Thursday 26 March 2015

Rational Ref: In search of the 'spirit' of the game of soccer

In search of the 'spirit' of the game of soccer

Authorities often talk of the 'spirit' soccer should be played in, but refuse to define it, leaving the game vulnerable to cheats

Exactly what is the "spirit" that is expected of players and coaches in the beautiful game? How do players and coaches understand and apply the "spirit of the game"? And, more importantly, how should referees interpret this?

These are important questions for Hong Kong because for the coming soccer season and beyond, the Hong Kong Football Association has asked players, team officials and match officials to sign a "rules of conduct" document, which previously was available only in Chinese.

According to HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe, the document has been translated for the first time into English as part of the association's commitment to become more bilingual. The document is important and will further develop into one based on Fifa's "code of conduct" to help fight match manipulation. Any player, coach or referee who refuses to sign the document will be barred from HKFA activities.

The first sentence of the English version states: "Players and team/match officials shall at all time [sic] play football in the spirit of the game."

Strangely, there is no official definition of "spirit of the game" available from Fifa or other bodies. It is simply assumed that soccer lovers intrinsically know what this spirit is. Therefore, the statement could mean all manner of things to all manner of people in all manner of situations.

The humour website Urban Dictionary states: "The spirit of the game is defined by the intended rules as perceived in reflection to the other rules. This most comes into [play] when the action in question is not governed by a set rule. In this case, you are bound to play by the spirit of the game."

It uses the board game Monopoly as an example.
"If after a considerable number of turns have been taken by each player, and one player gets into trouble and debt, instead of losing and congratulating the winner, he proposes to 'join forces' with another player - sharing money, property, and victory. Though this joining has no rules set against it, this is against the spirit of the game, though not implicitly stated. To join forces to tip the game in your favour is against the spirit of the game."

In this sense, the idea of not being able to accept defeat graciously, and instead attempting to manipulate the game in one's favour, is considered to be against the spirit of the game. This sounds very much like being a bad loser and trying to win at all costs.

How often do we see players, coaches and supporters behave like this? And how frequently do we see teams attempt to manipulate the game in their favour or to blame match officials for the result?

One example where an action is not governed by a set rule, but is bound by the spirit of the game, is when players deliberately stop the game so an injured player may receive treatment. When play resumes, players and supporters clap in appreciation of this gesture. From Rational Ref's perspective, the clapping is usually insincere, mechanical and superficial.

Consider further when a goalkeeper has the ball in his hands and an opposition player is down injured. The goalkeeper will throw the ball out so the injured player can receive treatment. Usually, the player is not seriously injured, probably the reason the referee did not stop the game in the first place.

Players who put the ball out of play take the risk of being duped. Nevertheless, after the injured player has been dealt with, his teammates will usually return the ball. Now depending on different people's interpretation of "spirit of the game", the way the ball is returned can take on different forms. Since the goalkeeper previously had the ball in his hands, it would be fair to return the ball directly to him; but this rarely happens. It is more common for the team to put the ball out over the goal line to force a goal kick.

Do players perceive a goal kick, rather than the goalkeeper kicking the ball out from his hands, to be more or less favourable? Occasionally, a team will return the ball over the touch-line and close to the corner flag for a throw-in. Are these actions - which are clearly not reciprocal - in keeping with the spirit of the game?

Moreover, is the fact that a player who pretends to be injured and therefore dupes his opponents into wasting time considered to be acting against the spirit of the game? Or is it in keeping with the spirit because it is better to be safe than sorry after receiving a knock? Without a proper definition from the authorities, these situations are both justified and vilified.

During tough competitive matches we rarely see the spirit of the game because teams go out to win, and not to make friends. Even the handful of pre-season matches being played this week in Hong Kong by the four visiting English Premier League teams (Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and Manchester United) and HKFA Division One teams (South China and Kitchee) will be far from "friendly".

Considering there is no official definition of the spirit of the game, it is extraordinary how match officials throughout the decades have done their level best to ensure that matches are played fairly, safely and in an enjoyable manner that is in keeping with the "spirit of the game" … whatever that is supposed to be.

It is simply a fuzzy, hazy and unclear concept that is used to instil a sense of sporting behaviour and respect in the game.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 2013

Monday 9 March 2015

Rational Ref: Where do we draw the line on persistent fouling?

