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[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 14, 2007 at 11:18am] Trackbacks
Football Most Foul.

At law schools throughout the country, late spring is the season when professors put away lecture notes and turn from coaching their students to refereeing them. As we pick through stacks of exam answers, we serve as arbiters of all the wisdom that can be legibly scribbled into a bluebook in a few furious hours. Each student's grade rests to a certain extent on the decisions we make. But the outcome depends more than anything else on how the student performs. Surely?

To avoid that awkward question for a moment and to be honest, the final I'm most looking forward to these days is not the securities regulation one my students took two days ago but rather the Champions League match between Liverpool & AC Milan next Wednesday. Can we assume that contest will also depend most on how the players perform? Or is it fairer to predict that the referee will play the most prominent role?

Anyone who watched even a few minutes of last summer's World Cup probably has a firm opinion on that question. Casual spectators of the tournament may not have been lucky enough to spot one of the 2.3 goals per game. But they stood a good chance of seeing a referee hand out one of the 346 yellow cards (at a rate of 5.4 per match). And what they could not have missed were the chronic and mortifying instances of world-class athletes writhing about the grass as if possessed.

This clip includes some demonstrations of the behaviour and perhaps suggests its origin:

(Hat tip: Eric Zorn)

In Football Most Foul , I attempt to discern the cause of the deterioration of World Cup soccer into this deplorable state. My conclusion, which I'll explore further in coming posts, is that the rewards and punishments that referees have in their arsenal are too crude and too capable of determining the outcome of the game. The power of referees to work a game's bouleversement with one blow of the whistle — either by sending off a star player or awarding a penalty — places officials at the center of the game.

Players then have a strong incentive to attempt to influence referees, often by bearing false witness to the facts with dives and operatic petitions. This phenomenon appears to be exacerbated at the quadrennial World Cup, where teams play relatively few games for enormous stakes and where caution and calculation often trump free-flowing football. (In domestic leagues and even the Champions League, which involve many more matches, we still see wonderful games like Manchester United's 7-1 demolition of Roma last month.)

My proposals for addressing the situation, which I will also discuss further in future posts, focus primarily on ways of diluting and refining referees' power. For a start, more goals in the game would decrease the relative impact of referees' decisions. And if yellow cards are not sufficient deterrents while red cards effectively defang a team (in the World Cup, only one country scored after receiving a red card and that goal was, naturally, from a penalty), perhaps we need additional punishments of a severity somewhere between the two. Similarly, if penalties have a disproportionate impact on games and, indeed, may determine the outcome (as they did in six World Cup matches), perhaps we need a more finely tuned remedy.

In the coming days, I look forward to exploring this relationship between legislation and adjudication as well as the question whether too much law can ruin a game.

Because soccer is one of those happy topics on which many people will have an opinion, I suspect our comments will soon feature debates about whether Cruyff's Dutch teams of the 70s could beat Zidane's French ones at their zenith. In my next post, I'll propose an agenda for the week to organize our discussion. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this question: what team is being parodied in the clip above?

Some Guy:
If it's not the Italians, it ought to be.
5.14.2007 12:25pm
JB:
I agree. Beyond the matter of in-game penalties, games decided on penalty kicks (like this year's final) suck. Penalty kicks combine everything that's wrong with soccer and baseball, and have none of the redeeming qualities of either.
5.14.2007 12:42pm
Chicago:
It's probably supposed to be the Italian team, but it could equally be the Portguese.
5.14.2007 12:44pm
Charlie Eldred (mail):
Basketball has 3 refs for 10 players. American football has 7 refs for 22 players. Soccer/football should have more than one ref for the 22 players and huge field; at least 3, maybe 5 or 6 (not including linesmen), and the refs should strictly call the game. A lot of soccer/football chicanery is because the ref cannot see everything. Also, more refs means diluted power.
5.14.2007 12:54pm
rcb (mail):
I've played soccer many, many years, and after coaching for my kids, have started reff'ing games. After a controversy in which I called an indirect free kick in the penalty area (interference call on a ball going out of bounds), I started to think the answer might be to legitimize the practice of all wishy-washy referees: on less serious or borderline (non-injurious, not on breakaway) fouls, grant a largely harmless free kick at some fictitious spot outside the penalty area. That would fill the space between the death penalty (kick) and letting the offender go free. That, and punish flopping with temporary ejections.
5.14.2007 1:00pm
anonymous user (mail):
I definitely think it could be the Portugese. I think Christian Ronaldo was definitely one of the worst abusers during this past world cup. Every time I looked up he was wriggling on the ground and then the magic spray came out and he was just fine.
5.14.2007 1:01pm
Eric Scharf (mail) (www):
I don't even have to play the clip to know that it refers to the Italians.

The simplest way to lessen the impact of an ejection (either from a single red card or two yellows) is to allow the penalized team to substitute in a replacement (if they have any of their subs left).

I agree that increasing the number of goals would also lessen the influence of refereeing. One simple way to do this is to increase the size of the goal.

Adding refs and permitting penalty-area fouls to be penalized with something other than a PK are good ideas.
5.14.2007 1:14pm
In the Hat:
Those dives have a distinctive Mediterranean, some might say Italian, character to them. But, given that there are some players who look to be of African descent, it can't be aimed at Italy, at least not of the creators were striving for accuracy. Perhaps their neighbors, the French? They do have a penchant for scoring on penalties and free kicks. (It actually looks more like a video of Juventus)
5.14.2007 1:16pm
r78:
Why not give yellow cards to fakers?
5.14.2007 1:35pm
DF:
The ad appears to be for Euro2004, so that rules out my first guess, Mexico. Italy, France, and sadly, my own people (the Portuguese) are all safe bets but it also doesn't seem quite fair to single out one nation since so many are guilty of the practice.

