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-= The Laws, The Spirit & The Soccer Sub-Culture =-

The Laws, The Spirit & The Soccer Sub-Culture
By Sharon Colwell & Patrick Murphy, CRSS
Produced in association with and hosted by...
The Center for Research into Sport and Society at the University of Leicester
First published in 2000 by Singer & Friedlander Investment Funds Limited,
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" The harder you train, the harder it is to quit!!! "

'Referees are incompetent'. 'They are ruining the game'. 'Their rigid enforcement of the Laws disrupts the flow of play'. 'They are inconsistent'. 'They should display more common sense'. These, and many more rebukes are directed at officials during and after matches. Such are the pressures and the rewards of the modern game, it is hardly surprising that they find themselves the targets of a more or less unrelenting attack. It will, therefore, do no harm to stand back from the emotional cauldron that is Premier League Soccer and bring a little detachment to bear on the subject.

The game’s ruling body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and, more specifically, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) devise the Laws that formally regulate football.1 As such they give expression to a collective view about the Laws within which the game should be played. A key aim of this committee is to ensure that their perception of what constitutes the appropriate spirit in which the game should be played is given regulatory authority in the Laws.

Translating a 'spirit' into effective regulation is notoriously difficult. Firstly, it is simply not possible to capture the 'essence' of spirit in a body of laws. Secondly, no set of laws has ever been devised which has been able to contain the dynamic complexity of the phenomenon they are intended to regulate. Of course, it is the case that the Laws of football are not simply the creation of legislators working in a vacuum. The IFAB are responding to emerging aspects of the game, which are perceived to be at variance with their vision of how the game should be played. An example of such a reaction was the decision to clamp down on the tackle from behind on the eve of the 1998 World Cup Finals. Over the years, modifications to the Laws have tended to take a piece-meal and responsive form. This type of reactive, ad hoc approach might prove to be more effective if the lawmakers were attempting to regulate a game in which those who were the subjects of this regulation - the players, coaches and managers - were more or less committed to the same view of how the game should be played as the legislators. The problem is that, in large measure, they are not.

Referees are charged with the responsibility of regulating a professional game in which, particularly at the elite level, the players, coaches and managers have a distinctively different agenda. Undoubtedly, under the weight of considerable pressure, the principal objective of the latter groups is to win matches and, if possible, trophies. In pursuit of these aims many are prepared systematically to 'use and abuse' the Laws of the Game. Some will cite the Laws if it serves their purposes. Alternatively, some will take refuge behind them if this course of action is also seen to further their ends. Some will violate the Laws if they think they can get away with it. Indeed, they will do so if the rewards are worth the risk of the punishment that might be incurred. There may well be conspiratorial elements to this game plan, which are discussed in the privacy of the dressing room and the practice field. However, for the most part, this orientation towards the game is deeply rooted in the soccer subculture. Such is the pressure on professional footballers that even players who prefer to play by the Laws of the Game, tend to acquiesce in this dominant culture. It is a subculture with its own distinctive spirit. By its very nature, it is not systematically articulated, in public at least. Nevertheless, it finds expression in the 'hard-men' stories that are passed down the generations. It emerges in rueful anecdotes, which add spice to players’ biographies, and, perhaps most interestingly, it surfaces in the asides of ex-players, and now television commentators, such as Ron Atkinson, Andy Gray and Alan Brazil.

This alternative orientation to the game is exemplified in such sayings as:

- 'He got too close to him' (clattering a player from behind),
- 'It was six of one, half a dozen of the other' (both players were fouling one another)
- 'There was nothing malicious in it' (anything from an exuberant tackle to one which might be judged to be reckless)
- 'He did his job well, just blocking him off' (a case of obstruction)
- 'He had no alternative' (a professional foul)
- 'You can't jump for the ball without raising your arms' (illegitimate use of the arms)
- 'He's not going to be in a hurry to take this kick and I don't blame him' (time wasting)
- 'A nothing tackle' (a foul that did not deserve the booking it received)
- 'A little bit of after' (a delayed, possibly premeditated, retaliatory foul).

Taken on their own, the above statements may be read as innocuous asides, barely worthy of comment. Taken together, and bearing in mind the frequency with which they are employed, they are indicative of a distinctive culture where another notion of the spirit of the game prevails. Some of the above statements are particular ways of describing what might be characterized as aggressive infringements, others as ways of describing non-aggressive infringements. How then does this subculture manifest itself on the pitch? It does so in a wide variety of ways. The following examples are far from exhaustive:

- Spurious claims. These occur in the context of throw-ins, corner kicks or goal kicks when it is clear that the player in question knows that he had the final touch.
- Stealing territory. This end is achieved by such actions as advancing down the line at throw-ins, taking free kicks from a spot more advantageous than that where the incident occurred. This can simply involve an attempt to move the ball forward a few feet. However, when the designated spot is perceived to be too close to the defending side's goal line the process is reversed. A variation on these maneuvers is when the taker aims to change the angle of delivery by moving the spot out to the wing to facilitate a cross ball. There is no doubt managers see a few degrees variation in angle as important, hence the wide-spread practice of taking short corners.
- Impeding the flow of play. When one side has been awarded a free kick, a player on the other side often stands in front of the ball to prevent the kick being taken quickly. On other occasions, a player making his way back from behind the ball will suddenly change the angle of his route to marginally impede the taker.
- Measured inaccuracy. A player on the penalized side will ostensibly assist the opposition by retrieving and returning the ball, only to find that his control over it has deserted him and, unaccountably, his return goes astray.
- Taking up arms. While the game is supposed to be played principally with the feet and the head, arms and hands are often used. Shirts are tugged, players are held and pushed. Outstretched arms are used as a means of maintaining control of the ball by ensuring that the challenging player is kept at a safe distance.
- Obstruction. This tactic takes a variety of forms. For example, if one player is on the point of going past another, the beaten player will aim to block or impede his adversary's progress or make sufficient contact to change the angle of his run. Again, if one player stands no chance of winning the ball in an aerial dual, he will jump or stand his ground to ensure that the chances of the opposing player getting a clear header are reduced or prevented. Finally, when the ball is running out of play, the player in pole position will maneuver his body in such a way as to block any attempt to go around him. This is a legitimate tactic if the ball is under control. However, it is often the case that the ball is too far in front of the player for him to exercise control. This particular form of obstruction is an interesting one because it seems to have achieved semi-legitimate status.
- Time wasting. This takes a variety of forms. The more obvious ones are taking longer over dead ball kicks and throw-ins, returning the ball with varying degrees of inaccuracy or simply kicking the ball away. There are, however, more subtle variants, such as using late substitutions to disrupt the flow of play, or players feigning injury or staying down longer than an injury warrants at moments when their team is under pressure. While the referee is empowered to add commensurate time on for time wasting, this does not fully compensate the attacking team, because the intention with time wasting is to disrupt the 'big push'; to undermine any attempt by the opposition to develop a head of steam. The irony is that these tactics are widely practiced by people who regularly claim that overly officious referees fail to 'let the game flow'. Incidentally, a regular tactic employed by away teams is to try and silence the crowd in the first twenty minutes by ensuring that the game is broken up by a number of ploys, many of them within the Laws of the game. But the point is that the use of such a tactic further undermines the notion that managers as a group are committed to the principle that the game should be allowed to flow.
- Sledging. Some players try to put opposition players off their stroke by racist or homophobic comments and other forms of personal abuse. The performance of some players can be badly affected by such treatment, while others seem to derive an extra incentive from the insults. Seasoned sledgers are adept at identifying the more sensitive individuals.
- The professional foul. This expression has come to be a key euphemism. It is employed mainly when an opposition player is clear of all the out-field defenders and has a clear run on goal. In such circumstances, the adjective 'professional' adds what some may judge to be a veneer of skill to what is very often a crude tactic.
- Taking a dive. There is nothing new about taking a dive to win an undeserved free kick or penalty. It is not, as is often claimed, a recent import from more 'theatrical cultures'. For example, in the 1960s Fulham had a winger who turned it into an art form. It is not always easy to distinguish between a dive and an attempt to dramatize the occurrence of an actual foul. Conversely, it is sometimes said that had a player gone down, a free kick would have been awarded. This 'requirement' encourages players to embellish their falls in order to persuade referees of the justice of their case. Having acknowledged this, it does seem that the dive 'proper' is becoming a growing feature of the English game.
- Heading is not an armless activity. It is not possible to jump to head the ball effectively without a coordinated action involving some use of the arms. This obvious fact is used as a justification for a number of practices such as leading with one's arm with the aim of blocking or impeding the jump or the vision of other contestants, using one's elbows aggressively, placing one's hand on the head of the competing player, and holding a player down by various means, etc. The tactics employed tend to vary depending on whether one is an attacker or a defender. Those who believe that one cannot jump effectively without raising one's arms above one's head or moving one's elbows in an aggressive fashion should observe how players jump for headers when they are unchallenged. They will note that elbows rarely rise above chest level. However, it is important to acknowledge that in the context of a contested header, arms may be used to protect the face, rather than to deliberately impede or harm another player.
Getting to grips with the opposition. The spectacle of defenders clinging on to attackers prior to a corner or a threatening free-kick has become commonplace in football. Indeed, when a player is penalized for this practice we are left wondering what was so distinctive about this offence and why a multitude of similar offences went unpunished.

