Foul Ref! The Laws of the Game, Part Two

Simon MartinSenior Writer IMarch 26, 2008

With all the hullaballoo surrounding the behaviour of players and the judgment of referees, I felt it was time to revive this series with a look at Law 12 (Fouls and Misconduct) of the 17 rules that football referees officiate by.

All the information contained within can be found in the official F.A Referee's handbook, or "The Official F.A guide to basic refereeing", which I fully reccomend for a clear, succint description of the rules in general.

However, please bear in mind that interpretation of certain laws (and in particular this one) can vary from referee to referee, hopefully not to different extremes!


A) DIRECT FREE KICKS: these come in the forms of a direct free kick or penalty kick, and there are ten offences that result in the awarding of a direct free kick. The first six are penal offences.  This means that the referee has to award a direct free kick based on the action concerned, and how it was carried out. For instance, if a player tackles another, using both legs and with studs up, the referee must decide if the offending player was being:

  • Careless

  • Reckless and taking no account of the opponent's safety.

  • Performing the offence with an unnecessary amount of force and putting his opponent in danger.

In the manner of the three above, the referee will award a direct free kick or a penalty kick regardless of which of the three it is. The referee can, dependent on the severity of the offence, punish the player and/or the team with disciplinary action. This can be in the form of a warning, or a yellow card, or a straight red card, in that order of severity.

The free kick is awarded to the opposing team if any of these six penal offences is committed in one of the above three manners:

  1. Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent. An attempt, as far as the law is concerned, to kick, is just as serious as successfully kicking an opponent.

  2. Trips or attempts to trip an opponent. Referees must watch for players "making a back" - in other words players tripping another by stooping in front of, or behind, an opponent in order to induce a fall.

  3. Jumps at an Opponent. Jumping for the ball is not an offence. Jumping at an opponent to prevent him going for the ball is. The referee must decide if the intent to go for the ball, or the player, was there, i.e. if the player's eyes are on the ball or the opponent.

  4. Charges an Opponent. Shoulder to shoulder barges (while going for the ball) are allowed, but careless or reckless charges with excessive force are not permitted.

  5. Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent. This includes a goalkeeper who strikes an opponent with the ball or pushes the player with it will be penalized.

  6. Pushes an opponent. Pushing is not just with the hands: although the majority of fouls given under this law are. Players pushing with their chests, hips and backs into opponents to push them away are also considered offences under this law.

The next four offences also result in the awarding of a direct free kick or penalty kick, but the referee must decide if they happened, and NOT how or why they happened.

  1. Tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball. The player MUST touch the ball first before an opposing player, not after touching the player.

  2. Holds an opponent. This includes holding off with arms, jumping with arm over opponents shoulder to prevent him getting to the ball, using the opponent as a device to jump higher or deliberately blocking an opponent to prevent him going past to retrieve the ball - this is known as a "body check".

  3. Spits at an opponent. This is a disgusting offence, but is not to be confused with players spitting on the ground.

  4. Handles the ball deliberately (except the goalkeeper when within the confines of his area). In this case, the referee must be sure the offence is deliberate - sometimes players put up their hands to protect their face and this is understandable self defence. The referee is not expected, and should not penalize a player simply because the player was advantaged by the ball hitting his arm.

A penalty kick is awarded of any of the ten above offences mentioned above are committed by a player inside his own penalty area, regardless of the position of the ball, provided it is in play.

B) INDIRECT FREE KICKS: these are of a more technical nature. These are against the law but are less serious in their potential for putting opponents in danger. They are awarded with indirect free kicks, which means that they cannot result in a goal to either team directly from the resultant kick. There are eight offences that can be committed that result in an indirect free kick: the first four regarding the goalkeeper's conduct, and the last four for players other than the goalkeeper.

  1. Takes more than six seconds while controlling the ball with his hands before releasing it from his possession. The counting begins when the goalkeeper is fully in control of the ball and his movements.

  2. Touches the ball again with his hands after it has been released from his possession and has not touched any other player. For example, if the goalkeeper releases the ball, and dribbles with it, he cannot pick the ball up again until another player has touched it.

  3. Touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a team-mate. This is often referred to as a “back pass” - and this is an incorrect term, as the deliberate kick could be in any direction and would be penalized regardless of whether it was kicked “back” to the goalkeeper.

  4. The Goalkeeper touches the ball with his hands after he has received it directly from a throw in taken by a team mate.

  5. Plays in a dangerous manner. It does not have to involve direct contact, it could be an overhead kick in a crowded goalmouth or a high kick from a player while going for the ball.

  6. Impedes the progress of an opponent. This is a player, making no attempt to play the ball, that blocks an opponent by standing in his way or running between the opponent and the ball.

  7. Prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands. The goalkeeper can, as mentioned in point 1, be penalized for holding onto the ball for too long, but if an attacker prevents the goalkeeper – delaying him from releasing the ball, an indirect free kick is awarded to the defending team.

  8. Commits any other offence, not previously mentioned in Law 12, for which play is stopped to caution or dismiss a player. If the referee has to stop play to caution a player, for example, for dissenting from a referee's decision, the restart would be an indirect free kick. Dissent is best defined as the use of foul or abusive language, hand gestures or otherwise towards other players, or officials. The offence should be punished with a warning, yellow card or red card dependent upon the severity of the offence committed.

I hope this helps to clear up any confusion over the rules regarding conduct and professional fouls, and I look forward to replying to any and all feedback regarding the interpretation of the rules. Sometimes, it is through incorrect interpretation that such controversy occurs, and I know (through my own inexperience and experience!) that it is not always easy, as a referee, to get it right all the time. That's when we have to put our hands up, later on, and say “I got that wrong”. End of story on that point. On the other hand, referees must be decisive during the course of a match and stand firm, whatever happens. Otherwise, anarchy is sure to follow.


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