We are no different than most of our fellow referees who, from time to time, vigorously shake their heads in disbelief and amusement when something unexpected – nay, idiotic – comes out of supposedly knowledgeable game commentators’ mouths. Now, we will admit that this sort of comes with the territory. They are, after all, paid to be entertaining and perhaps saying something controversial that boosts the ratings. We get that. But sometimes they take things too far and, by sounding authoritative, they actually create and sow confusion among the fans of the beautiful game and in the process make our already difficult jobs even more difficult.
We have witnessed one such example of nonsense during the recent game between Stoke City and Manchester United. In that game, in the second half of the game, a Manchester United player missed the ball and, instead of kicking the ball, he struck the Stoke defender in his midsection. The referee Neil Swarbrick reacted swiftly. He stopped the play and awarded a free kick to Stoke. The slow motion replays clearly showed the point of contact and the resulting foul. By now, however, one of the commentators was all worked up and up in arms. He started to vigorously criticize Swarbrick’s decision to call the foul and award the free kick. He protested the decision as, in his view, “there was nothing there” because the kicking of the Stoke defender in his midsection was “unintentional.” The commentator’s argument was that because the end result (i.e. the kicking of the opponent in his midsection) was unintended, no foul was committed and none should have been called.
We will forgive you if, at this point in this blog, you think that we are overacting to this seemingly innocuous comment about the situation that did not influence the outcome of the game (you will be hard pressed to find any game highlights including this situation). However, having been made in front of the hundreds of thousands of fans who tuned in to watch the game and having heard similar comments on numerous other occasions in the past, we feel that the admonition and the attention is more than appropriate. What’s more, this singular comment is so fundamentally wrong about what the Laws of the Game state on the subject that it has the potential to – and, in fact, does – create such mass confusion about the Laws of the Game that no countless of hours of one-on-one discussions can ever clear that up. Thanks, Mr. Commentator. We would be remiss, however, if we did not at least try to clear this mess up.
To begin with, let us be crystal clear: no finding of specific intent to commit a foul (excepting a very limited number of infractions such as the handling offenses) is required under the Laws of the Game. The IFAB’s Interpretations to the Laws of the Game explain that “the following conditions must be met for an offence to be considered a foul:
- it must be committed by a player
- it must occur on the ﬁeld of play
- it must occur while the ball is in play”
In soccer, in the context of whether a foul has been committed or not, we judge the act and the result of the contact. Whether the player who committed the infraction acted with a specific intent to commit the foul is irrelevant. In other words, referees are not required to read players’ minds in order to determine whether they intentionally wanted to kick, push, trip, hold, pull or otherwise foul the opponent. As USSF put it correctly in its Advice to Referees, under Law 12, “the referee makes a decision based upon what he or she sees a player actually does - the result of the player’s action - not upon what might be in the player's mind.”
Having said that, we will note that the intent – or, stated in a better way, state of mind - of the offender becomes relevant to the referee’s decision about what sanction or punishment, if any, to hand out to the offending player.
So, for example, “careless” fouls do not require a caution because “the player has [merely] shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.” These types of fouls are analogous to negligent acts. In these instances, the law actually acknowledges that the offender did not intend to cause a foul/(harm) but we punish him/her anyway because he should have known that his/her “careless”/(“negligent”) act would result in a foul/(harm) to another.
Other types of fouls, such as “reckless” fouls and those involving the use of “excessive force”, require the referee to discipline the offending player. Reckless fouls are punished with caution because “the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.” The fouls involving the use of “excessive force” are punished with a send-off because “the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” Essentially, the extent of lack of concern to another and for the consequences of one’s actions defines the differences between “careless,” “reckless” and “excessive force” fouls.
Thus, in the case at hand, it made no difference to referee Swarbrick whether the Manchester United player had a specific intent to kick the Stoke player in his midsection. The Laws of the Game do not require a finding of specific intent that the Manchester United wanted to kick his opponent. Instead, the referee correctly adjudged the player’s act as careless (he should have known that if he raises, swings his leg and misses the ball, he is likely to kick another player who is in his proximity and cause him to fall). Once the Manchester United player committed the act - and kicked (intentionally or not) the Stoke player in his midsection causing his fall – the foul was committed and the referee was justified in awarding the free kick to Stoke.
Now, if only this blog was on Mr. Commentator’s reading list… Yeah, we know, wishful thinking.