Expelling the Clichés Within the Laws of Football


As Marouane Chamakh was brought to the ground 45 yards away from goal, meters from the edge of the pitch and with little evidence that he would be able to produce any meaningful goal attempt, Michael Owen proclaimed from the commentators box that it was a certain red card because Arteta was the “last man”.

Whether it was for that reason or another, the referee agreed that a red card was warranted and Arteta was sent from the pitch leaving Arsenal to fight ten against eleven.

It seems odd, though, that there would be an official law – or at least a particular part of an official law – that requires the sending off of a player in such circumstances. After all, Chamakh was a great distance away from goal and is not the quickest of footballers even on his best day. In this context, Arteta’s dismissal seems harsh to say the least.

Of course most recognise this. It was not a clear goal scoring opportunity, as the common line goes, and so not a red card. However those who tried to justify the sending off, such as Michael Owen, did so for the most part using the argument: “Arteta was the last man”.

This is just one of many pundit, commentator and fan clichés – spoken to justify a refereeing decision – that is in fact nowhere to be found in the official rules of football. Even players and mangers go as far as to use these clichés, and in fact Arsene Wenger himself tried to challenge the red card by arguing that Arteta wasn’t the “last man”.

Often these mistaken criteria are a result of a certain interpretation of the rules that can be justified in contributing to the decision of a referee. The problem emerges when this interpretation becomes the law itself, certainly in the eyes of the many followers of football. It’s time to clear up some murky areas of the football rule book.

Red Cards and Denying a Goal-Scoring Opportunity

Going back to the Arteta vs Chamakh incident, as I have already said, Michael Owen agreed with the sending off because Arteta was the last man. Sigh… that is nowhere to be found in the rule book, and is not a justification for a sending off on its own.

The actual law on this word for word is:

“(A player is sent off through) denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick.”

Huh… so it doesn’t really matter that Arteta was the last man. There was no “obvious goalscoring opportunity” nor was Chamack “moving towards goal”.

Of course, often it may be the case that a player has denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity because as the last man there will be nobody else to defend against the shot. So the last man cliché isn’t the rule itself; it is simply a supporting argument for the actual law that is based on preventing an obvious goal scoring opportunity. It should not stand alone as it so often does as the sole reason for a red card. So there will be no more “last man” spiel as a singular justification for a sending off please.

Hand Balls

The “last man” cliché is not the only recent example of the rules being misinterpreted. What is and isn’t a handball is increasingly becoming one of the most controversial topics in football, especially when there is a penalty on the line.

The idea that I want to expel this time is that it is a penalty/free kick if the ball hits a player’s arm that is raised in the air (rather than at his side). It’s repeated all too often, and once again there is nothing in the rules about the position of a player’s arm when giving away a hand ball.

The actual law word for word is:

“(A direct free kick or penalty is awarded if the player) handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)”

So all that technically matters is whether the player handled the ball with purpose. It seems harsh to whistle for a handball if the ball was kicked at 50mph against an arm that is 4 yards away, even if it was outstretched.

The problem that arises is that it could be argued that by leaving an arm out in the air when defending a shot or cross, you are intentionally running the risk of the ball hitting your hand. Somebody who handles the ball in this fashion may not have meant to do it, but they have consciously run the risk of ball-to-hand contact. Indeed this seems harsh, especially when it is only natural to leave an arm out when running or jumping. That said, in a situation where an arm has broken down a move or blocked a dangerous cross or shot because it was flailing in the air, then surely that player must be held accountable.

This is just one interpretation of handling the ball deliberately, and it is a fair point to suggest when arguing in favour of a hand-ball. However, just like the “last man” claim, once we start using the outstretched arm as a justification for a hand ball by itself, then we will have lost sight of what the actual law is.

On Sunday we experienced two similar situations of handball in which different decisions were made. Elmohamady gave away the decisive penalty from a cross when the ball struck his loose arm against Tottenham, but Joe Cole wasn’t penalised when the same thing happened to him against Swansea. Here are some of the pundit and manager comments from Match Of The Day:

Steve Bruce on Elmohamady“That’s not deliberate, he’s just kicked that ball at him from 4 yards.”

Michael Owen on Elmohamady“His hands aren’t above his head, they’re not in an unnatural position”

Michael Laudrup on Joe Cole“when you have your arm up like this normally it is a penalty.”

Steve Bruce is the only one with any relevant reasoning here. That is because he is the only one who tries to make out whether the incident was deliberate. On the other hand, Owen and Laudrup talk about the position of the arm as the measure for whether it is a penalty. No matter what they think about the decision, there is nothing in the rules that they can rely on when using “unnatural” arm position as a reason for a penalty.

If one of them had said something like: “His arms were raised away from the body, and so in my opinion it is a penalty because he is consciously running the risk of handling the ball”, then maybe that would be acceptable. Of course you may well disagree whether that constitutes a deliberate hand ball, but at least then we would be making some attempt to follow the actual laws of the game!

In truth, some more clarity on what is and isn’t a hand ball is needed from the rule book, the reason being that the word “deliberate” is a blurred word that has very subjective interpretations. Anybody from the FA reading this?

 Straight reds from dangerous challenges

 I’m going to rattle off a list of popular reasons for giving a straight red:

“He went through the back of him”

“His foot was high”

“His studs were raised.”

“He showed intent.”

“He went over the ball in the tackle”

“Both feet left the ground”

“He went in two-footed”

NONE of these common clichéd reasons for sending off a player are in the official laws of the game. Yet ALL are used at one time or another to argue that a player has to go.

Well, no, he doesn’t necessarily have to go if he has committed one of these offences – that is not the rule. All the law says on this is that a player must be sent off for committing “serious foul play”.

Three words. Three little words that can imply so much. They can mean almost anything and leave intention out of the picture altogether (if you believe that intention is relevant). To be fair to the multiple clichés that surround this regulation, they are all versions of what could potentially be serious foul play. The problem is that although they are not the laws, they are nonetheless treated as such.

Imagine, for example, that there is controversy over a foul with two people discussing the possibility of a red card. Bob rightly points out that the tackle in all honesty was never going to cause any harm, but Steve says it doesn’t matter because his studs were raised. Who is right? Bob of course, but many would say it was Steve because of some false understanding of studs being raised equalling a sending off.

Certainly to raise one’s studs in a challenge is a dangerous act, moreover there are cases in which it is so unsafe that it constitutes serious foul play.

To say, however, that a player should go because “his studs were raised”, and to say he should go because “his studs were raised, which in the context of this tackle constituted serious foul play”, are two very different statements. One is misquoting the rules of football (and would probably lead to multiple sending offs in each match) while the other is trying to understand the situation with the criteria of “serious foul play” in mind. Studs are raised all the time in football, but not every instance requires a red card, which is why it is important not to get caught up in popular misconceptions of what the rules are.


All these misinterpretations surrounding the rules come about because at some point somebody – a pundit, a commentator, a manager – has made an argument using one of these lines. They then get repeated, and then before you know it everyone believes that it is the actual rule and the cliché comes into existence. When the cliché becomes the criteria for a refereeing decision then we will have lost sight of what the actual rules are. So hopefully Michael Owen will go have a read of the FA’s laws of the game before running his mouth about Arteta being the last man next time.


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