Within the laws of the game, which includes the directives of the overseeing body of the tournament or league, there are some rules which are new enough to be open to criticism and improvements. That is to say, no-one is asking for headers to be outlawed or for goals that go in off the post to count double. But, there are some controversial rules which don’t always sit right when implemented. Here, I am going to discuss a rule which is often overlooked as being controversial in its own right, if not in its implementation. I am talking about the ‘last man’ red card.
To be fair, this rule is nothing to do with the ‘last man’. The rule states that a red card should be issued if a foul denies a clear goal scoring opportunity. Well, the first thing to note is that whether or not a given circumstance is a clear goal-scoring opportunity is necessarily subjective and so this will always give rise to disputes. But I am, like many others are, happy enough to accept one person’s (the referee’s) judgement on this. After all, whether or not it was a foul is similarly subjective.
The interesting part of the rule to me is the punishment for such an offence. Currently, a direct free-kick, or penalty is awarded whether it was a goal-scoring opportunity or not. The consequence of it being deemed a clear goal-scoring opportunity is that the offending player is given a red card. Hmm. Is this the appropriate punishment?
The effects of this punishment are significantly different depending on various factors. For example, if the defending player commits the foul inside the area, in the first minute of the game, it is likely that he would regret the decision and thus avoid doing so in future. His team would likely be a goal down from the resulting penalty and forced to play the rest of the game with one less player. In practice, this type of scenario often all but ends the game as a contest. However, imagine the game is being lead by a single goal by the defending player’s team with seconds left to play, and that he is able to commit the foul just outside the area resulting in a free-kick which, if not converted (directly or indirectly), would usually result in his team winning the game. In this circumstance, the player would be well-advised to commit the foul, accept the one match ban and (usually) see his team win the game. This is by no means a fully representative set of examples but nonetheless illustrates the point that this punishment is not necessarily befitting of the offence.
It seems clear that a better set of rules could be enforced which would consistently punish the offence of preventing a goal-scoring opportunity. If you think about it, awarding a penalty, irrelevant of whether the offence is inside the area would be an improvement. With this, essentially the punishment for preventing a goal-scoring opportunity would be that the opposition are presented with such an opportunity anyway. It would certainly change the second scenario outlined in the previous paragraph. But is this enough? Would this still give rise to dispute?
One thing not to be overlooked is that some goal-scoring opportunities are better than others. Some goal-scoring opportunities are more likely to be converted than a penalty and some, conversely, are less likely to be. How could this be accounted for? Surely it would at some point occur that a player, who had a completely open goal from a couple of yards out would be held back and prevented from scoring. Then, the awarded penalty would be missed and his team would lose as a result, leaving an unacceptable taste of injustice in the mouths of anyone except those who stand to whence profit. The only way to be sure that the team committing the offence are sufficiently punished is with the award of a goal, or ‘penalty goal’, analogous to the penalty try awarded in rugby.
The objections to this are manifold. Firstly, there would be circumstances when the prevented opportunity was particularly difficult and the award of the penalty goal would seem overly harsh. However, would this not provide ample motivation for players to avoid making such a foul and allow their goalkeeper a chance to save the shot and even that the attacking player may waste the opportunity? Surely, if nothing else it would ensure that the calculated foul-making tactics of the second scenario discussed above do not come into play. That is to say, no player would deliberately foul a player and accept a red card in the hope that justice is not ultimately served.
The reason, I believe, that the governing bodies would not wish to implement this type of rule is it gives rise to situations where a goal is awarded without the ball being kicked, headed or somehow diverted between the posts, below the crossbar and beyond the line. In ordinary terms, we want to see the ball hit the back of the net. Possibly, an alternative would be to have a penalty in which no defensive player was allowed in the area i.e. a penalty without a keeper. But of course, this would seem downright silly as such penalties would never be missed – in which case, why bother at all. Just award the goal. Another possibility would be to have a penalty where the player was allowed to ‘pass to himself’ and effectively recreate the original goal scoring opportunity more accurately.
The question I believe we have to ask with all these possibilities is not one concerning whether they would be a perfect rule. But rather, would they be fairer than the current rule? To my mind, the best choice I can think of would be to award the penalty goal, credit the player with the original opportunity with the goal and only book or send off the offending player if it was required by some other rule e.g. a dangerous tackle worthy in itself of a red card.
No doubt this is a tough rule to get right, but the doubt is equally lacking that the current rule could easily be improved.