By The Letter Of The Law

There are few things that annoy me in football as much as a pundit claiming “by the letter of the law”. This was reinforced in the weekend just gone. Vincent Kompany’s tackle won the ball cleanly against Nani, but he went in with two feet, travelling through the air. The referee could just have easily have waved play on as sent him off. But, according to various assorted pundits, “by the letter of the law”, if a defender goes in with two feet, they have to be sent off. Here is the only time in the Laws of the Game that the two-footed tackle is mentioned:

any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play”

Serious foul play, of course, warrants a red card. The Laws of the Game do not discriminate between a two-footed and a one-footed  tackle – it is left to the referee’s individual judgement, which obviously differs between officials (that brings me onto another contentious point; the idea that everyone wants uniform decisions across every match at every level of the game. Then, as soon as one referee applies the Laws slightly strictly, there are calls for referees to use their common sense. As a Wolves fan, I’ve seen this better than most over the Christmas period, with Nenad Milijaš’ red card against Arsenal, before Frank Lampard was cautioned for his assault on Adam Hammill. Show those two challenges to 100 football fans and tell them that one got a red card, the other a yellow and I guarantee that 95 of them will get them the wrong way round. But, I digress)

This is not supposed to be about the decisions of referees, but more the ineptitude of football commentators, pundits, journalists and pretty much everyone else involved in the game. So many people could tell me who Guadeloupe’s second choice right back is, but have no idea of the actual application of the Laws that govern the game. For example, is raising your hand to another player an automatic red card? According to Goal.com it is – in their analysis (sic) of the Gervinho v Joey Barton incident on the opening day of the season, Simon Sinclair actually writes “When Barton raised his hands to Gervinho grabbing him by the shirt, he was also guilty of violent conduct by the letter of the law and therefore should have been sent off as well”. Is grabbing someone’s shirt really violent conduct? If so, numerous defenders who grapple with their opponents when defending set pieces should be sent off each week. The issue of raising your hands to an opponent is not specifically mentioned in the Laws.

Another case I’d like to mention that happened this season was that of Morten Gamst Pedersen’s corner, which he ingeniously passed to himself in the Wigan Athletic v Blackburn Rovers match back in November. I had been to the Everton v Wolves game the previous day, and was travelling home listening to a discussion about the corner on Radio 5 Live. Apologies, but unfortunately I cannot remember who was talking (Blackburn’s Jason Roberts was definitely involved in the discussion and I suspect Motty was, but I don’t know for definite). Anyway, they spent half an hour talking about how far a ball has to roll to constitute the ball now being in play, their consensus being that it has to roll its circumference. I was fairly certain that it only had to move and so, while on the M6 (I was not driving I hasten to add), I found the Laws of the Game, downloaded them to my phone and found the applicable Law; on my phone, in a car, on the motorway. These pundits and commentators were in a studio, surrounded by computer equipment and instead of actually looking at what the rules say, they guessed. How many people will have heard part of this radio programme, and gone away believing the ball has to travel its circumference. I can’t decide if it’s pure laziness on the part of the broadcasters or just ignorance.

I will admit, one rule is slowly being cleared up – that of the last man. Nowadays, you only tend to hear ex-pros talking about a red card for being last man. Most commentators have come to accept that the rule is actually about determining a clear goal scoring opportunity. And this brings me onto my final point. How many footballers actually know the rules? I became a qualified referee when I was about 14, but never really took it on (I did some casual refereeing while at university, but that was it). But, when I was learning the rules for my exam, I tested a close family member on some of the Laws. I should note that this person was at the time a professional footballer, and I was astounded at the lack of help clubs give their players in actually understanding the Laws. I know now a lot of clubs bring referees in during pre-season to explain new changes in the Laws, but surely a basic knowledge of the Laws should be part of every young footballer’s education? How do clubs expect their players’ to adhere to the Laws if they do not actually understand them? If I could make one change to football, I’d make every player, manager, pundit, commentator, season ticket holder and armchair supporter – in fact everyone from Sheikh Mansour to the tea lady at Brackley Town – do a basic referee’s course and stop the rubbish you hear spewing from those involved in football, week in, week out.

Tom Bason

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