Also, one small historical point: the prevalence of discipline as a defining feature of the game isn't new to the WC. The 2006 Cup was unusually card-heavy, but so was the 1990 Cup, which featured the lowest goals/game total of any WC, and had a final decided by a single dodgy penalty. The tournament's top players (Maradona, Klinsmann) were as notable for their dissembling as they were for the quality of their play. The 1998 and 2002 WCs, by contrast, had more in the way of offense and fewer penalties and cards—both were much more fun to watch. So I'd call the discipline issue an ebb and flow rather than a stark increasing trend.
5.14.2007 1:37pm
Newt Jackson (mail):
I know I am naive, but, as a way of increasing scoring, is there any reason not to abolish the offsides rule?
5.14.2007 1:48pm
Charlie Eldred (mail):
Another reform would be five-minute quarter breaks half-way through each half. That could cut down on the phenomenon of faking injuries to give everyone a rest.
5.14.2007 1:58pm
M. Lederman (mail):
Very much enjoyed the article, Prof. Birdthistle. My favorite bit was the insertion of the initial "K" in footnote 26 -- as if there would otherwise be some confusion as to which Kannon Shanmugam might have made the suggestion!
5.14.2007 2:15pm
Nathan Mates (mail) (www):
How about something like this to reduce flopping: if play is stopped due to a hurt player (legit or not), then that player must leave the field. They can return the next time play is stopped. (NFL has something like this, I believe).

This way, those that flop will get the rest they desire, but put their team at a (temporary) disadvantage. If someone is legitimately injured by an opposing player, the existing yellow/red card handed out to the opposing player should help negate the "get off the field" policy.

Just my $0.02.
5.14.2007 2:19pm
TomH (mail):
Call fewer "fouls" and roll the injured (or alleged injured) to the short side. The calls should be reserved for only the most flagrant, apparently intentional or reckless acts which arise from playing the player and not an unintentional result of playing the ball. Don't bother with calling infractions the referee does not see.

International Rugby is much better on most of these counts.
5.14.2007 2:31pm
Peter Young (mail):
You fail to mention that one of the problems with refereeing at the World Cup is FIFA's insistence on spreading the World Cup refereeing spots among all the confederations. The upshot is that we get referees of widely varying experience and quality officiating at the World Cup. Remember, for example, that it was a Tunisian referee who failed to see Maradona's hand flick the ball into the net against England in 1986.

True, FIFA has increased the level of the training and preparation for potential World Cup referees, but nothing compares to the experience of refereeing top games at the highest level, which is the preserve of referees in the top European and South American leagues. There are enough top flight referees around to provide a higher average level of refereeing at the World Cup, but to achieve that FIFA would have to make politically unpopular and perhaps unpalatable decisions.

I hasten to add that not all the refereeing problems come from referees who are not among the top flight--the English referee at the last World Cup, for example, made a right hash of things--but many of them do.

Please don't argue for cheap fixes like bigger goals to increase the number of goals scored. One quality that makes football so attractive to me and many other lifetime fans is the difficulty of scoring goals. That difficulty places a premium on creativity.

I'm open to exploring technological advances to counter the most blatant and severe refereeing errors, but only if their use does not impede the free flowing nature of the game, perhaps its most attractive quality.

Finally, football has managed to do just fine in most of the rest of the world without tampering from the U.S.A. Any proposals for change emanating from the U.S.A., even from a transplanted Irishman living in the U.S.A., will gain a hostile reception. That's simply a fact of life on this planet. If you want to effect changes in the game (rather than merely engage in an academic exercise), you'd better find a way to make sure your proposals have backing outside the U.S.A.

Peter Young
Webmaster
England Football Online
5.14.2007 2:32pm
Mark Field (mail):

Why not give yellow cards to fakers?


They do. The problem is the difficulty of determining a fake during the run of play. It's often only obvious to those watching on TV who have the benefit of replay. Sometimes the refs make mistakes on this too -- I've seen players carded for diving when the replay showed they actually were fouled.


How about something like this to reduce flopping: if play is stopped due to a hurt player (legit or not), then that player must leave the field. They can return the next time play is stopped. (NFL has something like this, I believe).


That's already the rule if the injury (real or fake) requires the trainer to enter the field. The problem is that the player is out for such a short time, usually a minute or so. A longer time on the sideline (5 minute minimum, say) might be more effective.
5.14.2007 2:35pm
Mark Field (mail):

I'm open to exploring technological advances to counter the most blatant and severe refereeing errors, but only if their use does not impede the free flowing nature of the game, perhaps its most attractive quality.


It seems to me that careful review of each game afterwards, with the ability to penalize players based on that review, would cut down on the problems quite a bit and not interfere with the game.

IMHO, the biggest problem is the offside calls, and it's not easy to fix that.
5.14.2007 2:40pm
JB:
I agree with those who have suggested more intermediate penalizations. All those ideas seem promising.


Responding to myself:

To do away with the end-of-game penalty kicks, keep playing overtime indefinitely. After the first overtime, however, each team goes down 1 player (10 on a side) for 10 minutes, then loses another player every 10 minutes until someone scores.
5.14.2007 2:45pm
OK Lawyer:
I think more ref's would be a good idea. As the questionable dives vs. fouls calls could be discussed from different viewpoints.

What about changing the way goals are scored? 3 points for goals outside the 18 yd box, 2 points for inside the 18 and outside the 6, 1 for anything else, including all free kicks and penalty kicks. This would reduce the impact of a penalty kick, which could presumably remove some incentive to dive.
5.14.2007 2:47pm
Edward Lee (www):
<i>The simplest way to lessen the impact of an ejection (either from a single red card or two yellows) is to allow the penalized team to substitute in a replacement (if they have any of their subs left). </i>

The problem with allowing an ejected player to be replaced is that it provides an incentive for a player who knows he's going to be subbed out to try to commit a foul and get away with it. (To be fair, it is balanced by the fact that the player will have to miss his next match. But in the championship game of a tournament, this isn't enough of a disincentive.)
5.14.2007 2:51pm
TRex (mail):
That is too funny and timely after all the NBA playoff whining. Check out the May 11 similar article regarding American crying at:

ESPN.com Crying etiquette of the sports world

By Jemele Hill

Cheers
5.14.2007 2:52pm
Richard A. (mail):
The problem of soccer refereeing is shared with all similar games that involves a field of play with goals at either end, i.e. basketball, football, hockey, etc. That problem is an excess of discretionary calls, i.e. fouls of some sort. By contrast, there are almost no discretionary calls in baseball, other than the balk, running out of the basepath and a few other rare torts.
Other than that, the umpire is forced to make a call one way or the other, generally strike or ball, safe or out.
Pro basketball is even worse than soccer in this regard.
5.14.2007 2:56pm
A.S.:
I think it would be impossible to implement such a drastic change as to make certain fouls require X minutes in a penalty box. There is simply too much history in soccer.

The one thing I think CAN be changed would be to add a second referee. The NBA added a third referee in 1988. The NHL added a second referee in 1998.

That said, I don't know that adding another referee will make a difference. People have studied this before - see here and here, for a couple of examples I found in 20 seconds on google. What shouls be studied is the effect of adding those extra refs in the other sports; if a positive effect, it should be implemented in soccer too.
5.14.2007 2:58pm
blindgambit:
The clip, given the presence of a Euro 2004 booklet at the end, is the Portuguese, who made it to the Euro 2004 finals with some spectacular tumbles along the way. It is often amazing Deco and Ronaldo don't simply die on the field out of sheer pain at times.

As for rule changes:
(1)More refs might be helpful- way too many times events occur behind the run of play where the ref simply is not looking. Also, many dives are the result of the knowledge that officials don't have a great view of every area of the field.


(2) Technology and post-game punishment-in the NBA, players frequently get suspended for events that don't even draw a foul or flagrant foul call during a particular game; a system that more vigorously enforced punishing divers post-game could have some effect


(3) Something to get rid of negative tactics-this, in my opinion, is the real problem with football nowadays. Managers like Mourinho who prefer winning 1-0 to winning 5-4 and deploy their formations accordingly. Unfortunately, I don't have a good answer to it so long as those clubs keep winning.

(4) Different deployment of officials for big tournaments-FIFA should not make sure to slot officials in a fashion to ensure that each continent has a set number of refs in the World Cup. Quite frankly, Europe and South America have better leagues and more experiences refs, they should get almost every spot. You get too many refs whose idea of a "big game" is 5,000 fans in a dusty sandlot officiating these games. We'd be pissed if high school b-ball refs started officiating the NBA finals, wouldn't we?
5.14.2007 3:00pm
SchoolsOut:
Why not adopt a system of penalty similar to hockey, with most infractions resulting in time in the "Sin Bin." Referees can give Minor or Major penalties depending on the offence (two to five minutes).

This would preserve the power of forcing a team to play a man down, but give them the hope of riding out ("killing") the penalty. It would encourage free flowing attacks from the side with the advantage instead of the war of attrition that currently results when a man is sent off.
5.14.2007 3:01pm
blindgambit:
Schoolsout:

I think such a change would just be too shocking to football's culture to adopt. It's also questionable how much of an effect it would have; going a man down usually effects a team as the game goes on (the fatigue from having to cover more space) and, in five minute intervals, may have no concrete effect. Also, there are easy methods of wasting time in footie since the clock never stops- kick it out of bounds, meander slowly to take the throw, etc.
5.14.2007 3:04pm
A.S.:
Something to get rid of negative tactics-this, in my opinion, is the real problem with football nowadays. Managers like Mourinho who prefer winning 1-0 to winning 5-4 and deploy their formations accordingly. Unfortunately, I don't have a good answer to it so long as those clubs keep winning.

Yes. This was not mentioned in the article (I don't believe), but it is key. The 4-5-1 formation should be banned.
5.14.2007 3:17pm
David Drake (mail):
I like the idea of eliminating penalty kick shoot-outs and playing with a progessively smaller no. of players. The problem is that television demands a set time for the end of the match. Penalty kick shoot outs are, in my opinion, the bane of the game.

I do not mind the off-side rule; it looks to me like the officials get this right much more often than then get it wrong, at least in European club football. World Cup is, of course, different as there are many incompetent linesmen.

One idea for refereeing (probably heretical): An official in the press box to look out for the fouls that are missed on the field but result in sanctions after the game when they appear on video. I'd not go so far as to have the press box person reverse calls on the field based on television replays. But I see no reason why flagrant fouls away from the ball could not result in cards during the match, even if they do not result in free kicks.
5.14.2007 3:24pm
blindgambit:
I fully agree; teams should not be permitted to take to the pitch without at least 2 strikers.
5.14.2007 3:25pm
dsn:
What about video replay? Allow the coaches to challenge a call, but if the challenge goes against them, they lose a sub. This would restrict coaches in their challenges, but would allow some fragrant fouls to be caught - it seemed like a lot of dives were much more obvious on TV than to the ref, who couldn't zoom in and see that the two players never actually touched.
5.14.2007 3:26pm
Some Guy:
"Pro basketball is even worse than soccer in this regard."

There is some flopping in the NBA, but the difference is that the reward for basketball fakers is a couple free throws or maybe just the ball. With average points scored per game somewhere between 160-200, the couple of extra points here and there don't have as great an effect as a flopper winning a penalty kick when the average score is, what, 1.5 or 2?

Also, if you flop in basketball and the ref sees through it, your team is at a bigger disadvantage (down 20% versus down 9%) while you try to get up and return to play.
5.14.2007 3:30pm
Apu (mail):
I thought the clip was parodying the Italians; I know less about how the Portugese team played in 2004.

