The Worst Rule in Football

20 Feb

Ugh! The glare from those floodlights! Let me just shield my eyes with this.

Arsenal Football Club has had to endure some painful red cards in its day, with Robin van Persie’s red against Barcelona surely ranking as one of the most appalling refereeing decisions in the history of the sport.

This week, both Manchester City and Arsenal lost 0-2 at home in the Champion’s League because of ‘last-man’ red cards. The last-man red card is the worst rule in football.

The rule means that if you foul a player who has a clear goal-scoring opportunity, and if you are the last line of defence, you earn yourself a red card (and a suspension) as well as whatever free-kick or penalty the foul incurred. Because you have denied the opposition a clear goal-scoring opportunity, the penalty kick compensates the wronged team with another one, and because you cheated, the red card punishes you. It supposedly also acts as a deterrent in future, because it makes it too risky for players to strategically foul opposition strikers.

Of all the punitive measures they could have chosen, killing the entire football match is the one they came up with? Genius. Each red card this week happened about half way through the game with scores at 0-0. If at this point in the game the ref had said, “Right, I saw that you clipped the striker’s heels there, making him fall theatrically to the ground; we’re abandoning the game here and awarding the opposition a 2-0 victory,” would anyone not say that this was ridiculous overkill? And yet that is effectively what took place.

As Arsene Wenger pointed out, an early injury claimed his one substitution, and having his goalkeeper sent off forced him to use his second, and this in turn made it impossible to use his third one tactically, because he needed to keep it in case of another injury (which would leave him with only 9 men on the field). His hands were tied for the remainder of the game. So the team lost its keeper and its key strategist because of one foul. When you’re playing Bayern or Barcelona, that’s game over.

As with the death penalty, it is questionable whether killing the game ever truly acts as a deterrent. Defenders still have to defend; small errors of judgment are going to happen no matter what the rule.

What are the alternatives to killing a game? Here’s an easy one: award a penalty goal. Not a penalty kick, a penalty goal. The wronged player who had a chance to score gets given the goal he was denied. He is more than compensated. The fact that a possible goal is made into a certain goal acts as the punitive measure, making it a pointless strategic move to foul attackers. And the game continues as a contest.

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