Referee Mike Jones found himself both criticized and praised for his decision to disallow a goal scored by a Norwich midfielder, Leroy Fer, in the 94th minute of the last week's premier league fixture between Norwich City and Cardiff. The controversy arose after Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall threw the ball out of bounds for a throw-in in order that a medical/trainer's assistance be provided to Norwich midfielder Alex Tettey, who went down “injured” in the midfield. Soon after, Referee Jones beckoned to Norwich player standing by the touchline to resume play and proceed with the thrown-in. The Norwich player complied, but to Cardiff players’ dismay and disbelief, instead of giving it back to them, he threw-in the ball to his teammate Leory Fer who promptly kicked the ball into Cardiff’s unoccupied goal.
Cardiff’s players erupted in anger and the game almost turned into, quite literally, hand-to-hand combat. Fer, however, was unapologetic about what he did. “I want to win every game and that’s why I did it. In Holland it’s like that; if you get the throw-in you can play on. It was a 0-0 game so that’s why I put it in the back of the net. Would I do it again? If it was a zero-zero game then yes, because I just want to win.”
In the meantime, however, Referee Jones waived off the goal apparently explaining that he was disallowing the goal because the re-start occurred without his whistle.
Before we even begin our analysis of the incident, let us state unequivocally that Leroy Fer displayed very poor sportsmanship and total lack of consideration for notions of fairness and respect toward his fellow competitors.
With this out of the way, however, we must say that Referee Jones was wrong to disallow the goal that was legally scored, because allowing the goal to stand, presumably, would not fit with his own notions of what is right.
As IFAB’s Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees explain, “a whistle which is used too frequently unnecessarily will have less impact when it is needed.” In accordance with this guidance, the United States Soccer Federation reiterated this point in its Guide to Procedures For Referees, Assistant Referees and Fourth Officials by stating that “it is neither required nor expected that the whistle be used for all stoppages and restarts of play.”
For this reason, most restarts do not require the referee’s whistle and, importantly here, IFAB expressly stated that “the whistle is NOT needed to … restart play from … a throw-in.” IFAB also enumerated a few specific instances where the restart does require the referee’s whistle. Thus, “the whistle is needed to … restart play after it has been stopped due to … injury.”
In the case at hand, however, the play was not stopped by Referee Jones due to injury. In fact, the play was not stopped by Referee Jones, period. He allowed the play to continue while Cardiff maintained possession of the ball. The play was eventually stopped but without Referee Jones’ intervention and only after the ball has crossed the touchline due to Cardiff’s goalkeeper decision to throw it out of bounds. Since the play was stopped by the ball going out of bounds requiring a restart by a way of a throw-in, and the Laws of the Game expressly state that “the whistle is NOT needed to … restart play from … a throw-in,” the whistle was not required to restart the play here.
It is true, however, that the referee may, at his discretion, require that players wait with restarting play until he/she whistles for a restart. The Laws of the Game also clearly state that “when a discretionary whistle is needed to start play, the referee should clearly announce to the players that the restart may not occur until after that signal.” Mr. Jones did not announce that the whistle signal was required. In fact, he expressly allowed the restart of the play to occur by beckoning to the player on the touchline. In fact, in his defense, Fer explained that he “just looked at the referee and he said ‘play on’ with his hands.” The video footage of the game confirms Fer’s statement as Referee Jones is clearly seen signaling to the player on the touchline to take the throw-in. After he allowed the restart to take place, Referee Jones had no right to disallow the goal.
Now, it is understandable that, on some level, Leroy Fer’s unfortunate decision to kick the ball into his opponents’ empty goal would cause a normal human being to have a knee-jerk reaction of disgust. After all, fair-play is the notion that underpins all of sport, including soccer. It is a philosophy or an attitude that encompasses respect for others and respect for the institution of sport. As the father of the modern Olympic Games said, “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” And what Fer did violated just about every aspect of fair-play.
However, the notion of fair-play does not lend itself to enforcement by referees. Rather, it is collectively enforced by teammates, coaches, competitors and spectators through their collective disapproval of those acts that are not in the spirit of fair play. And Fer’s conduct was roundly criticized by all concerned. Even Norwich manager Chris Hughton and his assistant Colin Calderwood disapproved of Fer's conduct and reportedly told Cardiff manager Malky Mackay that Norwich would have allowed Cardiff to score had the goal been ruled legal.
Thus, notwithstanding his good intentions, it was not Referee Jones’ role to determine whether the unwritten rules of fair-play were violated and then make an ad-hoc decision about what "punishment" to deliver. And this is especially true where, as here, the goal was scored legally.