conviction, "especially coaches and team captains, have a clear responsibility to the game to respect the match officials and their decisions."

Do they? Then why don't they? And if this responsibility is so "clear," why do I meet so many team captains who think it's their clear responsibility not to show respect, but to complain even louder than their teammates. When you show them the yellow card, they're astonished. They are the captain. It's their right to complain!

The preamble is now so delighted with its own rhetoric that IFAB, in the style of rugby players a couple of centuries back, just picks up the ball and run, laws be damned. Unfortunately, they run straight into a morass of paralogistical claptrap: "The laws cannot deal with every possible situation, so where there is no direct provision in the laws, The IFAB expects the referee to make a decision within the 'spirit' of the game and the Laws — this often involves asking the question, 'what would football want/expect?'"

This works brilliantly on a Sunday afternoon when I'm refereeing 22 testosterone-driven young men who may not be that great at soccer, but who know for sure who's to blame when things don't go well. The referee, of course. When they quite vehemently disagree with one of my calls (very rare — maybe as infrequently as several dozen times per game), I merely ask them, "Well, chaps, what would football expect? What would it want?" This prompts them all to stop shouting at me and we sit down in a circle to mull questions of morality, conduct and, of course, the desires and expectations of the game. Often, someone gets out a guitar and we express our conclusions in perfect harmony, applauded courteously by the half dozen spectators as we continue with a drop ball.

What does football want/expect? And who or what the hell is 'football'?

I hate to shatter IFAB's delusions, but soccer is no longer played by gentlemen in the nineteenth century. Judging by what I see on the field, in the stadium, and on my TV screen, here is what the game wants/expects:

Fouls. Loads of them. Up against a skilled and more gifted opponent? Foul them. It's what your teammates, your coach and the fans both want and expect. Don't expect sanctions that will stop fouling, though. That's just the referee being too fussy and not realizing that this is a contact sport, where fouling is an integral part of the self-professed beauty.

Simulation. 1-0 down and need a penalty? Pretend that you've been fouled. 1-0 up and need to waste time? Pretend that you're injured. You're doing it for the team, and it's what they want and expect. Even your opponent understands, because they'd do the same thing too, despite their fake outrage.

Hysteria and dissent. Whether you're on the field or on the sideline, dispute decisions with the conviction of a candy thief who's just been put on Death Row. Go on, intimidate the referee. Make them think twice before they blow against you next time. It works, and the chances are that you won't even get a caution. Plus, you're just showing how 'passionate' you are about winning and how much you care about your club.  It's expected, especially by the media.

Cheating. Just don't get caught. It wouldn't be appropriate to mention the English Premier League club Manchester City at this point, so we won't. Suffice to say, everyone's at it, so it's all right  — or, at least, that's the current argument of fans supporting certain teams that have recently won a slew of titles after being (over-)pumped full of dirty money.

I'm sure you can come up with your own extended list of wants and expectations that reflect the game’s elusive spirit. That's the problem with the preamble — we can interpret it any way that we want, depending on our own ethical vision and how we evaluate the importance of sport in our lives and in society as a whole. What I want is as follows: scrap the nonsensical lecture, re-write the rules, and ensure that referees have the courage and the protection to apply them. But I’m not naive enough to expect it.

8 comments about "What is the 'spirit' of soccer? And where can I find it?".
  1. Kent James, February 10, 2023 at 1:51 a.m.

    Ian, tough weekend?  I hope you're feeling better soon....:-)

  2. R2 Dad, February 10, 2023 at 5:03 p.m.

    "they were until the IFAB started fiddling around with offside and handball (among other areas) and made them much less simple to understand, to interpret or to even remember". Can USSF revert back to 2010 LOTG? We just had a web training session (offside/deflection or not?) and IFAB has changed "Plays or Attempts to Play" into a confusing word salad impossible to implement. They're added back Intent, apparently.

  3. James Madison, February 13, 2023 at 1:42 p.m.

    In a well-officiated game you will little of the bullshit that Ian laments.  He's right, however, about the International bord screwing up offside and handling. 

  4. Alvaro Bettucchi, February 13, 2023 at 3:18 p.m.

    I have only one comment! Do you want soccer, as you want it to be or soccer has it could be? Personally, I want soocer as it could be! Get rid of IFAB and have FIFA, with an international referee committee, tighten up the riuleS, for and make it, the BEAUTIFUL GAME!!

  5. Paul Krieg, February 13, 2023 at 8:18 p.m.

    Ian, your negativity is overly wearing.  Just give up if you hate football so much.  Ideals are just that.  And if we stop striving, we become our worst selves.  So either aim high or give up.  I choose ideals.  And from now, I choose to no longer read your columns.  

  6. Peter Hattrup, February 15, 2023 at 10:56 a.m.

    One thing I've never seen mentioned in Ian's writing is the referee respecting the players. The Esse Baharmest's of the world had a great give and take with players and were generally according great respect from players, because they extended it the other way. Too many think they are the right hand of god.

  7. Ahmet Guvener, February 16, 2023 at 2:58 p.m.

    "When you read this section, it's best to adopt the lofty accent of a well-heeled Englishman, possibly a condescending headmaster at an all-boys private school."
    Did you know David Elleray's background when you wrote this sentence?

  8. Drake Delzell, April 2, 2023 at 6:18 p.m.

    Great article. It will change when the laws are enforced at the highest level. I won't hold my breath.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications