One of my many frustrations with the abysmal level of punditry associated with television coverage of football in the British Isles is that pundits (with rare exceptions) show absolutely no knowledge of refereeing, nor even the actual laws of the game. Thus, you get no serious analysis of the laws of the game or how they are applied. Maybe we could try some in this article, concerning the “professional foul”.
I don’t watch as much football as I would like, but I did get to watch the Manchester City-Barcelona game and then attend the Arsenal-Bayern game in midweek. Both games were similar – a brave start by the home Premier League team was halted by a single incident resulting in a sending off and penalty, which turned the game into something more akin to a training session as the visiting team used its extra numbers to win 2-0.
In both cases, the laws of the game were applied entirely correctly and consistently. Yet in both cases, we were also deprived of a great end-to-end 90 minutes by a single mistimed challenge. I have never thought the combination of a penalty and dismissal for a single challenge was appropriate, partly because it is a double punishment but in fact mainly because it deprives those who have paid to watch the game of the spectacle they were paying for.
The International Board which determines the laws of the game has done many things well over the past few decades. The laws themselves have been made more consistent and more obvious, despite the challenge of designing them to apply at all levels of the game. However, I have long thought they have slightly misunderstood the problem of the so-called “professional foul”, and thus applied the wrong solution.
The origins of the “problem”, in the global public imagination, go back to this astonishing foul by Brazilian goalkeeper Carlos on French forward Bellone in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. With an intense, tight game level at 1-1, Carlos stopped an almost certain goal with his foul, but as co-commentator Jimmy Hill explains, the French reward for this should merely have been a free-kick well away from goal and Carlos’ continued participation in the game (that they didn’t even get this was a clear refereeing error – justice was done in the end, as France progressed on penalties). This was the classic “professional foul”, so-called because it was so obviously worth committing.
Five years later, the International Board determined that a “professional foul” should be penalised by a dismissal. This certainly makes players think twice about doing it deliberately, and is an improvement on the position in 1986. It is still not quite there, however.
Firstly, there are two different types of “professional foul” – there is the type which stops a goalscoring opportunity (but no more than that), such as that committed by Manchester City’s De Michelis on Barcelona’s Messi; and then there is the type which stops a certain goal, such as Arsenal’s Szceczny on Bayern’s Robben.
Secondly, the reward for the attacking side, currently, varies depending on when in the game the foul takes place. After 35 minutes, it gives it most of the game against 10 men; however, in injury time at the end of the game, the dismissal of the opposing player is next to useless (in other words, the “professional foul” is still “worth committing”).
That is the problem. So what is the solution?
It is worth taking a quick diversion to check the offside rule. Men often suggest women do not know the offside rule, but I personally wonder how many men do! Consider the diagrams below:
Here (with the attacking team in white and defending in black), the player back right on the edge of the area shoots. To the left, no player is in an offside position. To the centre, an attacking player (about eight yards out on the left) is in an offside position, but is not seeking to gain an advantage. To the right, a player is in an offside position and is seeking to gain an advantage. Upon the shot occurring, an indirect free-kick would be awarded to the defending team only in the case to the right.
To be clear, guidance is given to referees suggesting that players are “interfering with play” and thus “seeking to gain an advantage” if they fall within the triangle shaded – between the ball and each of the posts. (They may be seeking to gain an advantage otherwise, for example by staying ahead of the play and then coming back into an onside position at the last minute, but generally they are not.)
We can use the same type of diagram to explain what I would propose as a more appropriate response to a “professional foul” – both in terms of the use of the penalty applied to the attacking team, and of maintaining the game as a contest for the people who pay to watch it.
Here, let us a assume a foul takes place on the attacking player (in white) by the nearby defensive player (black) – back left in each of the first two examples, and more centrally in the last one.
In the first case to the left, this is not a “professional foul” as two defensive players are in the triangle – the current rules would award a penalty as the foul has taken place within the penalty area, but nothing else; and there is no reason to change that.
In the second case, to the right, based on the Manchester City-Barcelona case, the foul has taken place on the edge of the area and only one defender (presumably the goalkeeper) is in the triangle. This is clearly a professional foul, in that it deprives a goalscoring opportunity – though not a certain goal.
Here, the current laws require a free-kick or penalty kick to be awarded (depending on whether the offence occurs outside or inside the penalty area – if it continues into the area, as it did in the Manchester City-Barcelona case, the referee is correct to award a penalty kick), and the defender is dismissed.
I would change the laws of the game to award a penalty kick regardless of whether or not the foul took place inside the penalty area, but I would merely caution the defending player.
In the third case, to the left, based on the Arsenal-Bayern case, the foul has taken place centrally with no defender in the triangle. This is a professional foul, but it does more than deprive a mere goalscoring opportunity – the attacking player is actually certain to score (within reason)!
Here, the current laws are the same as with the previous case; a free-kick or penalty kick is awarded (outside or inside the area), and the defender is dismissed.
However, I would change the laws to note this is not the same as the previous case. As per a “penalty try” in rugby union, I would simply award the goal and merely caution the defending player.
As with the interpretation of offside, the diagrams mark clearly what is merely an attacking play, what is a goalscoring opportunity, and what is an otherwise certain goal.
It would thus be a relatively straightforward amendment to the laws of the game; one which would make it both fairer for those who play it and more entertaining for those who pay to see it.