Home > Referees > Avoiding the One-Match Suspension for Red Cards

Avoiding the One-Match Suspension for Red Cards

Like many U.S. fans, I had hoped that FIFA might take the extraordinary step of reversing at least one of the red cards issued to the U.S. during the Confederations Cup.  Today, while putting together some data, I came upon FIFA’s official position on reversing red cards:

The automatic one-match suspension may only be waived if it is proven that the referee dismissed the wrong player in a case of mistaken identity.  In no case can the decision of the referee can be modified after the game, as is clearly stated in Law 5 of the Laws of the Game : “The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play are final. The referee may only change a decision on realising that it is incorrect or, at his discretion, on the advice of an assistant referee, provided that he has NOT restarted play.”

There are three obvious problems with FIFA’s position (the relevant Law remains the same in the 2008/2009 version of the Laws of the Game):

  1. Law 5 also limits the referee to control of “the match.”  (“Every match is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match to which he has been appointed.”)  FIFA does not (and should not) delegate responsibility beyond a single match to a single referee.
  2. The rule explicitly authorizes correction when a referee realizes his initial decision is incorrect, so long as he has not restarted play.  If incorrect calls merit corrections during the match, why must they be permitted to affect other matches?
  3. Shockingly, the rule only states that the referee “may” correct a call that he knows is incorrect.  It does not say “should” or “must” only “may.”

In short, FIFA acknowledges that referees make mistakes.  And it acknowledges that a referee can (but need not) correct their decision if they know/discover they were wrong.  But FIFA washes its hands of any review of whether the call was correct, even when it has video evidence (from its own video feed) upon which to consider the decision.  And questionable officiating or no, FIFA endorses officials for FIFA tournaments that other entities withdraw from club matches, e.g. Coffi Codjia.

On the other hand, perhaps permitting FIFA reversals of red cards would merely lead to questionable reversals.  If the U.S. is not getting the benefit of the doubt on red cards, why should anyone expect it to get better results in subsequent determinations?

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Categories: Referees
  1. Craig
    July 1, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    The emphasis of the part of Law 5 that you quoted is on when the referee is allowed to correct an error, not on whether s/he should do so. That is, the point is not that he may correct an error, it’s that he may NOT do so after the restart of play. “May” is certainly the most appropriate word to use (and is inextricably linked with the “only” that follows), as any other usage would imply that it would be possible in exceptional circumstances to correct an error after the restart of play.

    • Michael
      July 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

      Craig, thanks for the well-thought-out comment.

      I had considered that interpretation, but my problem with it was that this is the only passage in Law 5 that even arguably addresses whether a referee should change an erroneous decision. It authorizes changes and sets out the requirements for such a change: providing one necessary and two individually sufficient conditions (one of which must be met). If a passage is going to address both the grounds for and the timing of any decision change, as this passage does, we cannot read “may only” to apply solely to the timing of any change. Here’s what I read it to say:

      The referee may only change a decision if play has not been restarted and either (1) the referee realizes that a decision is incorrect or (2) an assistant referee advises the referee to change their decision.

      My particular gripe with it is why is there no mandate on an official to correct their mistakes if given the opportunity? I have a hard time seeing how a rewording like this would open up the exceptional circumstances concern:

      “The referee has the authority to and should change a decision on realising that it is incorrect or, at his discretion, on the advice of an assistant referee, provided that he has NOT restarted play.” (It may not foreclose the possibility of ‘exceptional circumstances,’ but there appears to be no language arguably authorizing it.)

      Or to break it into two sentences: “The referee must change a decision on realising that it is incorrect or, at his discretion, on the advice of an assistant referee. No decision may be changed once the referee has restarted play.”

      If I had to guess why FIFA chose the language it did, it would be that FIFA wanted to give referees the authority to let wrong calls stand in the interest of the greater good/safety of the players and spectators. If so, it would be an acknowledgment that there are circumstances in which it would be dangerous to change a decision. In the NFL, referee’s decision changes are explained (sometimes in great detail) by the refree over the public address system. But with no tradition of that in place for soccer, I can understand that a referee may feel that putting the red card away (or waiving off a penalty kick, before it has been taken) could create a dangerous situation. Or that the integrity of the game and the irrelevance of the decision to the outcome (a 5-0 match with only stoppage time remaining) requires him to adhere to his decision.

      But if that’s true, then there has to be some system for avoiding the one-game suspension. In such situations, the referee should be able to say after the match that “I realized this decision was incorrect and the player was improperly red carded” and then have FIFA not automatically suspend the player for the next match. Instead, you leave open the referee’s authority to keep a bad decision unchanged and then preclude the governing body from correcting even the most obvious mistake.

      And I understand that at some point, you have to get on with the game. The resumption of play rule is the most logical way to do that. But there is a period (sometimes of several minutes) where play does not resume. And although I have seen many bad calls, I have never seen a referee correct himself. The official in the Egypt-Brazil match deferred decision until he conferred with his assistants. But I haven’t seen a referee who actually admits a mistake on an important decision during the match.

      And to use this same rule to prohibit any review of the mandatory one-game suspension is incredible. To use perhaps the most egregious example: If a player was ejected in a semifinal for a handball but it was clear from video replay and clear to the assistant referees that s/he did not touch it with any part of his/her body, unless the referee corrects himself immediately, the rule is that that player can never be permitted to play in the final. And there is nothing in the Laws of the Game requiring a referee who knows it was the wrong call to correct it.

      So, you can have a Final match where a player is suspended even if no official believes they committed a foul. I find it incredible that FIFA has given itself no way to remedy the situation nor any mandate that the referee who knows a call is wrong must correct it (if play has not restarted.)

      • Craig
        July 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm

        Your first is certainly a reasonable criticism. The Laws do seem to occasionally suffer from insufficient specificity in language, at least by the standards of someone who’s a rules lawyer (as I sometimes tend to be, and I would guess you are as well).

        Although it’s exceedingly rare, I think I’ve heard of a referee in a high-level match (MLS, I think) taking back a red card after initially giving it. Obviously, this happened before the next restart.

        I think it’s unfortunate that FIFA does not provide any sort of recourse for poor decisions on penalties that carry an automatic suspension. At the same time, when I look at the effect of the appeals process in England (which defies FIFA mandates about rescinding red cards), I think the results of the appeals are wrong as often as they’re right (and I also suspect that this is likely to make FIFA leery of implementing their own review process).

      • Michael
        July 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm

        Hit the nail on the head. Although, I’ve been on sabbatical for almost a year, I guess you can’t really stop being a rules lawyer.

        I hadn’t thought about England’s appeal process; it certainly isn’t much of an argument in favor of review. Thanks again for the comments. I hadn’t intended to venture into the rules on this blog — I came upon them while compiling a list of FIFA player sanctions in preparation for what I expect to be a 6-game suspension for Bradley if the tunnel incident has teeth — but I’ve learned a lot.

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