Fouled out

Should we tolerate fouls?


By Daniel Roßbach

The closing minutes of the Madrid Derby in the Champions League Final. As Real are committing to many man forward unprotected, they lose the Ball and Atletico counter. Yannick Carrasco dribbles past a line of defenders, and the Madrid half opens up in front of him, guarded only by Pepe.

Yet, before the Belgian gets to try and exploit that space and decide the final for their team, he is fouled unceremoniously by Sergio Ramos, whose tackling is directed solely at the player and cares for the ball as much as Karl Jaspers kicking off. He is shown a yellow card - and the way to lifting the trophy.

Fouls are highly contentious moments in football matches. A demonstrative clearing-out of the opposition's flair player might (still) consolidate collective spirits. A cynical attempt to break up ones own team's attacking move will leave a sour taste. A brutal two-footed tackling by a visiting team will incur vitriolic responses. And, first and foremost, all those emotions are doubled in their intensity when the referee's call goes against your judgement (inclination).

And yet, for all of these things, most observers of and participants in football matches ultimately think that there is nothing inherently objectionable about such incidences, that transgressions of the rules are part of the game.

This stance is wrong. When people play football, they presumably do so - at least on a fundamental level - in order to find out who is best at the game, or, speaking less competitively, to express themselves through it. Fouls do not fit into that scheme.

At least not, if we put extraneous reasons to want to win to one side for now, and concentrate on fouls that were never anything but illegal moves, and not failed attempts at playing by the rules. To consciously and deliberately do something that is not (supposed to be) part of what one is playing at negates the point of the enterprise.

A couple of analogous examples serve to illustrate why we might want to reconsider attitudes towards fouls, and what may replace it. First, imagine a chess player who, in a disadvantageous position, moves his bishop forward in a straight line - and how observants, opponents and tournament directors would react to that.

Or think about the crowds reaction to a football player passing the ball straight out of play, with obvious intent and aim, violating not the laws of the game but those governing what is the right thing to do while playing.

These cases obviously are not like intentional fouls in all respects. Chess is an abstract game that takes place in an extraordinarily well defined space of possibilities. Playing wrongly is lowering ones chances to win. And neither scenario ever really happens.

But they do share some essential features in showing possible reactions to conduct that is possible in a shared activity but violates its defining principles. To collectively adopt a stance that makes such actions nigh-on impossible (as in chess), or treat it as a bizarre outlier where it to occur (bad play) seems a better fit for the reasons to start playing at all than the status quo.

That begs the question of how these rather abstract considerations may get in touch with reality. One possibility would be to attempt a synthesis of the spirit of fair play and of the rules, and put harsher sanctions on cynical fouls, replacing cautions with expulsions. An objection to such proposals is that it would put pressure on referees to judge intentions rather than actions - something that goes beyond what they can and should be required to do.

This worry is well founded as the difficulties in interpreting and applying similar rules are very visible in evaluating hand-ball decisions. But ultimately it is not fatal for what is suggested. First, because it is as much about a change in attitude as it is about changing the rules. And second, because it would not introduce genuinely new elements in referees decision making, as what maxim is guiding a players action is already involved in a number of decisions, like one about whether a player was merely reckless or positively risking his opponent's health in a tackling (the difference being one between a yellow and a red card). Making such a decision does not take insight into the innermost motives of a player - it suffices to recognise what happened de facto , and what are the (interpersonally accessible) reasons that could move anyone to act in such a way as to bring it about. Nothing more is needed than to consider whether an action was deliberate, a category used in several places throughout the rulebook. Of course, decisions about this matter will often not be unambiguous and be demanding for referees - neither of which sets it apart from other constellations in football.

Even without adopting this proposal, some reforms are possible that would take the arguments made so far into account. One is a paradigm shift in how so-called tactical fouls are punished. As the rules are to-day, sanctions are the harsher the better the chance they deny has been. Inasmuch as there is an attempt to level advantages and disadvantages that result from play progressing with the foul and without it, that approach is consequentialist.

The contrasting idea here is to emphasise a demand for playing the game within the rules. This can happen when the criteria for punishment are reversed: the smaller a chance needs to be for me to decide to violate the rules, the harsher the punishment I am liable for. As sanctioning becomes responsive to a players commitment to playing fairly, it acquires a deontological dimension.

As the former suggestion, this transition may be charged with resulting in a steep inflation of punishment. That - in the most extreme variant of the proposal - any mundane intensional or counter-preventing foul results in a sending off seems to deliver a reductio ad absurdum to the proposal. The objection can be answered by biting the bullet with a rallying cry of of fiat justitia et pereat mundus. There could also be a minimum level of significance whose introduction would not violate the principle.

Yet by discussing practicable ways of excluding fouls from the game we return to the more fundamental disagreement on this issue. Many would argue that such a change would detract from the game's attractiveness and insist that fouls genuinely are part of the game, and may point to handball or basketball as examples of games of which transgressions to halt, hold-up or hasten attacks are part and parcel.

At this point, it becomes that we are face with a value decision about prioritising the technical core of the game. This article is not about deciding that question as much as it is about asking it.

Corinthians Arena
The stadium of Corinthians, who carry in their name the ideal of players who supposedly gave up penalty kicks because, surely, no one would intentionally foul to deserve that reprimand. Image : © CC-by 2.0 Milton Jung


Featuring Alex Feuerherdt

Wanting to banish fouls, particularly intentional ones, from football is a rather exotic position. As such, it is under pressure to produce evidence that would convince that such a change would be desirable, achievable and in the spirit of the sport. Alex Feuerherdt, referee, podcaster and columnist, is skeptical in each of these regards.

Introducing a criterion of intentionality into the decision-making about fouls would overburden the referee. Over and above the already difficult task to observe and evaluate whether some piece of play was a foul it would ask them to "become an institution of moral judgement, which they are not and should not be."

The proposal discussed here would require a further distinction of fouls to separate "especially morally insidious ones" from the common variety. Yet doing so would presuppose that referees make decisions about players intentions rather than (merely) their actions. That, though, is impossible because intentions are not accessible to the referee's consideration, which is why the rules of the game don't make use of that category, at least not in the context of fouls. Especially the many thousands of referees in grass-root-level games should not burdened with such decisions, if we aim for the best possible enforcement of the rules to be a reality.

Furthermore, as "football is a contact sport, there will always be borderline cases in which referees have some discretion in their judgement." Were we to attempt to formalise the anti-foul position in the rules, and wanted to achieve minimal consistency in their interpretation, we would have to introduce strict guidelines that would eliminate this uncertainty. Consequently, there would be draconian sanctions for minor infractions anywhere on the pitch - "many people would not accept that and deem it inappropriate to what the game should be." In sharp contrast, "the current codification and interpretation of the rules regarding this kind of offence enjoys widespread support and acceptance." Changing it lightly would be imprudent and must not happen in answer to extraordinary(ly high profile) cases, as that of Ramos' foul against Carrasco.

In fact, the actual development of the rules goes the other way in this summers overhaul of the law of the game, which does away with red cards for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity if that opportunity is restored via a penalty kick. Feuerherdt finds nothing objectionable in that, as such fouls are often at least not risking any physical harm to the opponent. Moreover, evading such fouls is part of the and footballing quality fans want to see in the game. Technical brilliance that results in the opposition not even getting near enough to foul is the pinnacle of the game, and is not prevented by fouls being part of it.