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The conflicted rule that puts match officials between a rock and a hard place

Monday 12th December 2016
Manchester United ended their four-game drawing streak in league matches at Old Trafford on Sunday. In defeating Spurs 1-0, they also refrained from adding to their league-leading total (seven) for points dropped in the final ten minutes. United manager José Mourinho had categorised the run, during which he believed his side hadn't achieved results their improved play deserved, as unlucky.

Being an extremely low scoring game, football is naturally more subject to the winds of fortune than rugby, gridiron football, golf, basketball, and virtually every other sport. Your club fails to take a multitude of chances, then your completely outplayed opponent ekes out one late opportunity, perhaps magnifying the lone error your side has made over ninety minutes. That brief instant, arriving completely against the run of play, turns the match against you, defines it, somehow defines you. When such an ill wind blows in your face for an extended period it can be very frustrating, even to the point your manager may fail to see the football gods are trying to tell him something.

Yet, even more frustrating is when a questionable decision from the match official is the instrument misfortune uses to deny your club a deserved result. Such a decision may gift a penalty to a player who goes down too easily or fails to award one to another who has just been thrown about like this for seventy-odd thousand (minus one) to see. Still, just as a football player is human, imperfect, destined to commit errors, whether or not his chosen hairstyle makes him look like a cross between a flamingo and a broccoli stalk, so too is a referee.
Why anyone would choose to stand in an empty field surrounded by two large, unruly, irrational, short-tempered mobs, making decisions which should not affect their lives in any significant way, but apparently do, is beyond my understanding. Why officials do it for an annual wage packet less than the average Premier League player receives in a fortnight is even more confounding. Certainly, expecting to do so while escaping notice is setting an impossible career goal.

Worse, the rules a match official is meant to enforce can be written in such ways as to bring supporters' wrath down upon his head no matter what he decides. In the United/Spurs match, referee Rob Styles faced that dilemma twice in the second half. On both occasions, he chose the option which would less noticeably affect the outcome. Really, he can't be faulted for doing so, although some United fans certainly will.

First, Toby Alderweireld's high boot caught Ander Herrera inside the box as he was moving away from goal to Hugo Lloris' left. Then, in extra time, Zlatan Ibrahimović was brought down in the same spot, his back to goal, as well.
Spurs fans will counter Danny Rose should have had a penalty when he went down while actually attacking United's goal. However, replays clearly show Rose tumbled after Phil Jones had deftly taken the ball from him. Biased opinions aside, this isn't about deserved penalties being denied. It's about the rulebook not forcing a referee to be unfair to one side or the other.

Styles could have applied the letter of the law to either incident at the Spurs end. To be fair, myself, no replay was available to confirm a foul had definitely been committed when Ibra went down, whereas there was irrefutable evidence in Herrera's case. Alderweireld had obviously made dangerously high contact. Since it occurred in the box, the rules prescribe a penalty be awarded. That would be harsh for Spurs, though, as the two players were contesting a ball leaving the box rather than one which offered an immediate opportunity to score. Styles, therefore, chose the lesser of two evils, letting play continue. The decision still negatively affected the game in two ways. United lost possession through a foul. Alderweireld escaped a deserved booking.

When such an offence occurs close enough to the box's edge, quick thinking officials may award a free kick just outside, claiming they thought the incident took place there. In the age of instant replay and super slow motion, such self-sacrificing deception is heroic but tempts fate. Sufficient criticism for a "missed call" can affect an official's job security more so than making no call due to an "obstructed view."
On the other hand, awarding free kicks to attacking teams inside the eighteen is not unheard of. United were given one in their EFL Cup win over Northampton Town when Cobblers' keeper Adam Smith tried to be too economical, handling a teammate's back pass. Still, when a foul is committed against an opponent in the box, the rules offer no alternative to a penalty.

A simple tweak in the rules would permit officials to make decisions fair to both sides. When a player inside the eighteen is fouled while clearly moving away from goal, award an indirect free kick either from the spot either where the foul took place or the nearest point on the edge of the box. Because I would also stipulate the kick must not be to a player inside the box, I would choose the latter. In this manner, the aggrieved side maintains possession but is not gifted an undeserved opportunity to score. In the match at Old Trafford, Alderweireld would also have been appropriately booked for his reckless play.

Football is a game where scoring is already difficult. Thus, it would behove IFAB to consider a minor rule change which would remove an all too easy method for defenders to unethically exploit the rules, snuffing out dangerous attacks and regaining possession in the bargain.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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