The Rational Ref

Knowing the rules can provide a competitive edge

Recent examples help to illustrate the benefit for all parties of having a thorough understanding of the game's regulations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 8:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 10:41pm

With the Year of the Horse upon us, there has been some horsing around on and off the soccer pitches. The mischievous, sometimes damaging antics demonstrate that people need to wise up to the fact that it might pay to have a good grasp of the rules of the game.

In Spain, Racing Santander, now competing in the third tier after consecutive relegations, turned up for their Copa del Rey quarter-final second-leg match against Real Sociedad with the aim of causing the match to be abandoned. When the whistle sounded for kick-off, the Racing players just stood around in protest against the club's board and president for wages unpaid since September.

Referee Gil Manzano asked the players if they were going to play and when the captain replied "no" he ended the match. Technically, the referee could have continued because he didn't yet have a legitimate reason to stop the match.

Furthermore, if goal difference had mattered (for instance, if Racing's opponents had lost heavily in the first leg) then Real Sociedad could have run up a cricket score.

In any case, the Spanish Football Federation has banned Racing Santander from next year's Copa del Rey.

Relying wholly on talent on the pitch is seemingly no longer good enough to win

Technically, to force a match to be abandoned, Racing Santander should have copied third division Italian side Nocerina. When losing against bitter rivals Salernitana in November, Nocerina cunningly ensured they had fewer than seven players on the pitch. Five players faked injury, leaving the referee with no choice but to abandon the game.

Nevertheless, Nocerina did not escape the consequences either. The Italian Football Federation fined the club €10,000 (HK$105,000), expelled them from the league, and handed lengthy bans to the players who faked their injuries.

In England, Leeds United manager Brian McDermott was incorrectly sacked over the phone by the lawyer of prospective owner Massimo Cellino who is trying to usurp owners GFH. McDermott said: "[On Friday evening] I'd been relieved of my duties. Then on Saturday morning I got a phone call from GFH to say that wasn't the case. Whoever sacks a manager has to own the club."

Apparently McDermott was reinstated, but since he wasn't legally or officially fired it wasn't necessary to reinstate him. If only McDermott had known the rules.

Even EPL teams Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are believed to be challenging fellow title contenders Manchester City off the pitch. Not content with trying to beat big-spending City on the pitch, these rival clubs have reportedly hired lawyers to comb through Uefa's Financial Fair Play regulations.

In Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Football Association is exploring the possibility that the qualifying group matches against UAE for next year's Asian Cup could be made void. UAE easily defeated Hong Kong last October and November but supposedly one of their players, talented 22-year-old midfielder Omar Abdul Rahman, may not have been eligible to play for UAE.

HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe said. "At first glance, it looks as if there might be a case to pursue this further and we might take up this matter with the Asian Football Confederation or Fifa if it warrants further investigation.

"We don't want to go down this road and benefit on others' misfortunes but, at the same time, if they have flouted the rules of the competition and international football, it is only right that they be penalised," said Sutcliffe. "We are lying third in our pool, but if UAE were found to have flouted the rules, we could end up being second in the pool and qualify automatically."

Therefore it can be seen that, at the highest levels of competitive soccer, relying wholly on talent on the pitch is seemingly no longer good enough to win, and to win consistently.

Increasingly, players, coaches and administrators are trying to find the tiniest competitive edge, whether it is on or off the pitch. To do this, they realise that a better understanding of the rules can help them seek out legitimate ways to interpret the fine print for their own benefit. And because of this, the need for resilient, resourceful and experienced referees - both on the pitch and in administrative roles - has never been greater.


  • A final note: Congratulations to Citizen/Cuenca United in winning this year's Lunar New Year Cup. Despite the presence of several invited players from the Ecuadorian side, the core of the Citizen team shone through with popular characters like captain courageous Festus Baise, tiny left back Wong Yiu-fu and big friendly giant Detinho entertaining the crowd.


TVB commentator Andrew Sams was initially dismissive of the penalty decision that led to Citizen's second goal, saying: "It seemed innocuous but the referee is pointing to the penalty spot. I'm always concerned when referees become animated."

Only when the replay was shown did Sams reluctantly concede it was a penalty. Unfortunately, there was no apology or praise afforded to referee Tong Kui-sum, who clearly made the correct decision.

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