More importantly, the reference to Liverpool on one of my favorite legal/political theory blogs made my day.

Go Reds!
5.14.2007 3:30pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
It seems to me that all these proposals for rules reforms miss the bigger picture: World Cup soccer is much worse than league soccer for the same reason that the UN is much worse than any democratic government--the participants' lack of a shared interest in effectiveness. In a national soccer league, all the teams have an interest in improving the overall quality and appeal of match play, since it will ultimately increase, or at least maintain, the sport's--and hence each team's--potential fan base. In international soccer, on the other hand, no country ever has any reason to support a rule or policy change that might work to even its most minor disadvantage, even for the sake of vastly improved match play and audience appeal.

As a result, all these suggestions for potential rule changes to fix the problems bedevilling international soccer are highly unlikely to amount to anything more than idle chatter. Instead, reforms will be limited to actions that benefit all participants equally, at the expense of fans--such as the penalty kick tie-breaker, which allows players to play less. Rule changes that materially disadvantage certain teams--including those who have learned to exploit the current rules, to the detriment of the game--have little chance of succeeding.

That--rather than any particular subtle weakness in the minutiae of penalty enforcement--is why international soccer is so awful to watch.
5.14.2007 3:45pm
dearieme:
German philosophers. Or Greek.
5.14.2007 4:41pm
Sean M:
David Drake:

It's within the power of some leagues to review tapes for blatant fouls that went undetected at the time. Major League Soccer (MLS) does this; Andy Herron leveled Jay Heaps with an elbow in the box, and MLS suspended him four games based on the tape.
5.14.2007 4:57pm
Peter Young (mail):
It seems to me that careful review of each game afterwards, with the ability to penalize players based on that review, would cut down on the problems quite a bit and not interfere with the game.

Yes, that is a sound idea and post-match disciplinary review could have a deterrent effect if the penalties are stiff enough. In fact, I've argued for it, in the case of the Raul handball goal for Real Madrid against Leeds United in 2001. The goal had to stand, since the match was over, but Raul should have been disciplined. Yet UEFA, bless them, held that the referee's decision was final. Since he saw the play and allowed the goal to stand, it was a judgment call by the referee, which is final. This, of course, encourages sleight and deception in play, whether in fouling or diving.

See my discussion of the Raul case on the England Football Online website.
5.14.2007 5:12pm
Peter Young (mail):
Oops, the link to the discussion of Raul's hand of God goal is here.
5.14.2007 5:14pm
SMK (mail):
Much as free throws are only worth 1 point in basketball, PKs should only be worth 1/2 a point. While that still wouldn't make the Australians feel any better about last summer, it would allow teams to overcome a penalty by scoring in the run of play.

Another suggestion is to have players take the PK from the spot of the foul, or allow the keeper to leave his line when the PK-taker begins his approach, rather than forcing the keeper to wait until the ball is kicked.
5.14.2007 5:31pm
Chicago:
I'm all for improving the quality of referring, but the criticism of "negative" play -- and the idea that banning it would improve the sport -- it is woefully misplaced. I happen to enjoy a stellar defensive display that results in the single winning goal on the counterattack -- much more, in fact, than watching two sides leave gaping holes at the back and concede repeatedly. And as for the idea that it's a recent innovation, the catenaccio was around long before most of the people complaining about boring football were born.
5.14.2007 5:34pm
JB:
Chicago: To an extent, you're right. I share your taste about play styles, but the sheer suckiness of penalty-kick tiebreakers is starting to tip the balance.

Dan Simon: You're undoubtedly right, unfortunately.
5.14.2007 6:07pm
Abe Delnore:
FIFA already (ab)uses video replay--just ask any France fan! Zidane had gotten away with it until they ran the coup de boule on the Jumbotron!
5.14.2007 6:59pm
Peter Young (mail):
why international soccer is so awful to watch.

It's a pity you find it so awful to watch, but millions of fans don't. The World Cup and the European Championship remain among the most anticipated and most watched sporting events in the world. I even enjoy a lot of friendly international matches. My team is England, but I've often gone to watch Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and the U.S.A. play in Los Angeles--and even teams like South Korea, Bulgaria and Peru. And I'll watch any international football on the television. Lots of football fans spend a small fortune watching international football, either live or on pay television. If it was so awful, they wouldn't.

Some matches are unattractive, but there are enough that are attractive to retain the interest of the masses. If the point is that some matches could be more entertaining, I have no quarrel with that. But for millions of fans, nothing makes the blood run like a match involving their national team.

England's performances often dissatisfy me--sometimes they're terrible--but there's still nothing as thrilling to me as anticipating and then watching England play. It's been that way for me since I was a wee lad; I started following England in 1946 under my father's and grandfathers' tutelage. England versus Germany, Argentina, Brazil (soon upcoming in England's first senior level match at the new Wembley), Italy, Holland, Spain, Portugal, France, Scotland, or even Rumania, the Czech Republic, Sweden or the Republic of Ireland - these are the zenith of sport for me. And the zenith of sport for millions of others when their national teams are involved.
5.14.2007 7:36pm
Joshua:
On officiating: At a minimum I would augment the existing officials with a side judge and one corner judge at each corner (natch). That's five more pairs of eyes. Also I would require the referee to consult at least one of the other officials before booking a player (yellow or red).

On discouraging "negative" play: How about awarding standings points on a sliding scale tied to the number of goals scored? If you win 1-0, you only get 1 point in the table. 2-0 or 2-1, 2 points in the table. Only if you score 3 or more goals would you get the full 3 points for a win. As for draws, a 0-0 draw would be worth a big fat goose egg for both sides in the standings. All other draws (1-1, 2-2, etc.) would be worth the usual 1 point.

