Football’s laws: The kits, the referees and their hand signals

Sarah Winterburn

Law 04 –The Players’ Equipment is a brief but pithy entry that lays out what you have to wear, can wear, and can’t wear even as a fashion statement, especially if it’s ‘dangerous’. (If only it said something about tattoos.)

Jewellery is naturally forbidden, so I get to tell the story of a 2006 WC qualifier between the USA and El Salvador. Denis Alas, a Salvadoran midfielder, either forgot or didn’t want to take the field without his necklace. Someone on the USA side noticed it and told coach Bruce Arena. So Arena waited until Alas already had a yellow card, and then pointed out the offending  decoration. Alas got the standard punishment, another yellow, and was sent off in the 27th minute. The USA were already ahead and undoubtedly would have won anyway, but it was a classic ploy.

But there’s something very odd about the jewellery provision. It says the players must be ‘inspected’ (let your imagination run free) before the match begins, and substitutes inspected before they come on. If the player/substitute is wearing something unauthorised, the referee must order them to remove it. Then it says the referee must order them to ‘leave the field of play at the next stoppage if the player is unable or unwilling to comply’.

It’s hard to make sense of this. Let’s say you do the inspection, and the player either can’t or doesn’t want to remove those chic amethyst earrings. Why is he being allowed on the pitch in the first place? I suppose it covers Alas-type incidents, where maybe they put it back on while no one’s watching. But ‘unable’?

The compulsory equipment includes ‘a shirt with sleeves’. Remember when Cameroon were blackmailed docked six points in the WC qualifiers by FIFA for wearing sleeveless shirts? FIFA eventually relented after the entire population of Cameroon came crawling, of course.

Another mandatory item of gear is shorts, but the keeper can wear tracksuit bottoms. Naturally we’ll call it the Kiraly Rule. This provision is presumably for cold weather and the pitches it affects, since the keeper spends a lot of time standing still and a fair amount of time diving. But if tracksuit bottoms are so useful, why are they so rare?

Since we’ve named the Kiraly Rule, let’s go one further with the Hoolahan Rule:

‘A player whose footwear or shinguard is lost accidentally must replace it as soon as possible and no later than when the ball next goes out of play; if before doing so the player plays the ball and/or scores a goal, the goal is awarded.’

Here’s our Wes…

…in all his glory performing that rarest of actions, providing a Premier League assist for Cameron Jerome.

You’ll have noticed that the Hoolahan Rule mentions the players’ footwear. What does the law say about footwear? That it must be ‘footwear’. That’s all. There’s literally no other description or qualification, except the blanket provision that it can’t be dangerous. Can you imagine how much fun Imelda Marcos would have had if they cared about football in the Philippines? (Okay, I’m dating myself with that reference.)

A 2016 addition to the law says that ‘goalkeepers’ caps’ are permitted. Earth to FIFA: Jean-Marie Pfaff sometimes wore a cap back in the 1980s. LEV freaking YASHIN was famous for his cap. And you’re just officially putting it in the laws now? You really have to wonder.

We’ll conclude our look at Law 04 with a nod to a more contemporary goalkeeper, Petr Cech. Headgear is permitted (and not just for keepers), but among other things must ‘be in keeping with the professional appearance of the player’s equipment’. Plenty of comedic material there, but this is interestingly the only place in the laws where ‘professional appearance’ is mentioned. It won’t surprise you that it isn’t defined, either. That leaves it entirely up to the ref, which naturally brings us to…

Law 05 – The Referee. Where to start? It goes without saying that all refs are incompetent and biased, but the law says we have to have them, and they get authority stemming from the very broad to the very specific. So, as unpleasant as it may be, let’s take a look at a few examples.

The key provision comes early:

‘Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.’

I was very surprised to find out that the phrase ‘spirit of the game’, so common when we talk about football, was only added to the laws in 2016. Better late than never, but here’s how ‘spirit of the game’ is defined in the Glossary:

‘The main/essential principles/ethos of football.’

