The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia not only provided top notch games, but also introduced the sport to VAR or the video assistant refereeing. For years now, soccer fans have watched both enviously and cautiously as American sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL have adopted and integrated video replays into the adjudication of their games. The envy comes from the fact that had something like VAR existed prior to 2018, Ireland, for example, would probably have been in the 2010 World Cup at the expense of France, who proceeded to the tournament after Thierry Henry handled the ball in the buildup to France’s go ahead goal. With VAR, Henry would have quickly been found out. However, fans are also cautious about the implementation of VAR, because video replays do slow down games, and people are not sure whether soccer should sacrifice its essential continuity for a better and more procedural form of justice.
Regardless, the use of VAR at the World Cup was a huge step forward in terms of refereeing, and one that follows hot on the heels of widespread adoption of goal line technology – itself having involved a lengthy debate over whether or not leagues should use it. With FIFA and individual FA’s across the globe seeming more open to innovation in how to uphold the laws of the sport, what other steps could governing bodies take to make refereeing more consistent and just.
One area that I believe officials could look to improve is at what point an accumulation of fouls results in a yellow card. Like with VAR, soccer can look to American sports, and in particular basketball, for a potential solution to this problem. In the NBA, if a player gets six personal fouls in a game, he gets disqualified. Personal fouls are your basic run of the mill fouls in basketball, including but not limited to charging, holding, or pushing. They are akin to the kinds of fouls that result in direct free kicks in soccer like tackles, challenges, or trips that display a carelessness, recklessness, or use of excessive force. However, while in basketball the accumulation of these types of offenses results in an ultimate disciplinary response (ejection), in soccer, a further disciplinary response such as a yellow card is totally up to the discretion of the referee.
Often times in soccer matches, a referee will pull a player aside who has committed a string of fouls and warn him that another foul will result in a formal caution. While this type of refereeing can dissuade that individual player from further digressions in that specific game, the lack of consistency across referees and games encourages players to test the waters at the beginning of fixtures to see how stringently the referee will punish them for fouls.
The inherent relativism of this process can lead to some incredibly vicious encounters. In the 2010 World Cup Final, the Netherlands played a brutal game, epitomized by Nigel de Jong’s famous karate kick on Xabi Alonso that somehow only warranted a yellow. Despite accumulating nine yellows and committing 28 fouls, the Netherland’s somehow went 120 minutes with only John Heitinga being sent off for a second yellow in the 109th minute.
This type of game demonstrates another reason that more formal rules that relate accumulation of fouls to formal punishments like yellows are important. When referees fail to set the appropriate standards early in a game, they feel personally bound to not change them as the game progresses. In a game like the World Cup final, this personal restraint founded upon poor initial policies makes referees hesitant to make the choice to discipline a player appropriately, because of the disproportionate effect the referees’ choices may have on the outcome of the game. Referees have to make a choice between protecting the narrative that they are neutral and actually carrying out justice. Accumulation of fouls rules would help insulate referees from this kind of decision, because the rules would predetermine that a player’s third foul, for example, would necessarily result in a yellow.
With accumulation of foul rules in effect, soccer may even become more free-flowing as fewer fouls are committed overall with a renewed pressure to tackle and defend with technique. Therefore, these rules would not only allow referees to act more neutrally but also potentially heighten the level of play itself.
Furthermore, just like referees in the NBA have the discretion to characterize what would have been a personal foul as a more serious flagrant foul, soccer referees would maintain the right to give yellows or reds directly in the event of particularly aggressive, excessive, or reckless behavior.
In this article, I had no intention of outlining the technicalities of the accumulation of fouls rules I have proposed; however, I do hope that this article has demonstrated that such rules could be useful in bringing about a more methodical approach to refereeing in soccer. If people are ready for VAR, I believe that they are ready for this progress in refereeing as well.