The Memories & Spirit of the Game, as only Ken Aston could teach it...
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Identify and deal with…
Andrew Castiglione
Founder of Ken Aston Referee Society

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The aim of this page is to show how the Referee
Can identify and deal with Gamesmanship in the world of Football/Soccer.

"Albeit that most Referees know the Laws of the Game inside out...
Players are just as adept at knowing how far to bend them."


Laws Covering Gamesmanship

Outside Influences

Gamesmanship within the Game Itself

Gamesmanship After The Game Has Finished

Dealing with Gamesmanship


What exactly is Gamesmanship?

Gamesmanship occurs when a player attempts to profit from an unfair advantage, or when he disguises an unjust act done on purpose; or when he commits any unsporting act executed in a sly way contrary to 'the spirit of the game'; or when he resorts to psychological intimidation against his opponent - these are just a few flavors of the sour forms of gamesmanship.

The ethos of sport should embody a simple way for people to keep themselves amused and healthy - sadly, modern sport is becoming increasingly reliant on business and financial survival, and less and less a 'sport' in the true sense of the word. Sportsmanship has less and less importance in the world of professionalism; it is about winning at all costs. Winning has become almost as important as life - sometimes more so. Footballers (and managers and coaches) have no qualms about introducing deceiving (or even fair) tactics that deviate from the rules and the spirit in which the game is supposed to be played in. It is more about succeeding in today's society and not so much about whether such acts are right or wrong. To succeed in any profession today, inevitably means bending the rules from time to time.

The attitude of "I'll do anything to help my team win," can be seen in every game of senior football.

Players who resort to gamesmanship, and are penalized by the Referee, should never bemoan that they have taken their chance, but have been caught out by an astute Referee.

Players have become very adept at psyching up opponents by holding, shoving them, taunting them, tripping them, pulling shirts - and all done whilst the Referee is otherwise occupied. And how about the favorite goalkeepers' trick of raising a boot and one knee high when rushing out and jumping up to catch the ball. This gives a clear message to any attackers, to not to come anywhere near the goalkeeper when he is attempting this maneuver. Is this gamesmanship? Or is it cheating, and can Referee do anything about it? (Only if it is deemed to be dangerous play.) This is just one subtle gamesmanship ploy in the players' armory of a thousand quivers.

"Albeit that most Referees know the Laws of the Game inside out
Players are just as adept at knowing how far to bend them."

Laws Covering Gamesmanship.

Law 5: The Authority of the Referee and his Powers and Duties, allows Referee discretion for any infringements of the Law. Gamesmanship is a subtle ploy only punishable by the authority of the Referee - and nobody else. Identifying what is gamesmanship, and what is not gamesmanship, and what is cheating - is a difficult skill to administer. Gamesmanship first reared its head in the sporting world of tennis, where it was quickly perceived that a lesser skilled opponent was able to defeat a more skilled player by applying constant distraction, complaining about line calls, delaying serve, tying up their laces, inciting the crowd, making strange body movements and many other 'ungentlemanly' dupable acts intended to break the flow and concentration of the more skilful and focused opponent - without actually resorting to cheating or breaking the rules.

The USA World Cup is where the ‘seed of shirt pulling’ emanated from.

Law 12 lists the punishments for fouls and misconduct. The modern game has been infiltrated by several novel ways to deceive the Referee. Shirt pulling incidents peaked during the 1998 World Cup in France to such a degree, that it now appears in all levels of the game. Players have become adept at pulling shirts on the 'blind side' of the Referee. These are subtle ploys committed in the hope of gaining an advantage without having to resort to a full-blown illegal method. Simulating fouls, commonly known as 'diving' (especially by an attacker in the penalty area) are so realistic, that swimming judges could not fail to award full marks: Feigning injury to waste time or to stop the flow of the opposing team: Substitutions, in the last seconds of a game: Inflammatory (and sometimes racist) remarks between players: Players constantly haranguing the Referee: These are just a few of our modern gamesmanship warts. How can the Referee decide what is unsporting behavior (gamesmanship), and what is not?

Law 13 - Free Kicks. The array of gamesmanship here is limitless: Delaying the taking of a free kick by many methods: Questioning the Referee thus delaying restarts even further: Questioning the position of the ball: Jostling for position in the 'wall': Subtly moving the ball to a more advantageous position: Asking for a substitution to be made at a crucial stage of the game; and many more untold methods, some of which can be punished by the Referee by Law, and some which can't! For example: (the score is Red Team 1, Yellow team 0, last minute of the Cup Final) - just before the taking of a Yellow team free kick towards the Red team's goal, a Red team player prevents the quick taking of the free kick by walking slowly up towards the referee and says; "Ref., I'm injured, can I be substituted please?"

What can the Referee do? Is it gamesmanship that can be punished, or is it a genuine request?

Law 14 - The Penalty Kick. How many times have we seen the goalkeeper distract the penalty taker (and then go unpunished) by walking out of his goal to query the exact positioning of the ball on the penalty spot? Many times. This is an act of defiant gamesmanship that should always be punished with an instant yellow card for unsporting behavior.

Instead of penalty takers 'getting on' with the task, they resort to distracting the goalkeeper by throwing a few words, by way of beguiling advice: By running up to the ball in strange ways: By delaying their run up, or by stopping half way and restarting: Are these legal moves? Or is it gamesmanship? Only the Referee can decide.

Recent Law changes (have in a strange way) encouraged the growth of gamesmanship. The mandatory Red card punishment for 'tackling from behind', brought in during the USA World Cup in 1994, resulted in players discovering other ways to 'cheat'. In the 'old days', the unpunished tackle from behind was used as a typical method of gamesmanship, whereby defenders unable to cope with a particular attacker's skill and speed, would very often 'clatter' the attacker from behind early in the game - thus giving that attacker a clear message about the outcome of future tackles and 'putting the fear of God' into the attacker for the rest of the game. Thankfully this type of tackle is now properly punished.

The six-second-possession rule for goalkeepers' holding the ball has resulted in many forms of semi-parrying the ball during a shot on goal, thus confusing the less wary Referees (did the goalkeeper have it under control or not)? When the 'back-pass' Law appeared in the 1998/199 season, it resulted in players attempting to circumvent the ruling - for example, by purposefully flicking the ball up onto their heads before heading it back to the goalkeeper. This is against the 'spirit' of the back-pass ruling, and is now punished the same as a normal 'back-pass would be (with the award of an indirect free kick.)

The 1998/1999 Law change, stipulating that the waiting goalkeeper stands outside the penalty area on the goal line where it meets the penalty area, during the taking of kicks from the penalty mark, has lessened the gamesmanship antics used by goalkeepers in former times.

Gamesmanship is not easy to define. In some countries, such acts in sport are seen as a legal bending of the Laws, in other countries, similar acts of devious play, gesturing and comments on and off the fields of play are seen as bad behavior. There are many sly techniques that can be used to counteract superior skill.

Ideally, players' conduct on the field of play should adhere to the 'spirit of the game', but human nature being what it is, ensures that there will always be some form of gamesmanship - the Referees' task is to firstly identify possible gamesmanship, and then decide whether it is ‘legal’ Gamesmanship or whether it is Cheating?

Outside Influences.

Gamesmanship outside of the game action itself is a powerful tool. In the late 1990's the successful manager of Manchester United (Alex Ferguson) had a number of public spats with opposing English Premier League managers. One typical encounter resulted in the team-manager of a rival successful team Newcastle United (Mr. Kevin Keegan) - normally a well-behaved manger - sparring in public outbursts against Ferguson on television. The result being that everyone became aware of the war-of-words between the rival managers; and all done to create some sort of advantage to enable one team or the other to have an edge over the other team, as the championship race for number one spot in the league was drawing to a close. This example shows that gamesmanship is rife in all areas of the game. The Referee certainly has his work cut out in trying to distance himself from the influences of such gamesmanship.

On arriving at the ground, the Referee has to accept any offers of hospitality at face value. If the Referee is treated like a 'King' by the Home team when he arrives - is this part-gamesmanship on the Home team's part, or is it just good manners? If the following week a different Home team treats the Referee like a 'pauper' - will this effect the way he treats the Home team players on the field of play? One would hope that players from both teams will be treated the same, regardless of the level of treatment received when arriving at the ground. But human nature being what it is must have some say in this - albeit that it may be subconsciously beyond the control of the Referee. This emphasizes the subtleties that the Referee must be aware of, to enable him to officiate within what can best be described as an "invisible impenetrable shield of outside influences". The good ship 'Star Trek Enterprise' may have been able to provide such a thing, but the 'everyday' Referee has no access to such futuristic technology, and has to rely on his own integrity.

How many times on arrival at grounds, have Referees been welcomed with open arms, only to be snubbed and ridiculed after the game by the very same people because their team has lost - and it is the Referee's fault? The answer to that question is MANY TIMES! And MANY MORE TO COME!

"The measure of true hospitality can only be measured in the face of adversity."

In other words - thankfully there still remain one or two teams that will fulfill their offers of hospitality even if "the Referee had a rubbish game!"

Parents! The bane of many Referees! How should the Referee perform when one youth team's parents make a point of shaking his hand and being 'jolly' before the game and the opposing team parents can only offer open abuse? Will this influence decision-making by the Referee on the field of play? How can it not affect him? How many Referees can honestly say that they have never made a decision influenced by the abuse being received by parents?

The Referee must distance himself from these types of very strong influences - it would almost be better if he could turn off his hearing, or restrict its limits to the field of play area (and that is abuse enough the Referee to contend with)!

In top-level games, any interested parties utilize the media hype surrounding important games to the full. Matches between countries result in gamesmanship headlines being emblazoned across the front pages and the back pages of each respective country's media circus. How about the Cup Final team manger who 'leaks' a story that his top striker is injured, in the hope that the opposing team manager will field a weaker defense, and concentrate on a stronger attack. And then the (so-called) injured player makes a miraculous recovery and is put on the team sheet only hours before the kick-off. All of these are blatant acts of gamesmanship outside the game action itself. But what can the Referee do about these? Can he 'red card' a player because of the antics of the manager before the game has even started. No, of course he cannot. Nevertheless, these are accepted acts of gamesmanship that MUST have some influence on the way the game is perceived and played - but hopefully has no effect in the way the game is officiated by the Referee.

"The Saint of Referees is the Referee himself".

Gamesmanship within the Game Itself.

The greatest gamesmanship enemy that the Referee confronts in nearly every game - is the gamesmanship of society's influence. Continuing lowering standards have increased the ways, in which the Referee can be targeted, abused and influenced. Verbal accosting, and the so called 'factory language' (the acceptance of impolite language) have crept in to everyday society to such an extent, that the Referee must ignore most of the bad things that are said to him during most games. (And before any 'Angels of Society' shoot me down in flames, I am fully aware that action must be taken in certain circumstances). Players have become very adept at trying to "get their opponents' into trouble" by haranguing the Referee and asking for opponents to be cautioned. Referees should consider cautioning such acts as unsporting behavior - but how many times has this happened?

"The football fraternity is no place for Angels. The game sits more comfortably in Hell!"

Players will take every possible opportunity to undermine the authority of the Referee during the game. Many instances are seen of players claiming to the Referee that opponents have broken the Law. The Referee is the decider in all cases of Law, and should not be influenced by opinions from lesser knowledgeable bodies! Moaning players should be asked to refrain from such outbursts. In other words, they should be told (not figuratively) "to get back inside their box".

Deliberate handball is another trait that players have become 'canny' at disguising. Players who score goals by deliberately handling the ball have no qualms in refuting any suggestions that they cheated. And are happy for the Referee to allow the goal, when they know perfectly well that they have deceived the Referee. This is the sad mentality that the Referee 'is up against'. Match officials can no longer rely on the integrity of players when match incidents are concerned. On the contrary, as far as cheating and gamesmanship is concerned - Referees now expect players to try and 'get away’ with what they can. It has been going on for years in every sport - and will continue for years more.

Diving is another modern curse. Attackers over-emphasizing and exaggerating tackles made on them by defenders in the defenders' penalty area, in the hope that the Referee will award them a penalty - is another facet to look out for. Conversely, during the award of nearly every penalty, the perpetrator always vents his innocence to the Referee in some degree or another (no matter how blatant the penalty was). Players’ exaggerating the effect of physical contact is another wart. Players deliberately running into opponents, in the hope that an indirect free kick for impedance will be awarded to them are yet another obstruction!............

"The sweet facial expression of innocent children, are nothing compared to the "What me?"
facial expressions seen in every game on players' faces when they are punished by
the Referee for committing a misdemeanor."

"Surely not me Ref.? (Finger pointing to their own chest). "I never touched him, honestly".

This look of innocence cannot be bettered anywhere else - and is pure subtle gamesmanship used to try and influence the Referee. But we are not quite that daft - are we?????? I cannot help smiling at such nativity.

Gamesmanship After The Game Has Finished.

Gamesmanship does not limit itself to the match itself.
Referees should be aware of the following:

- (a) Players (and sometimes Team Officials) have been know to approach the Referee after the match has finished, requesting that any cautions or sending-offs issued in the game against them, are not reported. Players usually adopt an 'over-friendly' attitude that goes something like this:

"You're not going to sent those reports in are you Ref.? It's hardly worth it for that."

The Referee can consider including details of such requests in his report - or writing a separate report if the level of persistence warrants it.

A Referee who does not send in discipline reports is creating a very difficult scenario for the colleague who officiates the same team the following week. Referees MUST send in reports if they have disciplined players during a game. The Football Association will deal strongly with any Referees who do not complete and send in reports properly.

- (b) Referees very often receive a host of unpleasant comments after games. Most of the comments should just be ignored. But do not ignore all the comments at your peril. Any indiscipline that exceeds the bounds of normality should be reported accordingly.

- (c) Although Referees should accept any apologies from players' who have committed offences in the game - they must be accepted in the manner in which they should be offered. Beware the hypocritical player who was a monster on the field of play, but who after the game transforms into a 'groveling toad' by trying to 'suck up' and lessen the impact of his sending-off in the eyes of the Referee. A sending off is a sending off and nothing less - and the report should not be influenced by duplicity propositions made after the game has finished.

- (d) Snubbing of Referees in the 'bar' after the game, is a negative form of gamesmanship that can do football clubs no favors at all. Football is just a game. It is a sad state of affairs when players and Referees cannot mix together in the 'bar' for a social drink after the game has finished. A Referee who sticks to his principles will particularly wish to make an appearance in the 'bar' after the game - if only for a quick drink.

(A Favorite Personal Theorem.)

"The worse a game that the Referee thinks he has had
The more effort he should expend in making an appearance in the 'bar' after the game."

In other words, hold your head up high and accept that you officiated to the best of your ability in that particular game. And be brave enough to stand up to your critics.

- (e) Conversely, a Referee who has had a good game (as far as one team is concerned) may be approached by fawning players and Team Officials whose only aim is to 'get the Referee on their side, especially if the same Referee is officiating against them in a few weeks time.

"In a game, it only takes a second for a fawn to change into a frenzy!"

Dealing with Gamesmanship.

It is no easy task for the Referee to positively identify and deal with gamesmanship. Nevertheless, it must be dealt with in a firm and effective manner - thereby deterring further attempts. The greater the Law knowledge and experience that a Referee has, the easier it will be for him to identify and deal properly with gamesmanship.

OK - let's not 'beat about the bush'. It takes bravery for a Referee not to award a penalty because a player dived in the penalty box. Was it a dive or was it a genuine foul? It takes bravery for a Referee to caution a player for a simulated act or for feigning injury. Is he really in so much pain, or is he feigning?

Having decided that an incident was an act of gamesmanship, the Referee can:

1. Apply a simple gesture such as a shake of the head towards the perpetrator.

2. Ignore the fact completely and allow play to continue as normal.

3. Stand upright with hands behind the back thus showing by using body language that play is being allowed to continue.

4. Have a quiet word with the offending player.

5. Stop play and publicly rebuke the player.

6. Caution the player for unsporting behavior.

Blatant (obvious) acts of gamesmanship are easy for the Referee to identify and deal with - and need no advice here. It is those acts that border between a real foul and an act of gamesmanship that are the most difficult to distinguish and punish. Being in close proximity, and having a clear view will help of course. The Referee is advised not to ponder about the decision. It is either gamesmanship - or it is not. Referees are only human, and when deciding difficult decisions, Referees will normally give the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator. In other words, humans are generally expected to behave in a civilized way - so the automatic reactions of the (human) Referee in a dubious situation, is to err on the safe side. For example, a player who may be feigning injury will be more likely to be seen as genuine by the Referee than otherwise. But the Referee should also be aware of those incidents where a player has claimed that he has been elbowed in the face, when in reality nothing of the sort has happened. Many incidents of this nature are now 'picked up' on the numerous cameras surrounding top-level games. It does make you wonder why top players attempt this ultimate act of gamesmanship, when there are so many revealing cameras surrounding the ground as silent witnesses.

The greatest danger is when the Referee is unsure of what decision to make during gamesmanship scenarios. Players will hone in on any weaknesses displayed by the Referee. The Referee must not falter when deciding gamesmanship issues. You either give it or you don't. Do not waiver in the middle. Make your decision quickly and stick to it, and deal with the incident as you see fit. Once you have made your decision, do not dwell for a moment on whether it was the right decision or not, and do not be influenced by the reaction of others. When deciding gamesmanship issues, one side or the other will invariably accost the Referee. Gamesmanship acts (or supposed gamesmanship acts) and how the Referee deals them with, can only ever favor one team. The other team will naturally feel aggrieved. So the Referee is on a 'loser' whichever way he goes. With this in mind, I will repeat that a positive decision needs to be made. (Note - a positive decision can include letting play continue to the advantage of opposing team.) You either penalize the perpetrator for gamesmanship, or you decide that no gamesmanship had occurred. Be prepared for an onslaught from one team or the other - and deal with any further misconduct, as you would do in the normal course of the game. For example, you can caution any dissenting players. The greatest cure for not penalizing a 'supposed' incident of gamesmanship is to keep the play going - or restart the game as soon as you can. Players will soon stop their moaning if play continues.

"You either give it or you don't. Do not waiver in the middle."

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