Oh boy. That ethos has been going downhill since the Corinthians (the team, not the Bible texts, although perhaps those too), and there’s no sign of bottoming out.

But even if there is an objective sportsmanlike spirit against which referees can measure their decisions, this definition gives them no help whatsoever. Attached to the laws is a detailed Practical Guidelines for Referees, but the only criterion given for ‘spirit of the game’ is ‘common sense’, which in fact has long been the unofficial standard. Refs have done reasonably well over the years under these conditions, so why add a provision unless you’re going to spell things out?

Among the referee’s explicit powers is to play the advantage. The provision says that advantage must ensue ‘at that time or within a few seconds’. It’s a vague standard, but a good one, because you need some flexibility. And on the positive side, it seems as if referees are waiting longer these days to see if the advantage ensues.  But it also seems they’ve been playing advantage in almost every case when the team that was fouled simply retains possession.

That can’t be right. Yes, you want to keep the game flowing. But part of the rationale behind a free-kick is that it exposes the defense to a dangerous attack. I don’t have the stats on this, but it stands to reason that a free-kick gives you a better chance of scoring than open play, if the defence hasn’t been beaten in some way. So here’s a question for mailboxers and commenters: how do you feel about the increased tendency to play advantage just to keep the game flowing, without any clear advantage having ensued?

And one more question: should the referee take into account the specific teams and players involved? I suspect few would go this far, but the advantage is notably greater when Gylfi Sigurdsson is attacking than when it’s Jack Cork. And shouldn’t West Bromwich Albion get the advantage less often because they lack a reliable striker and are excellent at set-pieces?

Another bone of contention is when the referees should stop play for an injury. The law distinguishes between ‘slightly’ injured (stoppage not necessary) and ‘seriously’ injured (play should be stopped). This has to be one of the ref’s most difficult jobs – after all, when Alexis Sánchez covers his face and drops to the floor after a throw-in has hit him in the back, it’s just possible that the ball has caused serious internal injuries, and either death or a transfer request may occur within seconds.

If we’re talking referee discretion, here’s one of the most interesting provisions in all the laws. The ref ‘punishes the more serious offence, in terms of sanction, restart, physical severity and tactical impact, when more than one offence occurs at the same time’.

The first thing to note is that you can’t take this provision literally. First, since time can be sliced into nanoseconds, offences will almost never occur at the same time. So ‘occurs at the same time’ probably means ‘is simultaneously perceived’. I admit that’s a very picky distinction.

But the ‘more than one offence occurs’ part can’t be taken literally either. Assume two players are simultaneously perceived to take a swing at the other. If you read the law literally, you can’t punish both, because you’d have to punish the more serious. In fact, you can’t punish either, since the offences are equally serious. (if it’s Robert Huth and Xherdan Shaqiri, maybe not.) What the provision must mean is that when more than one offence occurs at the same time and only one can be punished, you punish the more serious.

Once you get to that point, you realize how very rarely this situation will occur, and how tricky it can get. Here are a few possibilities:

1) A player on the attacking team is fouled and simultaneously a handball by the defending team takes place further up the pitch. The ref awards the handball. But what if it’s a yellow-card foul? Can the ref give the yellow as well? And if not, should the yellow card be preferred?

2) Very early in the match, a player is fouled inside the penalty area at the same time a different player on the same team is fouled outside the penalty area. The ref awards the penalty. But what if the outside foul is a red-card foul? Can the ref give the red as well? And if not, should the red card be preferred?

3) A defender commits handball just outside the area at the exact same time he’s fouled. The referee awards the handball. But what if the foul is a yellow-card foul? Can the ref give the yellow as well? And if not, should the yellow be preferred?