Judge for yourself

The next time you watch a match live or on television, we invite you to tune into the above categories of behavior. We guarantee that you will have no difficulty in spotting multiple examples. We readily acknowledge that there are some players who are committed to playing in a way which is broadly in line with the Laws of the game. But there are also many others who develop a range of alternative illegitimate skills. Indeed, for a minority of players, if they were deprived of this aspect of their game their professional careers might be seriously threatened. One indication of the depth to which some players have internalized this alternative approach is provided by the fact that even when time is running out for their side, some players still cannot bring themselves to retrieve the ball for their opponents, thereby penalizing their own team.

Disposing of red herrings:

Red herring number 1: There will be some who read this article and dismiss it as the work of 'namby-pambies' bent on emasculating the game. This is not the case. Football is a contact sport; a highly competitive game, one characterized by high levels of physical aggression and commitment. There are many players who play the game with unquestionable commitment and courage, without having ready recourse to foul-play. All of them commit fouls, but they do not do so as a matter of course or as a primary tactic. The game is played at an increasingly fast pace. Mistimed tackles are inevitable and some of these will cause serious injury. Moreover, given the intensity of the game, there will be occasions when players lose their heads momentarily. In contrast to this type of player there are some who see their armory of illegitimate practices as an essential element of their game and almost regard such practices as weapons of first resort.

Red herring number 2: By bringing this soccer subculture to the surface, the intention is not to mount a sweeping attack upon professional footballers. We appreciate that they are the products of a long established and insular tradition. We also appreciate the pressures on them to play effectively and consistently and to win and the pressures to remain first choice and to turn out when they are not fully fit. Putting the spotlight on this sub-culture is not done with the aim of denigrating players as a group, but rather with the intention of emphasizing that this sub-culture is a crucial dimension of the present 'refereeing crisis'. It is a crisis, which will not be resolved simply by focusing upon the shortcomings of referees and the Laws of the game. The entire configuration of relationships must be taken into account if an effective strategy is to be developed and the present refereeing crisis is to be resolved.

The principle that football is a contact sport, that it is competitive and physically aggressive, is consistent with both the official and sub-cultural visions of the game. It is the nature of the contact, which is problematic. Some players, fans and perhaps even some officials wish to retain and protect the 'rougher', and what in effect have come to be semi-legitimate aspects of the game. Others are less enchanted by these features and would prefer to banish or curtail them and place the emphasis on what may be termed 'mainstream skills'.

The aim of this article has not been to ram a particular view of how the game should be played down the throats of the readers. Rather, the intention has been to bring the conflicting perceptions of how it should be played to the surface so that they can be reflected upon in a more realistic way. In a sense, the present interactions between FIFA, The FA, referees, players and managers amounts to a kind of phony war or perhaps, more accurately, a series of phony skirmishes. If problems in the game are to be effectively addressed all parties need to become more reality orientated. They need to face up to the fact that there is no real agreement on how the game should be played. Should the Laws be devised in such a way as to foster and protect what are generally seen as football skills and imaginative play, or should the Laws allow these qualities to be mediated by what may be characterized as alternative practices/skills?

At present there seems to be little clarity about the line the authorities are trying to hold. Not surprisingly, the means employed to achieve these less than clear ends appear somewhat muddled. Disciplinary clampdowns are interspersed by phases of greater leniency. Ritualistic draconian punishments meted out to individual miscreants do not address the deeply rooted sub-culture of which they are a part. Conversely, given the burgeoning pressures on players and managers, it is most unlikely that any attempt by the authorities to accommodate the soccer sub-culture by a more lenient approach will produce what seem to be the desired intentions. Quite the opposite. All the signs are that the more the authorities bend before the sub-culture, the more the lines will be redrawn in the latter's favor and, at the margins, that which was once held to be illegitimate will achieve a degree of acceptance. Indeed, it is a process, which has long been underway. It is equally the case that managers will continue to experience anger and frustration at the performance of referees as long as they are not prepared to openly confront the fact that, in a fundamental sense, their objectives are in many respects incompatible with the Laws as they stand and the spirit that infuses them.

Unless and until the principal parties involved frankly and openly acknowledge that there are wide differences of opinion on how the game should be played, the chances of developing a strategy which is likely to facilitate a resolution of the current crisis are slim, not to say anorexic.


1 The IFAB is constituted of four delegates each from the home countries and four from FIFA. Proposals for changes to The Laws of the Game are discussed at the IFAB AGM and members of the board have the power to grant permission for particular FAs to experiment with alterations to the Laws. National FAs do seem to have certain latitude with regard to the rigor with which referees interpret the Laws. In the 1999-2000 season, The FA instructed referees to use their man management skills more effectively. In practice this has been interpreted as an instruction to be more lenient.

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