Some folks seem to put some value in what I write, and I thank them for the kind
vote of confidence. We touch on many areas as we float from year to year - I
began writing in 1994 or 1995 - and many of them come up at least once or twice
each year. One subject which I have written extensively about is the Spirit of
the Game/Laws, a subject that I am somewhat passionate about.
I'm writing again, in defense of the Spirit this time. Defense of the Spirit?
Emphatically yes. Over a period of time, I have seen a great amount of what I
perceive to be misunderstanding or misuse of the Spirit to explain or justify a
referee's choice of actions, especially in youth soccer. Metaphorically
speaking, the eagle of the Spirit is quickly becoming a buzzard, used to clean
up the carrion of well-meaning but improper referee decisions.
The Spirit is, in reality, as simple to understand as any concept humanity is
exposed to. Perhaps limiting it to words is the difficult trick.
The Spirit of the Game is that the game by played with few interruptions;
continued whistling for trifling or doubtful fouls should be avoided.
The Spirit of the Game is that the game should be safe for the players, that is
to say that they players are protected from intentional acts that are reckless
The Spirit of the Game is that the game offers equality of opportunity but not
equality of outcome, that is to say that players are allowed to display their
skills and their opponents will not use illegal means to prevent them from doing
The Spirit of the Game is that the game should be enjoyable to all - players,
team officials, referees, and spectators.
The Spirit of the Game is that the level at which a foul is considered to be
trifling is wholly dependent upon many factors, including age, skill level,
field and weather conditions, along with other non-tangibles such as player
The Spirit of the Game is that any punishment will be in proportion to the
severity of the observed foul action, that is to say that the referee must take
into account the actual impact of an observed foul action and base punishment
upon that and not solely upon the punishment allowable in the Laws for that
particular flavor of foul.
The Spirit of the Game is that a match should begin with 22players and that the
referee should do all that is possible to complete a match with 22 players.
Implicit in this is an understanding that misconduct must be appropriately dealt
with, and that appropriately dealing with misconduct can include a quick and
direct talk with a player in lieu of a yellow card.
The Spirit of the Game is that everyone on the field of play is a player. It is
not unusual for a European or South American referee to say that they play
soccer. After all, does not a referee have a responsibility to be fit, to be
athletic, to have a strong desire to win?
All of these statements are vital to understanding the role of referees, yet
there are more items that are truly vital to fully appreciating the complexity
of the Spirit.
Soccer is a tough, combative, and aggressive sport. Hard play, no matter how
vigorous, must be allowed provided it is not unsporting.
The referee must be an impartial observer, granting favor to neither team,
holding both to the same high standard of behavior and play. Bob Evans' guidance
that the referee is not responsible to compensate for the mistakes of a player
is a foundation of this principle.
The above statements are in no manner a complete summation of the constituent
parts of the Spirit. They are, however, as solid a foundation as one can find
short of hours deep philosophical discussion. They explain the role of both
player and referee.
Many writers freely use the Spirit of the Game to justify almost any action that
a referee chooses. I'll not go back and do a point-by-point exposition of this
posting or that. Nothing would be served beyond annoying good people and
creating opposed camps. This would not serve any good purpose.
When a referee steps in to ensure "fairness," (a badly misused and wholly
misunderstood term in my estimation) perhaps they unfairly prevent a player from
learning valuable lessons. If they are commonly protected from the result of
their chosen action, how are they to learn the correct action? Conversely, by
insuring "fairness" for one player/team, does the referee not perpetrate
"unfairness" upon the other player/team who are acting within the law?
Impartiality faces the danger of becoming all too partial. Such referee
interference is decidedly against the Spirit, no matter what the motivation may
Many referees have difficulty in deciding whether or not a foul has occurred.
Foul identification is indeed a difficult skill to master, yet a simple concept
- effect upon play or player - is a most effective tool at all levels of the
game, from U-small to O-45. If an opponent performs an illegal act, the referee
must determine the effect of the action: did it affect play, or did it affect
the fouled player? Simplistically put, if an illegal action has no practical
effect upon the fouled players ability to play or person, at most a trifling
foul (by definition a foul which should not be called) has occurred. Correct and
consistent application of this principle is assuredly within the Spirit.
