When is not a penalty a penalty, and when is a penalty not a penalty, and when...?

Another football match, another discussion about ‘cheating’ (the video may still be available here). There seems to be more confusion about this issue than on how to pronounce David Ngog’s surname.

First, the rules. According to Law 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the game,

“A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following seven offences in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

• kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
• trips or attempts to trip an opponent
• jumps at an opponent
• charges an opponent
• strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
• pushes an opponent
• tackles an opponent

“A direct free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following three offences:

• holds an opponent
• spits at an opponent
• handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area).”

Penalties are to be given for what constitutes a direct free kick in the penalty area. Then there’s indirect free kicks, which are not to be given as penalties. They should be awarded,

“if, in the opinion of the referee, a player:

• plays in a dangerous manner
• impedes the progress of an opponent [How this is different from what constitutes a direct free kick I don’t know]
• prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands
• commits any other offence, not previously mentioned in Law 12, for which play is stopped to caution or send off a player.”

But that’s not the half of it. Well, perhaps it’s two-thirds of it. Two people have been taken into account by FIFA: the offending player and their intention, and the referee and his interpretation. But clearly a third person is involved: the player being fouled. Numbers of players have admitted to taking the opportunity to ‘show’ the referee what has happened, or might have happened if they hadn’t taken evasive action (i.e. jumping/diving). There was no contact between Ngog and Birmingham’s Lee Carsley but Ngog jumped/dived over Carsley’s outstretched leg. Had he not jumped, would Carsley have made contact? It would certainly have been a penalty then. The argument (usually made by ex-defenders) is that Carsley didn’t touch Ngog but the laws above show that is immaterial to the penalty claim. Did he intend to hinder him from scoring? That’s just about enough for a penalty.

Is anyone else confused / still reading? Perhaps we need more indirect free kicks.

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As if this wasn’t bewildering enough already, claims are being made that video technology would help clear this matter. The Eduardo ‘dive’ episode suggests otherwise. Commenting on this for The Times, Gabriel Marcotti helpfully points out how retrospective punishment for cheating was introduced in Italy a couple of years ago with an independent panel appointed to judge whether “the player cheated and his intention was to cheat. What they found in Italy was that there were very few cases where that actually happened.”

Why is this? Because many things go through a person’s head at any given time and some of them may even be contradictory. Proving a person’s intention is a very tricky thing to do unless you are God. Technology is used in other sports to ascertain matters of fact: which side of a line a ball is, etc. not matters of interpretation. So goal-line technology would appear feasible but what we’ve looked at here would seem far too complicated in too many cases. It’s almost as if the game wasn’t designed to matter that much.

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At another recent Liverpool game, a beachball was illegally allowed onto the pitch and contributed to Sunderland’s winning goal. I suppose that could be considered 1-1 for Liverpool’s luck. Steve Bruce, the benefitting manager, said that anyone who knew the legal details involved was “a saddo”. I don’t think any other sport in the world boasts of its ignorance like football.