Wrong side of the laws

Steve Parish, an official at county league level, says many players still do not really know the laws of the game – or at least they pretend not to

When Peter Enckelman was adjudged to have got a touch (with his foot) on a throw-in from his team-mate Olof Melberg in the Birmingham derby, the chances are the referee David Elleray and his assistant really had no idea whether contact was made before the ball rolled over the line. Video evidence would have been of no help, unless Andy Gray looking at it “time and time again” before deciding there was no contact is considered to be helpful. If it was that obvious, he’d have only had to look at it once.

Perhaps the officials were influenced by Enckelman’s head-in-hands reaction into thinking that (a) he had touched it and (b) he knew the rule that you can’t score direct from a throw-in. Elleray, remember, once revealed on television that the colour of a card he shows might be influenced by the reaction of the victim’s team-mates to a foul. Afterwards, Enckelman said he did know the rule but thought he hadn’t touched the ball (which is probably as close as you can get to a player admitting he did) so his reaction was just instinct.

You get that with keepers. Man City fans’ favourite derby goals include Alex Stepney palming Mike Sum­merbee’s indirect free-kick into the goal, when pre­sumably Summerbee didn’t know it was in­direct. But how many keepers would just let it sail in? (Seaman, perhaps.) Such incidents often leave you wondering how well players know the laws of the game.

The first law is that players who know the rules can easily pretend they don’t. There are lots of “referee’s signals” but nothing to counter the player who draws a circle with his hands to say he got the ball, while his opponent lies writhing on the ground because the ball was somewhere near his testicles at the time. In the lower leagues, time sometimes seems to have stood still. You still get coaches unaware that the rule about being “played onside” by the ball deflecting accidentally off a defender was scrapped years ago. And there are plenty of players who seem not to know basic stuff – for example, that you can be in an offside position but not ruled offside if a team-mate shoots and scores, whereas if it rebounds from the keeper or the crossbar and you score, you are offside.

At top level, most of the players do know the laws – probably better than some of the TV pundits – but it is interpretation by the officials that causes the disputes. Though fans often moan at a late flag, the assistants are usually told to wait to make sure the player they think is going to receive the ball actually does get it. This avoids the occasions (most recently at Arsenal v Man City this season) when a player plays the ball forward and runs past defenders to collect it, only to find the assistant flagging for a team-mate who was in an offside position. In that particular case, the team-mate started to go for the ball, so the assistant rightly judged him to be interfering with play, but these are the sort of judgments that often cause controversy.

The World Cup apart, it’s amazing how good assistant referees are at offsides. Television proves that they are not often wrong, even without freeze-frame eyes. It’s incredibly difficult to judge accurately whether someone is in an offside po­sition at the moment the ball is played, for if an attacker runs forward at the moment a defender steps up, they can be over a metre apart in a tenth of a second.

Sometimes, players know the law but don’t trust the ref to apply it. If a defender knees the ball to his keeper, can the keeper pick it up? Yes, because it’s an offence to pick it up if it’s deliberately kicked to him, and you can’t kick with the knee – but would you trust the ref to have seen it that way? I remember a Sixties comic that featured a keeper who deliberately exploited the laws, trying to win a free-kick by throwing the ball away just before he was charged, as you could only charge a keeper in the goal area if he had the ball. I thought then that this risky approach placed a naive trust in referees’ wisdom and vision, but it did make me get my first copy of the laws.

Of course, it is always great fun when obscure bits of the law actually get a run-out. A player takes a free-kick, it bounces back to him off the referee, and he plays it again, giving away an indirect free-kick for playing it twice before another player touches it. Or (not so funny) a player gets sent off for a second caution for handling the ball on the goal line but failing to stop it going in. That’s not even in the main body of the law – just a footnote to a diagram showing the red card offence of handling on the line and succeeding in preventing a goal.

And, of course, there is the most disregard­ed law in football – encroachment at pen­alties. The old rule was simple enough – if a team-mate of the taker enters the area or the “D” before the ball is played, and the ball enters the goal, retake it. If it doesn’t go in, play on. If a defender encroaches and the ball enters the goal, it’s a goal, if it doesn’t, retake it. But then FIFA added that if players of both teams encroach, the kick should be retaken regardless of where the ball ends up. When did you last see that one applied?

From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month