The Rational Ref

How 'Stonewall rules' keep the peace on the pitch

There are some very sensible reasons why some football rules are inviolable, given the cultural differences in how the game is played

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2012, 12:21pm

Stonewall or stone-cold? Two penalty decisions in Hong Kong's First Division last weekend and two more triggered by handball in the English Premier League were spot on - or, to use the fashionable vernacular, they were all "stonewall penalties".

The term in soccer is puzzling because when someone "stonewalls" elsewhere it means they are using delaying tactics. It is a verb. The meaning has been shamelessly turned on its head This kind of penalty call is 100 per cent correct - a dead certainty - and there is absolutely no use arguing about it to delay the call. The stonewall penalty cannot be stonewalled.

Did "stonewall penalty" derive from its opposed meaning of "soft penalty"? In the colourful and intuitive domain of the English language, a "hard" penalty may have evolved into stonewall penalty via the more apt term "stone cold". A stone-cold penalty would make more sense. But, to referees a penalty is a penalty by any other name. Whether an egg is soft or hard-boiled, it is still a boiled egg.

Both Wigan and Stoke gave away penalties because the ball hit a defender on the arm when it was in an unnatural position. But what are natural and unnatural positions, and what is handball? The rules are clear. Anything else is open to interpretation.

Unfortunately, it is usually the players and coaches who misinterpret by basing their decisions on past experiences rather than the rules. Whenever the ball is around the torso area, players with something to gain will always shout "handball, ref", or in Australia, "hands, sir".

Referees are not mind readers but there are tools they use to decide whether the act of handling the ball is deliberate. Referees interpret handballs based on whether the hand moves towards the ball, whether the hand is in an unnatural position, and the distance between the player and the ball. In contrast, players generally "wing it".

Handball incidents demonstrate players work things out by intuition, whereas referees have to play by the rules. This is another reason why there can be tension between match officials and everyone else. Soccer is an intuitive sport, meaning anyone can pick up basic skills and acceptable standards simply by playing. But let's say someone grows up playing in Brazil, where individual technical ability is generally prized over physical strength and commitment to the cause. Elsewhere, say in Scandinavia, someone will have grown up with differing values where giving and receiving crunching tackles along with attributes of brute strength are taken as signs of a good player.

But a dilemma arises when players from different cultures face each other on the pitch. Which football values are accepted and which are rejected? This is the reason why there are rules - the Laws of the Game - that apply to everyone. Referees play an important role because they have to interpret the rules to suit the situation.

In Hong Kong, it is always interesting whenever teams of different cultures come together. To many overseas players, the perception is there is a tendency for local players to dive and scream at the slightest contact. Even among overseas players, there are some who are perceived more than others to do likewise.

And to local players, the perception is that overseas players are rough and uncultured, almost as if they were rugby players despite the fact most local soccer players know next to nothing about the game with the oval ball. Even if soccer players are of the same size and build, they will tend to behave according to their nation's perceived soccer culture.

This psychological phenomenon can be seen at all levels in Hong Kong, from the Yau Yee League to HKFA divisions and even at the friendly social fixture. These differences in soccer stereotypes can lead to negative feelings that the opposing team is not being "fair" or not playing to acceptable standards that are normal to their own subjective terms. And when referees do not appear to be dealing with this perceived "unfair" play, then that is when players are likely to take things into their own hands.

However, players need to accept the referee's decisions and just get on with it. In spite of the intuitive nature of soccer, stone-cold decisions by referees are still required, otherwise all hell will break lose. There can only be one person on the pitch making decisions. Even a no-call is a decision. So long as referees make decisions without fear or favour and to the best of their abilities, then players, coaches and supporters can be satisfied that the match has been managed in a fair, safe and enjoyable manner. If players, coaches and supporters want the game to flow, then there is no need to stonewall referees.