Referees, Players Need to Agree on Fouls

What do soccer and the swimming pool have in common? Diving.

Once upon a time in an English school, I was taught how to play soccer in a unique style. At this school, there was a math teacher called Mr. Snell, who also happened to be a bit of a soccer enthusiast. He was a Brighton fan, but that’s not important right now (and never will be). But Mr. Snell was very intent on teaching us how to play soccer, as real men ought to play the game (that’s what he said anyway). When a player was least expecting it, he would push them over because they weren’t paying attention to their surroundings. His idea was that a player should always be wary and stay on his feet because you can only play the ball from an upright position. While being pushed over and falling face first into frozen English dirt was not fun, it meant that we were encouraged to stay on our feet despite being pushed and shoved while on the ball because frozen dirt hurts.

There have been two very contentious issues having  to do with diving in the past couple of weeks in the Premier League: Luis Suarez being denied penalties because of his diving past and Sergio Aguero complaining that foreign players do not get calls against British players. I don’t really know what to say to these problems other than toughen up.

Two years ago, when Blackpool were in the Premiership, their manager, Ian Holloway, complained that they weren’t getting free kicks or penalties that should be given. Blackpool players had been taught to stay on their feet and to play on until the whistle.  Unfortunately, unless you go down in the Premier League, you don’t get any calls.

When English teams play abroad in Europe they experience a very different style of refereeing. There are referees on the continent, particularly from Italy and Spain, who don’t play the advantage or don’t allow jostling for the ball and shoulder-to-shoulder competition. Often you see outrage from British players, adapted to a more physical game, when a player goes down under minimal contact. So why is there such a disparity in the way that soccer is refereed that allows such different styles of soccer? And if there weren’t such a disparity, would there be as many problems?

The fact is that soccer in England is more physical than most other leagues, except for Germany. How many Spanish and South American players have taken a season to adapt because of the greater physical pressures placed on players? Ramires was much better for Chelsea in his second season, and Bryan Ruiz is now able to retain possession of the ball whenever someone comes close to him.  So sometimes, it is just about putting on a bit of muscle and being tougher; skills will still be there after a bit of conditioning. The problem for Suarez is that he can and does push people over so for him to be falling over so often during games is a little fanciful.

Ronaldo is another example of this: a man who is so willing to show off his abs and muscular physique but has a great fondness of falling on grass. It seems unbelievable that Ronaldo should be fouled so much or be pushed over by smaller players given his strength, but fouls are given because of what the outcome looks like. If a player stays on his feet then usually a foul isn’t given, because surely a foul should be if someone goes down. But when you see Ronaldo going down under pressure from a smaller player, then surely the smaller player deserves some sort of prize because he has plainly fought above his weight class. That is the real problem of diving: when is a player fouled, when should a player have played on despite a challenge, and when is a player pretending to be a victim of a challenge?

Players being generally more robust or told to play to the whistle will only go so far though. Soccer is a game of skill and games should be played and not battled through. However, there should be an element of competition that enables other styles of play to be effective: Chelsea’s run to the Champions League final was based off of a strong defensive effort by big players that knew how to defend physically. Luis Suarez could just put on a few pounds of muscle in order to get his final shot away rather than diving when he looks like he might lose the ball. Aguero can complain all he likes about domestic players gaining favoritism from referees, but the fact of the manner is that domestic players in England play a harder game that the referees in most cases are happy to let happen.

For the referees to clamp down on fouls, they would have to give up on their desire to let the games play out and get more involved. Howard Webb is famous for letting games carry on despite fouls and playing the advantage, much to the detriment of the last World Cup final. So, in order to stop diving, there would have to be a conversation between players and the referees about what level of physicality would be acceptable and just too much. The line would have to be understood by all players in the league, including those from the lower leagues and those from abroad, so as to create one systematic code.

Another system that could be introduced would be a fourth official review system that could give the referee in-game advice about whether to give a penalty or not. The fourth official would be able to tell from a variety of cameras whether contact had occurred, the extent of the contact, and the location of the initial foul. I admit I took this idea from the NFL. It just seems sensible. I’m not saying that a system of yellow and red flags should be added as well as reviews of all fouls, but on big moments such as goals and penalties, there should be a review going on during the game. Penalties can change games and it is unfair to give the advantage to one team based on a deceit. Likewise, goals that have been scored by players from an offside position or balls that never crossed the line need to be stamped out. We should pretty much just change soccer into a system like FIFA ‘13 to get rid of all refereeing problems. Might as well. It would just be easier that way.

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