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The ‘Last Man Back’ Fallacy

Stamford Bridge, Chelsea v Arsenal , Premier League 03/10/2010 Didier Drogba of Chelsea goes to ground in the penalty area during a tangle with Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal Photo Marc Atkins Fotosports International Photo via Newscom
Over the Weekend and over the season there have been numerous fouls that, taken purely on fact, have been the same but have resulted in differing punishments. I refer to the ‘last man’ foul, or denial of a ‘goal-scoring opportunity’ to quote FIFA’s rules. The punishments meted out in these circumstances have been the same a free-kick (or penalty) but there has been a perceived inconsistency as referees have given yellow and red-cards.

Take for instance the fates of Laurent Koscielny and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Koscielny took out Nile Ranger as he strode towards goal 40 yards out on the right touch-line, he was dismissed. Benoit Assou-Ekkoto prevented Lee of Bolton (what is it about players called Lee who get into these situations) from shooting from inside the box, it was a foul and a penalty was awarded, BAE was booked. Why the difference? Well I’ve heard fans rave that Koscielny was the last man back and the BAE had cover, problem is the referee didn’t see it like that and here’s why.

Ever read the FIFA rules? Some of you may well have, well the rules say nothing about the ‘last man back’ or anything of the sort. The ‘last man’ moniker is used primarily on the stands or in the studios but crucially not used in the decision process of the referee.  In that process he has to use the rules of the game which refer to denial of a goalscoring opportunity. If that were the full rule then we would have cause to complain about inconsistency in referees. However that is not the full rule, this is:

“denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick”

Ever notice these 5 words before? “Moving towards the player’s goal” by that reckoning then the two decisions above actually seem accurate. Ranger was moving towards goal, albeit 40 yards out and Lee was moving laterally, across the penalty area.

Of course, the decisions can be accurate relating to the laws of the game but it doesn’t make them right and once again we fans find ourselves in opposition to FIFA. Obviously, the theory behind the rule itself is completely right. The idea that severely punishing a player who goes outside the bounds of fair play to prevent a goal is one of the fundamental tenets of sport. Nevertheless it is the punishment delivered that seperates football from other sports. In Ice Hockey the player fouled gets a chance to take on the keeper one on one again and in Rugby the referee can award a penalty try.

In football, though, there is a problem with the implementation and level of subjectivity that leads to the problems we are seeing. In one sentence there is a lot of room for interpretation, I am aware that FIFA can give direction on their rules but I cannot find them for this particular rule.

 Take ‘obvious’ for example, have I denied you an ‘obvious’ goal-scoring opportunity if I trip you in the box when you are one-on-one? You would get a penalty kick which is still an excellent chance, an ‘obvious’ chance if you will, yet I would get dismissed and the opposition team more often than not get a goal, is this not a double punishment? You may miss from the penalty but nothing can say you were going to put away the original chance. Then again if you look at the Luis Suarez incident you can wonder whether a penalty is punishment enough either.

It is too subjective, if there is to be any consistency then there should be a drive to highlight what ‘obvious goalscoring opportunity is’ and remove the ‘opponent moving towards goal’ element as it is utterly pointless. How can you have an ‘obvious goalscoring oppurtunity’ and be denied by a foul but the player is not dismissed because you were moving away from goal surely the first quote is the most important. To misquote the legendary Brian Clough if you’re not moving toward goal what are you doing on the pitch? (Some Man City fans may be asking the same question this week)

 In another example of pointlessness there is a separate rule relating to preventing a goal-scoring opportunity with your hands. Surely that is encompassed in ‘denying a goal-scoring opportunity…by an offence punishable with a free-kick’. If anything, if  there is to be a rule relating solely to hand-ball then it should carry a different result such as a penalty goal that would be the only reason for doubling up.

