The Letter of the Law, the Spirit of the Game, and All That

I go on here occasionally about whether the jurisprudence of sport teaches anything about other kinds of jurisprudence, and vice versa.  A football (soccer) match yesterday in the English Premier League offers a relevant nugget for thought.

Manchester United was leading Tottenham Hotspur 1-0, late in the match, and Spurs were not playing the game as closely as the score indicated.  A United player, Nani, went down in the Spurs penalty box after light contact by a Spurs defender, Hutton.  Nani, believing (wrongly) that he had been fouled and earned a penalty kick, reached with his hand for the ball while he was lying on the ground, rolled it about, and then took his hand off the ball — the referee not having fallen for the dive.  The assistant referee raised his flag, apparently indicating that Nani had handled the ball and that Spurs should be awarded a free kick.   The Spurs goalkeeper, Gomes, collected the ball and set i on the ground for the free kick that he believed he was entitled to, then backpedaled a few steps, to the side of the goal, to prepare himself.  The referee, watching all of this, shrugged his shoulders at the scene, apparently to indicate, “well, get on with it.”  At that point, Nani seized the initiative, stepped up, and knocked the ball into the empty net for Manchester United.  The referee indicated a goal for Man U and confirmed the ruling after consulting with the assistant referee.   Apparently the referee had never blown his whistle.

Spurs (Gomes) played what they thought to be the spirit of the game and followed the linesman’s flag.  Man U (Nani) played what athletes are universally taught to play:  the whistle, or the letter of the law (in this case, the “laws” of soccer).

The Spurs players were apoplectic.  To no avail.

The game ended 2-0 for Manchester United.

The lesson?  A just result on the match, and unjust if technically correct outcome to the play above, and for many, another reason to hate Manchester United.

5 thoughts on “The Letter of the Law, the Spirit of the Game, and All That

  1. … or, rather than further reason to hate Man U, further proof that Spurs has an institutional sense of entitlement (and forget about the rules — it’s Spurs).

    Nope. I don’t have any memory or hard feelings at all about Tottenham’s transfer and loan practices in the 1970s and 1980s, when they made George Steinbrenner look honest, generous to opponents, and acting in the best interests of the game (with, I might add, substantially less success on the pitch). For all of its faults, Man U usually backs up its arrogance on the pitch (or at least comes close).

    PS Go Tractor Boys (that is, my Premier League side has been mostly mired below the Premier League thanks to being ripped off by its owners in the early 1980s)

  2. So wait a second, neither referee saw the handball? Or did the refs think the play was over too? Seems like this is more than just a “if there’s no whistle it’s still in play” situation.

  3. It is unambiguous that both the referee and the assistant referee (the official formerly known as the linesman) saw the entire sequence clearly.

    My interpretation of what happened is that the referee saw that Gomes, Spurs’ keeper, had taken possession of the ball, to which he was equitably entitled, and that Gomes was expected to resume play — not because play had been stopped and Gomes was taking a free kick, but because play had not been stopped and Gomes had possession of the ball. Gomes momentarily abandoned the ball. Nani seized the day. Goal.

    Pierson v. Post, anyone?

    Generally, only the referee has the authority to stop play, and he/she generally does so via the whistle. I think that I’ve never experienced nor observed a situation where play was stopped on the field otherwise. From the players’ standpoint, the idea that play might be “over” on the field without a whistle being blown is an impossibility. But the laws of the game do not refer to the referee using a whistle; the laws refer to the referee stopping play (Law 5). (Of course, that phrasing itself might be clue to the respective authority of the players and the officials.) But I’d be curious to hear from others who might have had different experiences, or observations.

    Stoppages on the field and changes of possession because the ball leaves the field are handled differently. When the ball goes out of play, possession frequently changes hands, as it were, without the referee blowing a whistle. Play is not stopped by the referee.

  4. But whether the ball was in play or not in play, there was a penalty before the goal by the scoring team that was observed by the refs. What am I missing? Why is that a goal?

  5. Nani handled the ball, yes. But as with any “infringement” (the quaint language of the Laws), whether to stop play and award a free kick is in the discretion of the referee. In this case, it appears that the referee did not stop play. (That is my original “play to the whistle” observation.) The ball remained “live.”

    Some soccer fans and even some soccer players assume that a foul should be called every time that the ball touches a player’s hand or arm. That’s not the case. The language of the law is that a free kick is awarded if a player “handles the ball deliberately.” Discretion is built into the language of the law.

    Of course, here there seems to be no doubt that Nani handled the ball deliberately. Still, the longstanding interpretation of the Laws is that the referee may in his/her discretion play an “advantage” and choose not to stop play, for a host of reasons, including “the atmosphere of the match.” (I’m not suggesting that an “atmosphere” justification applies here; only that the the language suggests the breadth of the referee’s discretion.)

    So far as I can tell, video of the match isn’t available online, at least not for free (the Premier League controls that stuff pretty tightly). But I’ll speculate that the handling incident came and went so quickly — Nani handling then relinquishing the ball — that the referee thought that no free kick was necessary. Gomes then took too much time to continue play, leading to the inference (referee perhaps, but clearly Nani) that the ball was available to anyone.

    That’s the fairest thing that one could say about the referee, I think, and I’m not really convinced by my own explanation. Advantage calls of one sort or another usually happen in the blink of an eye, and the referee who plays an advantage typically indicates via some kind of motion that this is what is going on.

    What appears to have happened, really, is that the referee simply failed to act at all.

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