On tiebreakers: I'd replace penalty kicks with corner kicks, which are easily the most exciting aspect of the game as a whole. Each team alternates ends of the pitch and also alternates between left vs. right corner on each round. Play continues until the attacking side scores or the defending side either (a) gains clear possession of the ball or (b) clears the ball over the center line.
5.14.2007 8:11pm
William Birdthistle (mail) (www):
In response to Peter Young, who has posted a number of excellent comments here, here & here, I enthusiastically agree that international soccer, generally, and World Cup matches, in particular, are the highlight of the football calendar. Nothing in the sport compares to the passion of two nations living through their eleven representatives for ninety (or more) nail-biting minutes. My only wish would be for the quality of those games to equal the brilliance we regularly enjoy in top-flight league matches.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss a few specific proposals from my paper and elsewhere, a few variations of which have already been mentioned here today. I'm something of a soccer traditionalist myself, so I am not eager to see changes to the game -- certainly not drastic ones. But I would like to explore whether amendments might be made that would allow the most important soccer games to be the most entertaining ones as well. Perhaps that goal is impossible, given the aforementioned passion, but I think it's worth debating seriously and look forward to hearing more from all of you.
5.14.2007 8:30pm
GaMongrel (mail) (www):
I'm a youth referee/coach and lifelong player.

I agree that officials have the power to change a game with a single call(or no call).

Bottom line is, the players commit the fouls. The referees should call them. Keeping in mind that the game belongs to the players and to call every single foul would bring what was the beautiful game to a grinding halt.

But I think if the referee's actually enforced the rules as written(even punishment by simulation), we would indeed suffer a flurry of cards and ejections/suspensions but eventually the players would adapt and the game would be much more open to skillful displays and less rougish thuggery. The scissor tackles from behind *must* go. More freekicks should result in more goals, and more effort from the opposition to score (though admittedly more diving too in an attempt to come from behind.

Players have embraced the cynical style of play that came to the forefront when the only way to stop Pele was to relentlessly hack him. It's the fault of the players as much as it is the referees.

Too often I witness referees who treat the penalty area differently than the rest of the field, just because the punishment is a PK. A foul there should be called as it is anywhere else on the pitch. We ought to enforce the laws of the game consistently, equally and as intended.

Unfortunately, I think the business of soccer has gained too much influence over the spirit of the game. Imagine half of AC Milan or FC Barcelona suspended. Business doesn't want to see half of the team's moneymaking assets riding the pine for persistent infringement.

The sad thing is, I see our youth emulating the whiny prima donnas on the weekends. They don't get away with it nearly as much but it's disheartening to witness corruption even at the earlies levels.
5.14.2007 8:37pm
Mark Field (mail):
Let me just add a plug for the women's game. My daughter played for 10 years. I don't believe I ever saw a dive in any of the hundreds of games she played. Even at the national level, fouls and diving are much rarer than in the men's game. That's not to say there are no flaws on the women's side, but it's a purer game in many ways.
5.14.2007 9:17pm
anonVCfan:
Is the clip from a seminar for personal injury lawyers on "business development"?
5.14.2007 9:19pm
Gerg:
Eh, if you create half-measure penalties then you create a situation where it's in the player's interest to foul someone since they might not get caught and if they're caught the penalty might be better than the scoring chance they stopped.

That's what happens in hockey. If the defense makes a mistake and allows an excellent scoring chance to develop a player will be perfectly happy to take a penalty for tripping or hold ing the attacking player. The commentators will even call it a "good penalty".

Net you get a game where the culture is that the rules are optional and violating them is part of the game.

Contrast that to American football where any violation is nigh 100% chance of being caught and the penalty is carefully designed to always be worse than the gain from the action.
5.14.2007 9:22pm
Gerg:
Surely you've missed the obvious fix. The problem is that there's no penalty for diving. There is on the books but even in the most egregious instances during the World Cup -- even when the referee obviously thought the player was faking it and refused to issue the sought after card -- no penalty was given for the dive.

It seems like if the organization were at all serious about the quality of play they would have a separate body of referees reviewing the tv footage and if any player was found guilty of faking injury they should be banned from the remainder of the tournament.
5.14.2007 9:27pm
SLCbearcat (mail):
Rather than fool around with major rule changes, the problem could be fixed (or at least improved) with a little bit of referee discretion. If the ref drastically reduced the number of foul calls in matches involving teams with a reputation for flopping, the advantages of trying to game the ref would plummet. If you flop, not only do you not get the call, you put your team at a disadvantage.
You would get a "boy who cried wolf effect to." Once a ref quits calling fouls against a flopping team, the other side will be free to actually foul.
It would increase fouls in the short run, but it would make players try harder to fight through fouls and stay up. And in the long term, teams would work hard for a clean reputation.
5.14.2007 10:03pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Mark Field and Peter Young have it right. The only other point to make clear is that the line judges working in tandem with the referee are the officials. While the ref is the one who blows the whistle, the judges alert him to fouls besides offsides. In the World Cup, where the line judges and the ref come from different countries this becomes problematical.
5.14.2007 10:50pm
Sean M:
Eli,

While the language barrier is true to an extent, at least in USSF (the US Soccer body), there is a standard set of flag symbols that traverse language barriers.

A raised flag means 'stop the game' (blow the whistle) and then agitating the flag (moving it in a little circle) indicates a foul, with a point in either direction at a forty-five degree raised angle indicating the direction of the restart. A hand over the referee's badge means 'give him a yellow,' a hand on the back pocket means 'give him a red.' The flag slightly between the legs means the foul occurred in the penalty area.

No doubt it can be harder with mixed language crews, but the standardized flag signals bridge that gap.
5.15.2007 12:39am
JimG (mail) (www):
As a soccer ref and ref instructor, I appreciate the interest in dealing with soccer's problem of diving, simulation and exaggeration, but I'm amused when the discussion comes from lawyers who'd rise up in arms, were a group of soccer referee laymen to recommend changes to the penal code or the court system. I'll disagree that football is in worse shape than ever before, or that international games are less appealing than national professional play, even if the game does suffer some new, modern ailments instead of the old ones.