 So, when your striker is brought down when through on goal like Danny Welbeck, Chung-Yong Lee and Ashley Young. Remember it was because their goal-scoring opportunity wasn’t obvious or they weren’t moving towards goal. However if you’re Laurent Koscielny and 40 yards out on the right touchline you did prevent Nile Ranger from an ‘obvious goalscoring oppurtunity’ and he was moving towards goal so you deserved to be sent off? Understand? No? Neither do I & that’s the point. It is not possible to have a consistent rule when it comes to the vagaries of the FIFA rules so when a referee does make his decision he takes into account everything in front of him in a couple of seconds. Though to talk about the last man back is just wrong according to FIFA’s rules but in terms of the spirit of the game? It could be just right.

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  1. Dick Sawdon Smith

    November 21, 2010 at 7:49 am

    The Laws of the Game does give guidence for referees on this subject (page 122) the referee it says should consider the following circumstances.
    * the distance between the offence and the goal
    * the likeleyhood of the keeping or gaianing control of the ball
    * the direction of play
    * the location and number of defenders
    * the offence which denies an opponent an obviousl goal-scoring opportunity may be an ofence that incurs a direct or indirect free kick.

  2. Earl Reed

    November 16, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    I think you need to look at the intent of “the last man back rule.” The intent of this rule is to prevent defenders who have been beaten from taking a cheap penalty in order to prevent an obvious opportunity to score a goal. It was supposed to get rid of “the professional foul.”

    I have to say…the referees are at a disadvantage. In sports I tend to hate officials, but soccer has to be the most difficult sport to officiate. The sheer size of the pitch means that a ref has to be in tiptop shape in order to survive. A referee could be caught near the penalty area after a free kick, the ball is sent out to a forward, and he gets hauled down nearly 30 yards away from the official. And he’s gotta make that call…given the fact that you know there are guys who will dive at the least bit of a touch if they think their chance isn’t good.

    I just have to accept that officials are human, and that some are going to handle things in the extreme, and others will be in the middle. Sometimes the red will be shown, other times the hands will be placed down in front of him.

  3. Phenoum

    November 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Yeah, and wasn’t it the EXACT same referee who gave Koscielny the Red card, 40 yards away from the box, yet only saw fit to give a yellow for a more obvious opportunity/foul this past weekend in the box?? (Mike Dean)

  4. Dave C

    November 16, 2010 at 9:00 am

    I’ve heard fans rave that Koscielny was the last man back and the BAE had cover, problem is the referee didn’t see it like that and here’s why

    Are you sure the referee didn’t see it like that? I mean, has he actually made a statement anywhere denying that this was his reasoning? (I’ve not actually seen either incident, so I’m assuming the fans are factually correct in that BAE had cover, whereas Koscielny did not).

    My point is that although “the last man back” may not be explicitly written in the rules of the game, in practical terms it is key to determining whether something is an
    “obvious goalscoring opportunity” or not.

    eg if you are the last man between the defender and the goal, then any foul is effectively preventing a 1v1 situation with the keeper, ie an obvious goal scoring opportunity. On the other hand, if you’re in a crowded penalty box with other defenders in the vicinity, than fouling is not denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity, since there were still other defender(s) between the striker and the goal.

    • Why?

      November 16, 2010 at 3:22 pm

      e.g. if you are the last man between the defender and the goal, then any foul is effectively preventing a 1v1 situation with the keeper, i.e. an obvious goal scoring opportunity.

      This in not the case as a few weeks ago in the Man City v Arsenal game Boyata was sent off within 6 minutes of the start. The Arsenal forward had control of the ball running at goal he then knocked the ball at pace 1 tenth of a second before the challenge by the defender (which was a foul)the ball went straight through to Joe Hart the attacker would not have had a chance of getting near the ball, but the player was sent off. All pundits said he was the last man which he was, it wasn’t an Obvious goal scoring opportunity so therefore not a sending off. This rule can be bent either way by both Referees’ and the press and should be dropped. Also if an attacker is the last man a he knocks the ball toward the corner flag just before a foul by a defender this is NOT a sending off but I’ll bet many have been.

  5. cy

    November 16, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Check out a US Soccer document called “Advice to referees on the laws of the game” then find section 12.37 (I think). It covers DOGSO (denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity).

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