Of all the reasons why TV pundits are criticised, the dispensation of incorrect information comes far down the list, way below acute fence-sitting, infuriating personal habits and inarticulacy as a matter of pride. That may be because we’ve all heard it so often we’ve come to believe it ourselves. For once though, we can’t just blame the usual suspects. When it comes to misunderstanding and misinterpreting football’s Laws we’re all as bad as each other. How long could the never-ending debate on what is offside and what is not continue if we all knew the answer? There is one area of football where the uniformity of error is such as to be almost universal.
The misconceptions on what constitutes a sending-off are so widely held, so ingrained, that they are more like folk memories. All it takes is a glimpse of a raised stud in the distance and the phrases we know so well come flooding out, as naturally as water from a tap. Footballers are as bad as anyone. Go to watch any Sunday League game, and if you thought people personally exposed to the Laws of the Game on a regular basis would have an insight into their inner workings you would be more than likely disappointed. Never mind the “Studs Up!” shouts meant to persuade a ref of malice in mind. Forget that the received wisdom holds that someone with both feet off the ground should in all circumstances be heading for the changing rooms (early baths only applying where they are available). Every single person who has ever played football has responded to a referee’s whistle by explaining not that their tackle was so swift and well-executed that the vision-impaired one must have missed it, but that they went for the ball. Not that they got the ball, they just tried their best to get it before smashing their now-broken opponent into the bushes. In the collective mind of the footballer that somehow makes all the difference in these situations. There’s even an internationally-recognised gesture so no player need be thwarted from explaining this to a referee by the mere barrier of language.
Maybe that has something to do with how easy it is for the same people to explain away high-profile assaults on the pitch by their favourites. Dangerous challenges are routinely excused on the basis of the most tenuous of connections with the ball. That contact, or even the intention to make contact, is taken as proof of a lack of intent to injure. The fact that it’s possible to injure and make contact all at the same time is an inconvenient irrelevance it seems.
A glance at FIFA’s Law 12 on Fouls and Misconduct and the associated guide to interpretation returns some surprising results for the football family. There’s no mention of a player having two feet off the ground as a discriminating factor for one thing. Someone who lunges with excessive force is guilty of serious foul play and should receive a red card. But it’s the “excessive force or brutality” which is the distinction between a cautionable offence and one requiring dismissal, not the lunging. Indeed, any tackle that endangers the safety of the opponent must result in a sending-off. It takes barely any logical leap at all from there to understand that even someone winning the ball if it is in such a way that endangers their opponent, possibly using excessive force, commits a red card offence. Perhaps the most surprising result of all is that the character of the miscreant bears no relevance to the classification and punishment of the crime in the Laws. No more “he’s not that kind of lad”, please.
It’s worth pointing out that convention appears to override the laws in practice. Otherwise how could the same offence generally receive different punishment in one country compared to another? So although the Laws are common, referees interpret them differently depending where they are.
There’s a worry about the plan to push referees in front of TV cameras to explain their decisions immediately following a match in that their authority would be diminished by having to admit fallibility and backtrack when confronted with incontrovertible proof of their mistakes. Anyone can make a mistake, but at least their knowledge of the rules means they wouldn’t attempt to justify themselves using common misconceptions. Though a lack of consistency is often quoted as the major problem with referees, it would be a lack of knowledge of the rules which would really diminish their standing.