Fakery is indeed pernicious, a perversion of soccer's values of honesty and vigorous, skilled competitiveness. More than a foul against the opposing team, fakery is an offense against the game, and thus the Laws of the Game define it as misconduct, for which the referee gives the offender a formal caution (with display of the yellow card) against any further misconduct; The next instance of misconduct by a cautioned player requires his expulsion (with a red card shown) without replacement.

In the absence of a consensus in this discussion above, I'd offer some specific comments.

I loved the Guardian's video clip. I'm sure the creator had no specific team in mind, intending to parody the concept. I have no doubt that the Guardian expected viewers to argue pointlessly whether the actors in generic uniforms represented a specific team.

Proposals for adding more referees, making players sit in a sin-bin for X minutes, instituting alternatives to the penalty kick, etc, all ignore the decisions that led to the current practices and the reasons for those decisions. Further, why would we want all sports to be alike? Soccer is different, and should be different, thank you.

Yes, soccer Referees and Assistant Referees (which latter are much more than line judges) miss things that happen on the field. So do the police on the street. Soccer players make mistakes on the field also, and generally make more game-altering errors than do referees. Yes, soccer can be big business and thus monetarily important at times, but how about some respect for human frailty and athletic performance by players and referees? The price of perfection is to live in a police state -- arguably, improved refereeing has already led players to focus on getting away with stuff instead of playing well.

FIFA IS concerned with perception by some potential fans (who perhaps don't appreciate the other things that happen in a soccer match) that soccer needs more scoring, but to remove the offside rule would remove one of the influences in favor of technical skill and athletic performance. Soccer connoisseurs love to see a well-placed pass into space behind the defense, met by a player who has made a perfectly-timed run from his on-side position. Imagine the outcry if gridiron football's rules were altered to allow the offensive ends to camp out behind the defensive backs!

Penalty kicks exist because players of an early day customarily chose to hack down any attacker who got the ball near to a goal and thus into a position where a shot had a high likelihood of scoring. The spirit of the game intends that a PK will have a high probability of scoring. This makes "kicks from the penalty mark" an appropriate means of getting a winner when a tie is unacceptable. FIFA has found that having the players go through two brief overtime periods provides a fair, slightly different set of pressures on players, as they deal with physical endurance issues, but prolonged overtime play leads to injuries and poor play. Then, if the players on the field can't settle the issue, let the goalkeepers determine the winner by trying to stop one or more of those high-probability kicks from the mark.

The referees on "the FIFA list" are indeed drawn from all FIFA member federations. Some have more and better experience than others. Those selected to work World Cup matches will have displayed superior ability in the qualifying regional matches and other FIFA competitions. They all will have at least one of the FIFA "common languages", but during the World Cup are assigned to crews that have the same mother tongue, so that there are no longer any mixed-language crews. The Assistant Referees' fundamental flag signals are indeed standardized (i.e., throw-in, goal kick, corner kick, offside, foul), and AR movements also communicate certain things (e.g., a foul in the penalty area), but card recommendations and other signals require careful pre-game coordination.

The quality and rigor of sports officiating has a direct effect on the quality (skill, creativity, athleticism) of play. If competitive players cannot resort to the easy foul, they will be obliged to improve their play. Most referees, especially those who work the top games, are acutely aware of this, and if allowed by the authorities of the competition (e.g., MLS, Premier League, UEFA or FIFA), will work hard to hold the players to a high standard. Authorities who meddle with referees' work often contribute to lowering standards and corrupting the game.

A final comment: Listening to television commentators descriptions of soccer or interpretations of the Laws of the Game is a good way to become misinformed. Do you really trust journalists' reports of legal matters? Why would you expect soccer journalists to be highly-educated, thoroughly reliable?
5.15.2007 5:20am
Sean M:
Very well said, JimG. Referees will get all of the calls right when strikers hit every easy chance into the back of the net.

As the USSF Grade 8 teaching slide says, "Soccer refereeing is the only avocation that begins with an expectation of perfect judgment, followed by constant improvement thereafter." (Roughly paraphrased).
5.15.2007 11:57am
David Drake (mail):
Sean M--

I realize that players can be sanctioned after the match for what appears on the video, but I propose sanctioning them during the match: yellow or red card as appropriate would, in my opinion, cut down on flagrant fouls away from the ball (e.g. Zidane's red card in last WC) much more than would a post-match review, especially in a championship match where any suspension would be served at the start of the next season.

Great quote re the refereeing instruction, BTW.

Gerg--

I've seen plenty of yellow cards for diving in the box. However, toward the end of big matches, referees are reluctant to call any but the most flagrant foul in the box. My guess is the decision not to call anything splits the difference between awarding the offending striker a yellow card (or a red if he already has one) and awarding a game-changing penalty kick.
5.15.2007 12:17pm
Concerned Fan:
The easiest response to the diving problem would be post-game video review with penalties that correspond to the importance of the dive. The penalties should also ramp up for repeat offenders. For example, a dive in the box could generate a penalty shot,and so would be more harshly penalized than a dive around midfield. The penalties would have to sting enough to reverse the powerful incentives players have to dive. I'd suggest that diving in the box carry a minimum penalty of a one game suspension, and a maximum of a five game suspension for first time offenders. If that didn't get it done, I'd make the penalties increasingly draconian until the player's find the consequences of diving more distasteful than the benefits. Correcting the players' incentives would do much more to fix the problem than adding referees.
5.15.2007 1:31pm
Kevin S.:
As a soccer referee and a lawyer, I can definitively state that both are an art in addition to a science. There is a fixed set of laws in both, and then layered on top is a judicial gloss. Like any refereed or judged event (as opposed to a multiple choice test or a dart contest), there is not always a clear answer, even after several video replays (if available). And just as a lawyer shapes his arguments to the judge and jury in addition to the facts of the case, each game I referee is a different beast depending on the given factors.

