Over the past two decades, there has been a steady evolution in the definition and the application of rules related to handballs, penalties and red cards.
In the early 1990s, I would enthusiastically watch Egypt’s most famous derby (between Cairo’s Ahly Red Devils and local rivals Zamalek) on a regular basis. We Egyptians are very passionate about our football, and every time there was a disputed decision related to a penalty, it received the same attention and scrutiny as Tom Henning Øvrebø’s calls in last year’s Champions League semi final at Stamford Bridge.
In those days, if a defender’s hand made contact with the ball in his own penalty box, the primary determinant for whether or not the referee should award a penalty was the defender’s intent.
If the defender intended to touch the ball with his hand, the penalty was awarded. The defender was also red carded for the offense. That’s how the rule was applied then.
Today, the primary determinant is whether the defender’s hand moved towards the ball. The change in the rule allows referees to make less subjective determinations. Certainly, in principal, less subjectivity is better for the game because it allows for a more universal application of the laws of the game.
The same logic seems to hold true for the way the rules are applied in relation to red cards for "last defenders" who commit a foul on an attacking player. Today, questionable decisions typically call into question whether the defender who committed the foul had a teammate closer to his team’s goal-line. Whether or not the defender intended to commit the foul, and whether or not the foul has resulted in a penalty is now no longer a primary consideration in the referee’s decision.
It is this diversion away from subjectivity, however, that has been responsible for some of the most disappointing, controversial, and inconsistent applications of the law that we have witnessed in recent years.
Over the past couple of seasons, Premiership fans have disputed a wide range of decisions that have involved penalties and red cards. In many cases, the Football Association’s applications of the law have been different from UEFA.
Given the high stakes nature of these incidents for the players, clubs and fans involved, it is important that the powers that be take a universal stance on these issues. We deserve the very best for the sport that so many are so passionate about.
As the Premiership season was winding down last year, Aston Villa’s Brad Friedel was sent off in a 5-0 loss to Liverpool for taking down Fernando Torres when he would have been through on goal.
Aston Villa’s manager, Martin O’Neil, disagreed with the decision—correctly pointing out that Friedel seemed to do everything possible to get out of Torres’ path once the ball was past him.
The FA overturned his suspension, but The Professional Game Match Officials Board wrote to the FA seeking “clarification” as to why the decision had been overturned. In other words, they wanted to know why the Football Association had overturned a referee’s decision when that referee had merely applied the letter of the law. After all, the subjective notion of intent was supposed to be no longer relevant when considering whether or not a red card should apply.
It is with some sense of resentment then, that Manchester United fans recall a similar instance involving Darren Fletcher in last year’s Champions League semi-final at the Emirates. In an already settled tie with Arsenal, "last man" Fletcher was red carded for taking down an advancing Cesc Fabregas in the Manchester United penalty box.
Because of a technicality that makes UEFA’s appeals process different from the FA’s, Fletcher’s case could not be considered by UEFA—no doubt saving them a tricky decision in light of what the FA had just done in the Friedel case.
You see, the Fletcher instance would have been even more complex for an appeals board than the Friedel case. For starters, it was pretty clear that Fletcher had no intent to foul Fabregas. In fact, he had even won the ball with his front foot. It was also clear, however, that he had unintentionally committed a foul with his trailing foot.
Penalty? Perhaps. But a red card? Even Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger called it “harsh”.
What nobody was saying, however, was that by the letter of the law, the decision was probably correct. The second foul, while certainly not intentional, took down Fabregas and Fletcher was the last man. UEFA could silence the debate—and what would certainly have been loud criticism—because the appeals process gave them an out.
Meanwhile, UEFA was forced to ensure more criticism with the more widely-publicized Øvrebø case. In that instance, a literal application of the law should have provided Chelsea with at least one, and probably two, opportunities to go ahead 2-0 against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. That would have all but certainly put Chelsea through to the Champions League final in Rome.
In all likelihood, Tom Henning Øvrebø did not award Chelsea a penalty because none of the handballs which were in dispute appeared to have been intentional on the part of the offending Barcelona defenders. Or perhaps he did not think that they occurred amidst a goal-scoring opportunity and they appeared to have been unintentional.
Certainly, he and/or his assistants had seen the hand make contact with the ball on at least one or two occasions in the Barcelona penalty area. And, it would also certainly appear as though he did not think that the hand had not moved towards the ball on those occasions (because the hand had moved towards the ball on multiple occasions).
The fact that Øvrebø’s decision-making on that day was highly unbalanced in Barcelona’s favor gave Chelsea fans and the papers a perfect villain. A missed penalty call for a foul on Drogba (which would have also required a red card) and a missed red card on Yaya Toure (also for a foul on Drogba) meant that the officiating was clearly one-sided.
We should not forget, however, that it was this very same use of intent in the Friedel case that led the FA to overturn the red card. What Øvrebø did was in many ways apply the same logic that the FA had applied. He also happened to do it on multiple occasions, on a larger platform, and it favored Barcelona in each of those instances.
It is for that reason that he should not be given a free pass. But, we should also take a look at the laws on the books to see whether there may be a better way to handle the complex issue of intent.
For example, what if we provide two different decision-making paths for referees based on intent and whether or not the action resulted in the loss of a goal-scoring opportunity.
So, if a handball occurs inside the box and it’s intentional, that’s a penalty and an automatic red card. If it does not appear to be intentional, then the referee would determine if it prevented a goal-scoring opportunity. If there was no goal-scoring opportunity and the referee did not see it as intentional, then he wouldn’t give a penalty and no card would be issues.
Where we can really make a difference in balancing out the fairness of penalties the most is in the instances where it appears to have prevented a goal-scoring opportunity but it was not intentional. I would suggest that the referee could still give the penalty but not give the red card. This way, if he’s not sure whether or not there was any intent, he can give a yellow.
The exact same laws can be applied to fouls that result in penalties and fouls which prevent clear goal-scoring opportunities. That way, if a foul does not appear intentional and the foul results in a penalty, perhaps the referee would only issue a yellow card (or even a penalty and no card).
Perhaps, if the foul prevents a goal-scoring opportunity and it occurs outside the box, the ‘last man’ rule comes back into effect.
We may not agree on whether or not these rules would be an improvement over what we have today. Some people believe that in instances where a penalty is awarded, whether a card is issued could be based on whether or not the penalty is scored. I do not agree because I believe it opens us up to opportunities for gamesmanship that we do not need in football.
Others believe that the offending team could be provided with a decision as to whether to accept a penalty and a red card or just a goal. I am not a huge fan of that either because teams are likely to vary their decisions significantly based on the circumstances of the game as opposed to principle.
At the very least, however, we should be debating these issues and seeing how we can best improve the game. The authorities have demonstrated how difficult of a time they are having with issues that should be more clear-cut like diving. We are being let down by their inaction.
And while we’re at it, it’s also about time that we integrated technology goal-line decisions at the very least. Tennis has so many more close calls and has integrated it almost seamlessly. Surely, we can handle the far fewer instances, and therefore more consequential instances, that occur in football.