Sunday, June 17, 2007

Creating Discretion where there is none

I'm a soccer referee and the past month of weekends have been taken up by tournaments and regional qualifying matches for all of the local youth teams. The final regional tournament is wrapping up this afternoon, and my first game is in two hours, so I have time to write and also finish my coffee.

This afternoon, the matches are all high stakes matches, as the winners move onto the super-regionals in New Jersey, and the losers go home. I expect four great, physically brutal games where legs will go flying, shoulders will go charging, and people will be doing flips of joy and agony. I expect at least one of these games to go to double overtime followed by sudden death kicks from the mark. I expect at least two of the other games to be decided by a single goal. I expect some great soccer.

I also expect an extraordinary amount of bitching and moaning whenever the ball goes into the deep offensive zone and the penalty area as coaches and players want the referee team to give them a penalty kick. And short of a player either catching the ball like Willie Mays, or demolishing an attacker coming in for a shot, they are not going to get a penalty kick.

The referee has significant informal and expected discretion in awarding a high value remedy of the penalty kick and it is this discretion to withhold the compensation of a penalty kick for all but the highest value fouls in the box that allows the game to be played at the highest level.

Theoretically referees do not have this type of discretion. Any type of physical foul in the box should be treated the same as a physical foul at the midline. Whistle it dead, and award a direct kick from the penalty mark. [Picture from Soccer Rules the World-Cup]

For the hardest fouls, that is what happens. For everything else, referees are expected to use significant judgment that ranges from being blind to the foul, to have absolutely no depth perception as to where the foul took place in the box and therefore misjudging the distance and placing the kick from outside the box.

High level teams expect this as they know as well as the referees that in an elite level game, a penalty kick has an 80% chance of scoring and therefore it has a high probability of being the decisive goal. Therefore the PK has to be earned the hard way. Medium and low level teams, as well as frustrated teams don't remember this simple fact and they argue for a strict ruling of the laws.

If that strict ruling was adhered to, the referee would dominate the game instead of the players. Additionally, the game would be significantly weaker as teams would switch strategies to dump the ball deep, run the strikers in, establish contact with a defender, and either hope the referee is calling things extremely tight or flop to help him out. The discretion that referees use in the non-discretionary situation instead encourages teams to play creative and well-spaced midfield attacks, spread the defense out and make flash cuts into space instead of into defenders.

Today should be fun, and I'll soon be ready to become deaf to the coaches' bitching.

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