For example, a game on a crappy field in the rain is called differently than one on a sunny day with a level pitch. A game between 12 year old girls is different than one between 35 year old "weekend warriors." And a 8-0 early round tournament game is called differently than the finals. Rightly so.

As for diving and simulation -- Fouls in the box should not be called differently than those on other parts of the field, but they are -- and often for good reason. Players know that there is a harsher penalty for fouls committed in their defensive penalty box, and this factors into their assessment of how to defend a play. They will not be as reckless in their own box, and this does factor in to whether I make a call or not. Everyone looks to the referee when someone goes down in the box, due to this hightened risk/reward. Guess what? People stumble over their own feet in the field, and they stumble over their own feet in the box. The result should be the same.

The responsibility of the referee and the assistant referees is to position themselves in a way to see and call as much as is humanly possible. Calls will be missed (just as strikers miss sure goals), but we aim to be as close to perfect as possible. As anyone who has watched soccer on TV (or any other sport), even with replay there are situations were a call could honestly go either way. And in the split second we have on the field, we make the best call we can. And it is almost always the correct call. Remember, on our best day we can't do better than have 50% of the fans agree with us.

Finally, allow me to air one pet peeve. Fans of the team receiving the benefit of the call often react as if they can't believe that someone could deign to commit a foul. In all other sports, fouls are expected and recognized as a part of the game. (Basketball, Football, etc.) You may not agree with the call, but everyone knows that a guy going for a layup may get fouled. Why not in soccer? Dirty play is not expected, but fouls have their place. Unlike the last world cup, every foul does not deserve a card. Players know this, but the fans would be good to remember it.

Sorry for the rambling post, but it's fun to see a familiar topic on here!
5.15.2007 1:45pm
Kevin S.:
One last thing -- it's a lot easier to tell when someone dives than it might seem, especially if you're up on the play. Players also (rightly or wrongly) get reputations and have a history. Any referee that knows he missed a dive by a player will remember that next time he does a game involving that player.

Finally, the best tool we have as refs is that we're running on the field with the players. There may not be a foul called or card given, but we're talking to them throughout the game, and if anything is remotely close to a dive, you can be sure next time I run by them I let them know that I'm not going to stand for anything further.
5.15.2007 1:48pm
Concerned Fan:
I meant to say earlier that I would link the post-review penalty to the success/failure of the dive. If a dive resulted in a goal, I would double the penalty range.

In response to GaMongrel, I actually think the influence of sponsors would be a good thing with respect to persistent divers. It would be analogous to an enterprise liability model. Teams would fear the loss of sponsorship, so they would develop means to discipline risky players. This would further reduce the incentive players have to dive. Players with bad reputations would find teams insisting on no-diving forfeiture clauses in their contracts. Players at risk of losing a signing bonus or diving deposit would stop diving rather than suffer the financial loss.
5.15.2007 1:58pm
cmohrNC (mail):
I am a soccer referee [USSF 7, meaning I've had to pass a formal assessment in a highly competitive U18 or older match], and with eleven year's and several hundreds of games of experience under my belt.

FIRST one of the absolute WORST ideas floating around is to give whistles to more than one referee. This has been tried in high school soccer in some states under the so-called "three-whistle" system, and the only times it really works is when you have an experienced crew who would be equally competent calling the game under the traditional DSC (diagonal system of control) with one center ref with whistle, and two ARs with flags. In hands less able, it winds up far too often inflicting a travesty upon the game due to inconsistent notions of foul recognition, experience, and frankly too often, side refs who would have rather been center and want to imprint their stamp of how things ought to be on the game.

SECOND Multiple whistle systems work in other sports, notably basketball, so why not soccer? First, soccer is a game whose paramount value is to be a flowing, skillful game, not a technical exercise in legalistic thinking about fouls. More than nearly any other sport, fouls are judged in context of their effect on play at a given moment, triviality vs need to keep game under control, advantage vs degree of misconduct/disadvantage caused, etc. Fouls don't even have the kind of formal definitions they do in other sports, and are more named categories (tripping, holding, deliberate handling, etc) that depend on player and referee experience to understand when something is significant vs not, rather than rigid technical either/or criteria. It's very difficult to call a soccer game at a high level consistently using more than one whistle (I'm forced to regularly doing middle-school and J.V. games under the dual system - and at that low level, we can get by, but dual-whistle systems work poorly at higher levels).

WHAT SUCCESSFUL SOCCER REQUIRES is not more whistles, but better experience and knowledge, but center and assistant referees in good physical shape ready to run and keep up with play, and GOOD COMMUNICATION AND SETTING ASIDE EGOS (a center referee who does not trust his ARs communications about fouls and calls deserves the holes he eventually digs himself into). You CANNOT increase referee competence or effective coverage simply by handing more people whistles, at least without destroying an essential part of the game - a flowing game in which "doubtful and trifling breaches" are not being called.

A properly centered soccer game is one of the most vigorous forms of physical exercise, like doing suicide sprints for 90 minutes with a 10-minute halftime rest interval, contrary to what you too often see in refs at lower youth levels of play. A key objective of the center referee is to move so as high a percentage of time as possible play is always between him/her and one of the assistant referees. Good refs miss some calls (also in other sports!) but not nearly so many as many observers think. I also know what a dive looks (and often sounds) like - and have nailed several perps with yellow cards this year, from U12 through adult La Liga (spanish league).

I've seen high school games last year under the 3-whistle system destroyed by refs stepping on each other's calls. THE WHOLE IDEA of the 3-whistle system is prefaced on not trusting the competence of one referee by spreading the calls out among three unevenly competent referees. It works in other sports because the spirit of the game is different, but this is a poor substitute for competence and trust among the referee crew in soccer.
5.15.2007 5:03pm
cmohrNC (mail):
I am a soccer referee [USSF 7, meaning I've had to pass a formal assessment in a highly competitive U18 or older match], and with eleven year's and several hundreds of games of experience under my belt.