In all three cases, ‘common sense’ would tell the ref to sanction both offences, giving the appropriate card but not the free-kick associated with that card. But if that’s so, the rule as written is largely unhelpful. Note that this isn’t an advantage situation, which is covered in Rule 12, where you can let play proceed and later go back and card the player. Yet, in examples 1) and 2) above, if the card infraction takes place a nanosecond before the other infraction, the ref can call both and claim he was simply playing the advantage. But that one nanosecond shouldn’t make any difference – should it?

We’ll close for today with referee signals. For many years there was only one official referee signal: the raised arm for an indirect free-kick. That was actually kind of quaint, especially compared to the vast repertoire of gestures in the NFL. But FIFA have decided to broaden their scope, with shall we say, mixed results. Right now, open the laws in a separate window and scroll down to the pretty pictures at the end of Law 05, which are ‘approved referee signals’. Ready?

OMG WTF LOL and other abbreviations. I realize it’s hard to do this sort of thing well, and we can cut the designers a little slack, but what the actual f**k?

Let’s look first at the goal-kick guy, who appears to be out for a casual walk. His right arm is sort of negligently pointing at the ground. Now shift to the penalty-kick guy, who’s using his left arm a little more sharply. But is there really any difference? They’re both just pointing at something, which in the example just happens to be at a different angle.

Now go to Corner Kick Man, who clearly has something important to say. He’s standing straight, unlike the pathetic slackers we’ve seen so far, and pointing dramatically at – well, not the corner flag itself, because his arm is pointing slightly up, not down or even level.  But of course he can’t be pointing level, because that’s reserved for the direct free-kick. And he can’t be pointing down, because then he’d be too much like his inferiors in the PK and goal-kick department.

And now the pièce de resistance, the hand-to-chin gesture, which the corner kick ref shares with several of his mates. Is he pointing to a newly-styled goatee? Executing a really unsuccessful dab? Shushing the players because he’s a librarian in his day job?

The only thing that remotely makes sense is that he’s blowing a whistle – and why blow the whistle for a corner-kick and not a goal-kick, or a penalty kick? To make it worse, the Practical Guidelines for Referees explicitly says you don’t need to blow the whistle for either a corner-kick or goal-kick restart.

Because I’m desperate, I went to the DVR and looked at what referees actually do. I watched three different refs in three different Premier League games. Their most frequent signal – calling a foul- isn’t even covered in the laws or diagrams. But what they invariably do when they blow the whistle is point in the direction that the free-kick is going to go, with the arm raised high, presumably so everyone can see it clearly. Once the players see the call, the refs drop the arm, and don’t do anything resembling the ‘direct free-kick’ symbol.

Their second most frequent signal, also nowhere covered in the law or diagrams, is to indicate which team gets possession when the ball goes out along the touchlines. Again, they point in the direction favorable to the team getting the restart, although usually not as high as with the foul, since it’s a less dramatic occurrence.

If you leave out the chin gesture, the corner-kick figure almost represents what refs do in practice. That’s because they usually raise the arm above 90 degrees to point to the corner. But they tend to raise it fairly high, closer to the angle of the card-giver. Sometimes it’s closer to level – but when there’s an obvious corner sometimes they don’t bother at all. And as the Practical Guidelines say, they don’t always blow the whistle.

As for penalty-kicks and goal-kicks, they simply point to the spot or general area respectively. But for at least a hundred years we knew that without diagrams.

To say something positive, the figures for Law 05 are pretty well drawn. Look at the nicely executed perspective differences on the breast patch and collar, and the partial or total blocking of the patch in certain cases. The pocket on the profile figures is a clever touch, and the oval at the bottom of each figure grounds each man solidly. The hairlines are a bit bizarre, but since half the refs shave their heads these days it hardly matters. For a heavily schematic drawing, it’s quite a good job, and if you only have two colours you can get away with making the shorts the same color as the skin.

But as ‘approved referee signals’? No better than the good old days of freestyling. And the refs seem to know it.

Peter Goldstein