Many readers may well be up in arms at this point - so a bit of pacification may
be in order.
Referee actions recommended or defended as being within the Spirit yet in
opposition to the theme of this ever-lengthening epistle generally are man- and
match- management techniques. Man- and match- management is a world unto itself.
Folks who have quoted Dave Albany's writings as justification for their actions
within the Spirit do not understand that David writes from the viewpoint of man-
and match- management, skills which diverge from and may run totally counter to
the Laws or the Spirit as described in this posting.
My good friend's writings have limited application - the higher, exceptionally
skilled matches. With close study and deep understanding, his concepts are
useful - but really should not be in the bag of tricks employed by each and
every referee. They are situational, and are only applicable to those specific
situations. For example, in a very hot and physical match where tempers run
high, he many make bad calls against both sides to cause them to shift their
building anger on him, cooling tension between players. This is not a trick for
referees who are not masters of their art - and supremely confident in their
abilities - as he is.
One can understand and accept a concept such as a one-man dropped ball in
certain instances, yet I have rarely seen a situation where the situation cannot
be managed to a point that the ball becomes out of play in a non-threatening
location. Where I have seen dropped ball situations, the cause is more often a
too-quick whistle on the part of the referee where a little patience could have
seen a far happier outcome.
Out-of-position goalkeepers are more often the result of poor coaching - the
coach not having taught and reinforced the importance of a goalkeeper being in
the proper position rather than doing the job of a ball boy. Is it the fault of
the team awarded a corner kick or a free kick that the defenders are not in good
order and arrayed properly to defend the goal? If the referee allows time for
the defending team to regroup because of the goalkeeper ball-boy, then allowing
time to regroup should then be the order of the day, allowing defenders to
regroup before each and every restart. To do less makes the referee capricious,
inconsistent, and very partial.
Perhaps the most important man- and match- management technique is consistency.
There is always the argument regarding calling fouls in the penalty area being
different from fouls called at midfield. Many, from coaches, to players, to
assessors, rightly (in my opinion) condemn referees for not maintaining
field-wide consistency. The root cause may be as simple as this. In place of the
mantra "call fouls in the penalty area like you do in the middle of the field,"
a new mantra, "call fouls in the middle of the field like you do in the penalty
area" should be used. Most referees could not do this - their match would
spiral, out of control, to flaming ruin. What we see is, in reality, is either a
total lack of self-confidence or a total lack of courage, normally buffered by
the excuse, "I don't want to be responsible for affecting the outcome of the
match," when they have done just that. Claiming such a decision is supported by
the Spirit is an affront.
Another example can be found in a situation where a defender stops a certain
goal by handling, only to see the rebound from his handling go to the foot of
another player and into the goal. Under the Law and the Spirit, that player must
be sent off, regardless of the fact that a goal was ultimately scored. His
action prevented the goal. Fact. Discussion is over. In this situation, though,
a referee may well make a decision to issue a yellow card, if, in their view,
man- and match- management is better served. Provided he knew the proper
punishment and made a conscious decision to handle the situation in this manner,
there may be little or no criticism - but the defense in this matter is based
upon management and not on the Spirit.
Management and Spirit commonly travel in the same direction, as they should.
Occasionally, as in the paragraph above, they follow different paths. Both have
the same goal, a successful ending to a match. Misrepresenting one as the other
can be disastrous to a referee's career through continuous conflict and failure
to advance in both skill and the quality of matches to which they are assigned.
We lose enough referees through normal attrition. We should not have to lose
them through their lack of understanding of the fundamentals. Nor should the
development of the game have to suffer from well-intentioned yet incorrect
application of the fundamentals of the game.
One more important distinction needs to be made. Occasionally there is some
discussion of referees "making up" rules to suit a specific situation. This is
certainly a "don't try this at home, kids" comment. Very, very few individuals
can hope to practice this sort of officiating without experiencing problems,
ranging from difficult matches filled with "constructive criticism," to
mega-yellow and red card matches, terminated matches, less appealing or fewer
match assignments, or disciplinary hearings.
Referees must always remember that to properly employ the Spirit of the
Game/Laws, referees must do the right thing, not the feel-good thing. Doing the
right thing requires a deep understanding of the entire deposit of the Spirit,
not simply the parts of the Spirit we find most appealing.