FIRST one of the absolute WORST ideas floating around is to give whistles to more than one referee. This has been tried in high school soccer in some states under the so-called "three-whistle" system, and the only times it really works is when you have an experienced crew who would be equally competent calling the game under the traditional DSC (diagonal system of control) with one center ref with whistle, and two ARs with flags. In hands less able, it winds up far too often inflicting a travesty upon the game due to inconsistent notions of foul recognition, experience, and frankly too often, side refs who would have rather been center and want to imprint their stamp of how things ought to be on the game.

SECOND Multiple whistle systems work in other sports, notably basketball, so why not soccer? First, soccer is a game whose paramount value is to be a flowing, skillful game, not a technical exercise in legalistic thinking about fouls. More than nearly any other sport, fouls are judged in context of their effect on play at a given moment, triviality vs need to keep game under control, advantage vs degree of misconduct/disadvantage caused, etc. Fouls don't even have the kind of formal definitions they do in other sports, and are more named categories (tripping, holding, deliberate handling, etc) that depend on player and referee experience to understand when something is significant vs not, rather than rigid technical either/or criteria. It's very difficult to call a soccer game at a high level consistently using more than one whistle (I'm forced to regularly doing middle-school and J.V. games under the dual system - and at that low level, we can get by, but dual-whistle systems work poorly at higher levels).

WHAT SUCCESSFUL SOCCER REQUIRES is not more whistles, but better experience and knowledge, but center and assistant referees in good physical shape ready to run and keep up with play, and GOOD COMMUNICATION AND SETTING ASIDE EGOS (a center referee who does not trust his ARs communications about fouls and calls deserves the holes he eventually digs himself into). You CANNOT increase referee competence or effective coverage simply by handing more people whistles, at least without destroying an essential part of the game - a flowing game in which "doubtful and trifling breaches" are not being called.

A properly centered soccer game is one of the most vigorous forms of physical exercise, like doing suicide sprints for 90 minutes with a 10-minute halftime rest interval, contrary to what you too often see in refs at lower youth levels of play. A key objective of the center referee is to move so as high a percentage of time as possible play is always between him/her and one of the assistant referees. Good refs miss some calls (also in other sports!) but not nearly so many as many observers think. I also know what a dive looks (and often sounds) like - and have nailed several perps with yellow cards this year, from U12 through adult La Liga (spanish league).

I've seen high school games last year under the 3-whistle system destroyed by refs stepping on each other's calls. THE WHOLE IDEA of the 3-whistle system is prefaced on not trusting the competence of one referee by spreading the calls out among three unevenly competent referees. It works in other sports because the spirit of the game is different, but this is a poor substitute for competence and trust among the referee crew in soccer.
5.15.2007 5:03pm
cmohrNC (mail):
I am a soccer referee [USSF 7, meaning I've had to pass a formal assessment in a highly competitive U18 or older match], and with eleven year's and several hundreds of games of experience under my belt.

FIRST one of the absolute WORST ideas floating around is to give whistles to more than one referee. This has been tried in high school soccer in some states under the so-called "three-whistle" system, and the only times it really works is when you have an experienced crew who would be equally competent calling the game under the traditional DSC (diagonal system of control) with one center ref with whistle, and two ARs with flags. In hands less able, it winds up far too often inflicting a travesty upon the game due to inconsistent notions of foul recognition, experience, and frankly too often, side refs who would have rather been center and want to imprint their stamp of how things ought to be on the game.

SECOND Multiple whistle systems work in other sports, notably basketball, so why not soccer? First, soccer is a game whose paramount value is to be a flowing, skillful game, not a technical exercise in legalistic thinking about fouls. More than nearly any other sport, fouls are judged in context of their effect on play at a given moment, triviality vs need to keep game under control, advantage vs degree of misconduct/disadvantage caused, etc. Fouls don't even have the kind of formal definitions they do in other sports, and are more named categories (tripping, holding, deliberate handling, etc) that depend on player and referee experience to understand when something is significant vs not, rather than rigid technical either/or criteria. It's very difficult to call a soccer game at a high level consistently using more than one whistle (I'm forced to regularly doing middle-school and J.V. games under the dual system - and at that low level, we can get by, but dual-whistle systems work poorly at higher levels).

WHAT SUCCESSFUL SOCCER REQUIRES is not more whistles, but better experience and knowledge, but center and assistant referees in good physical shape ready to run and keep up with play, and GOOD COMMUNICATION AND SETTING ASIDE EGOS (a center referee who does not trust his ARs communications about fouls and calls deserves the holes he eventually digs himself into). You CANNOT increase referee competence or effective coverage simply by handing more people whistles, at least without destroying an essential part of the game - a flowing game in which "doubtful and trifling breaches" are not being called.

A properly centered soccer game is one of the most vigorous forms of physical exercise, like doing suicide sprints for 90 minutes with a 10-minute halftime rest interval, contrary to what you too often see in refs at lower youth levels of play. A key objective of the center referee is to move so as high a percentage of time as possible play is always between him/her and one of the assistant referees. Good refs miss some calls (also in other sports!) but not nearly so many as many observers think. I also know what a dive looks (and often sounds) like - and have nailed several perps with yellow cards this year, from U12 through adult La Liga (spanish league).

I've seen high school games last year under the 3-whistle system destroyed by refs stepping on each other's calls. THE WHOLE IDEA of the 3-whistle system is prefaced on not trusting the competence of one referee by spreading the calls out among three unevenly competent referees. It works in other sports because the spirit of the game is different, but this is a poor substitute for competence and trust among the referee crew in soccer.
5.15.2007 5:04pm