Should the rules on professional fouls be set out in Lehmann’s terms?Posted on

The “professional foul” in football was first made a sending off offence by FIFA in 1989, 9 years after Willie Young’s infamous trip on Paul Allen had deliberately and cynically denied the 17 year old a chance to become the youngest ever goalscorer in the FA Cup Final.

The thinking behind FIFA’s decision seemed sound enough. On field misconduct which has serious consequences (denial of a goalscoring opportunity) should have serious repercussions (a sending off).

Some 23 years on, and countless games ruined by an early dismissal (most notably this one), and one can’t help but wonder if FIFA got this one slightly wrong.

The Laws and Regulations of sport are designed to replicate the laws that govern our lands – providing fairness and justice in the sports they govern. In which case, football might look to the laws of tort and contract when assessing whether parts of Law 12 should be repealed (bear with me).

Where a tort or breach of contract has been committed then the law states that the victim should receive an award (usually damages) which will put them back into the position they would have been in had the wrong not been committed.

In footballing terms that’s an easy one. Where Paul Allen was denied a clear goalscoring opportunity he should have been rewarded with a clear goalscoring opportunity (a penalty, most likely, regardless of where on the field the foul was made).

In the Willie Young example it may not have been a real injustice for the defender to be sent off, however, in the example of Jens Lehmann’s sending off in the 2006 Champions League final, where a goalscoring opportunity was actually presented to Andres Iniesta (who tucked it away – the ref simply didn’t wait for that advantage) or indeed in a similar situation where the foul takes place in the penalty area and the attacking side get their goalscoring opportunity from the spot, it seems odd that the game still provides for a sending off as well which, in truth, often ruins the game as a spectacle. Where a penalty is awarded and the defender (or, worse still, goalkeeper) is sent off then the defending side are punished twice. This is the equivalent of punitive damages in law – damages which go beyond righting the wrong – an extremely rare thing to happen in the courts of England and Wales.

In 2010 FIFA made some proposals to the International FA Board to relax the rules on sendings off. Natural justice dictates that a penalty, rather than a sending off, is the natural punishment for denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity, however, given that the rules took 9 years to change after Willie Young’s challenge we should presume that we’ll be waiting quite a while for a softening of Law 12.



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