Referees need to try not to kill games off

Soccer can be a beautiful game, but refereeing is often ugly. When referees apply loose constructionism to the rule book, consistency suffers.

Players like to know what they can and can’t get away with. Erratic refereeing decisions foster player and manager rebellion. Emotionally-laden decisions rooted in a subjective sense of “what’s good for the game” confuses everyone.

Especially when adjudicating fouls and yellow card offenses. It’s nice that referees apply common sense while “managing” a game. But, there’s a cost. Their discretion is inherently subjective often contravening the rules and ensuring predictability. For the sake of consistency, referees should oblige the rules and avoid the hubris of management manipulation.

When referees manage matches instead of officiating, fouls tend to masquerade as incidental contact. As a result, goalies generally get preferential treatment on the field. Though they are not given special dispensation in the rule book.

Soccer’s supposedly a contact sport, and goalkeepers, especially during corners and crosses, inflict much of it.

Nevertheless, if a diminutive striker innocuously brushes against a fumbling goalie, the referee invariably blows the whistle. Conversely, defenders often get away with dirty tricks during corners and may as well be playing rugby rules.

Some apparent fouls simply dissolve into a mirage inside the penalty area.

When certain infringements occur outside the box, the ref is more convinced and usually blows the whistle. However, when the same foul occurs inside the box, it’s suddenly illusory.

The rules make no such distinction. Should referees?

Players will adjust to consistent refereeing. In the meantime, perhaps a few more goals are in the offing. Sure, some fouls are borderline and do require refs to exercise judgement. If it’s an inadvertent “coming together,” they’ll do well to play on and let the game flow.

On the other hand, some fouls are so blatantly obvious that they should be penalized irrespective of exogenous factors such as the player’s reputation or the competitive repercussions. The rule book is indifferent as to the period of the match in which the foul happens.

Neither does it care about the occasion, nor the venue.

When a defender scythes down a fleet-footed attacker on a breakaway, it’s a legitimate yellow card. Whether it be in the first minute or the ninetieth minute. When a player stamps his boot so as to imprint his studs on an opponent’s ankle—yellow card, it’s a yellow card at a minimum.

If the same unruly player commits these malicious acts, that’s two deserved yellows and a sending off. Even if it changes the complexion of the match. Off he jolly well goes to reflect upon his brutish indiscretions.

If sending off a player for repeated offenses or violent conduct alters the ad hoc dynamics of the match, then so be it.

Them’s the rules

It is folly for refs to interject some nebulous notion of fair play into the cauldron by preserving the eleven-against-eleven balance of power.

In the cold light of day, they hover above the relative importance of a particular match. If referees are smart enough to implement some kind of dynamic, contextual, rule-making that engenders perfect soccer justice on the day, they’d probably be quantum physicists.

Speaking of physicists, some postulate that our very observations affect the nature of reality.

This does seem to apply in the macro world of soccer, where opposing managers tend to observe the same match in alternate realities. In the rare case they cannot refute an unfavorable refereeing decision in the post-match interview, they simply exclaim: “I haven’t seen the replay yet.”

This is why it’s imperative that the “man [or woman] in the middle” conforms to the laws of soccer. Not impromptu insights into what he or she perceives as being “best” for how any particular game unfolds.

For the integrity of soccer, there is no place for refereeing hubris.

Matches should be officiated, per the rules, as objectively as possible. They should not be subjectively managed per the contingencies of the occasion.

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