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).

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