Where do we draw the line on persistent fouling?

Talented players will always be a target for 'special' treatment, but when must it be stopped?

What's the best way to stop Eden from passing you by? Hazard a guess? Several kicks ought to do it.

Eden Hazard is the most fouled player in the English Premier League this season. The Chelsea star was on the receiving end of some "special" treatment in last week's Champions League encounter with Paris Saint-Germain, when he was fouled nine times in a match where the referee issued only two cautions.

Everyone knows a team's best attacking player is both a godsend and a liability. Such a player can turn a match in a heartbeat, but if he is repeatedly targeted and injured, the team will struggle with other options.

Specifically targeting an opponent is all part of the game and the rules are there to help referees discipline offending players for persistent fouls. Persistent infringements are repeated offences by one player on several others and also by several players on one opponent. Since there is no defined frequency on what is persistent, it depends on the referee's judgment to determine when enough is enough.

Is nine times enough, or five or two? Every player and coach has their own opinion. For instance, when a substitute enters the pitch, immediately fouls an opponent with a careless trip and gets cautioned, the referee is criticised for giving a card for the player's "first foul".
Eden Hazard has come in for some rough treatment this season. Photo: AFP
Others may also be puzzled by the yellow card for an innocuous foul.

However, what players, coaches and spectators often fail to realise is the referee has recognised that the team as a whole has repeatedly fouled an opponent and has therefore correctly penalised one player as a warning to his teammates.

Experienced referees are alert to the time-old tactic that players like Hazard — who Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has compared favourably to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — will always receive more than their fair share of special attention from the opposing team.

Even Mourinho has admitted he instructs his players to target talented opponents.
It's how players react to being targeted that reveals their true mettle. Players who lose their heads fail spectacularly because they believe the game revolves around them when in fact it is a team game. Mourinho said: "[Hazard] is pure. Today [in the Champions League] there were nine fouls. In the Premier League, it's no different. If he's another player he dives, stays on the floor, rolls in the grass, screams. He's asking for cards and cards and cards."

Messi is also pure, preferring to ride through challenges and letting the referee or competition organiser deal with errant players.

In contrast, Ronaldo has a quick temper and when challenged will prefer to go down easily. Earlier this year the Real Madrid star kicked out and slapped Cordoba's Edimar Fraga after enduring some special attention in a La Liga match. He was sent off and banned for two matches.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (left) hit out at Cordoba's Edimar Fraga after some rough treatment during their La Liga match in January and received a two-match ban. Photo: Reuters

Chelsea's Nemanja Matic has a similar temperament. Last weekend against Burnley he was on the receiving end of a horrendous tackle by Ashley Barnes. Referee Martin Atkinson did not have the best angle to see the incident and did not whistle for a foul.

But Matic reacted angrily by violently pushing Barnes to the ground, leaving Atkinson with no choice but to show him a red card.

Mourinho, forgetting that the foundation of his managerial career is based on using loyal but limited players in similar hard-grafting roles, blasted Barnes saying: "The player, if I can call him a player, should have been in the shower in minute 31."

In these modern times, even if the referee does not see a sending-off incident, the FA supposedly has a process to be able to take retrospective action. It depends on whether the FA has the will and wherewithal to help protect the safety of players and referees alike, as well as to uphold the image of the game.

Ashley Barnes' horror challenge, and Nemanja Matic was red-carded for his retaliation during Chelsea's draw with Burnley last weekend. Photo: Reuters

This also does not excuse Matic and Mourinho for their reactions. Players taking the law into their own hands and managers, who have the benefit of video replays criticising referees for making honest mistakes, are revealing the egotistical nature of the individuals involved.

If only there could be a way to stop, or at least minimise, this obstinate behaviour. On the pitch, referees have rules to help tackle persistent infringements. Off the pitch, competition organisers should similarly apply the rules and discipline all persistent offenders, thus allowing everyone to focus on playing ball without the media circus.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 February 2015

The statistics show Eden Hazard "wins" a yellow card for every 11 fouls against him, compared with Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez "winning" a card for every 6 fouls (see Why Eden Hazard Really Does Need More Protection From Referees).