Fouls and intent in the not so beautiful game

Published 22 March 2013 | Authored by: Kevin Carpenter

Two incidents of foul play in football this month have had the English football fraternity, and further afield, in feverish debate. I have made known my (hopefully) balanced views on social media as both a supporter and football match official. Yet I continue to be agitated (to say the least) by the continued misunderstanding of the Laws of the Game, particularly the notion of intent. So my sports law blog this week seeks to provide some insight and inform the debate.

The two incidents which have meant intention has reared its ugly head have been the high-footed tackle by Manchester United's Nani in the Champions League against Real Madrid, which led to him being sent off for serious foul play [1], and the other tackle was by Wigan Athletic's Callum McManaman on Newcastle United's Massadio Haidara in the Premier League game between the two teams. No foul was awarded by the match officials but is undoubtedly also serious foul play. Although in a ruling that somewhat defies belief the FA have decided not to take retrospective action due to the 'not seen policy' (the full press release can be read here).

Everybody in the football family has had something to say on these two incidents, with the general consensus being that the former should only have been a cautionable offence (i.e. yellow card) at worst and the latter a certain red card. This former view has been justified primarily on the basis that Nani wasn't looking at the player when he connected with six studs to his chest (by the way) and therefore didn't intend to injure him. Conversely, both the manager and chairman of Wigan, Roberto Martinez and Dave Whelan respectively, have said that, despite connecting with six studs to Haidara's knee having gone into the challenge with excessive force and missed the ball, McManaman "isn't that kind of player" and he didn't intend to injure Haidara. Have these people ever read the Laws of the Game? Clearly they haven't because if they can tell me where any notion of intention or character is mentioned in the Laws of the Game in relation to serious foul play then I can assure you they are looking at the wrong sporting rulebook.

Law 12 'Fouls and Misconduct' (and the interpretative notes accompanying that Law) governs serious foul play. Here is how the offences and sanctions for serious foul play fit together using the words lifted directly from the Laws of the Game to avoid any room for doubt or conjecture:

  • A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following...offences in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:
  • A player or substituted player is sent off if he commits...serious foul play.
    • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent;
    • Tackles an opponent.
  • "Careless" means that the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution – no further disciplinary sanction needed.
  • "Reckless" means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent – a player who plays in a reckless manner must be cautioned.
  • "Using excessive force" means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent – a player who uses excessive force must be sent off.
  • A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play.
  • A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play.

The entirety of the Law set out above only states how the player acts, not how he/she intended to act. This is done for a very good reason. Intention is inherently subjective and therefore it is impossible for a referee, or his/her assistants, to say with any degree of certainty on the field of play what a player intended to do. Not to mention red cards for serious foul play act as a deterrent and to set an example to all those who play the game at any level what is acceptable behaviour whilst the ball is in play.

The pace of play also has to be considered, especially in the upper echelons of the game such as the Champions League and Premier League. People acknowledge that referees have a very difficult job, in that they only have a split second to make a decision (although the best seem to have that extra second to replay the incident in their mind), and yet those same people contradict themselves in wanting referees to also make a judgment call on a player's state of mind. This is simply not possible and goes to show that a significant proportion of stakeholders in football are inherently biased contradictory hypocrites.

The only part of Law 12, and indeed the Laws of the Game at all, which does involve an element of intention is handball which is said to have to be "deliberate". Week-in week-out we see what problems this causes, especially in and around the penalty area.

There are important reasons why offences involving intention in ordinary life outside sport are left to the criminal law. These reasons are the safeguards that have to be in place to protect the accused, for instance: the right to defend yourself, the right to be heard and the use of juries/more than one judge or arbiter. The same should be the case in football and sport more widely. Intention (and character) should be left to disciplinary panels who can hear evidence in appeals from players or governing bodies.



[1] Some people wrongly thought Nani had been sent off for ‘playing in a dangerous manner’ but this isn’t possible because, “Playing in a dangerous manner involves no physical contact...if there is...the action becomes an offence punishable with a direct free kick or penalty [i.e. not an indirect free kick].


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About the Author

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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