Restart management is difficult enough without considering the various ways that defenders could seek to play psychological tricks on both their opponents and the referee. Given that defenders are technically in a situation in which we usually say that they “have no rights,” it may surprise referees to learn that, in fact, there are ways in which the defending team can attempt to control the restart to their advantage — if they are willing to pay the price and the referee is willing to charge that price. Most referees limit their awareness to dealing with “failing to respect the required distance” (FRD). First, that is more complicated than it might appear. Second, there may be other dynamics at work here.
There is another misconduct that can be at issue here — “delaying the restart of play” (DRP). Players may seek to interfere with free kick restarts using either FRD or DRP tactics. Referees must not only be aware of that fact but must also understand the circumstances of each tactic and how that may affect the referee’s response.
An opponent commits a DRP offense by acting in a way that the restart cannot occur. That is usually taking control of the ball or throwing or kicking it away — all of which are designed to take possession of the ball away from the attacking team.
Without the ball, there can be no restart — at least not a quick one. That is so obvious that we should not have any difficulty recognizing that an immediate caution is warranted. Remember, the objective of those tactics is to prevent the attacking team from exercising its right to restart play quickly.
However, another way of creating delay involves one or more opponents taking a position in relation to the ball that unambiguously prevents a restart in any direction that might be even remotely desirable for the attacking team. That is often referred to as “the statue tactic”: an opponent stands immediately in front of the ball to prevent any further action. An example of a more sophisticated ploy that has the same effect calls for an opponent, with every appearance of innocence, to come from the side and pass in front of the ball just as the attacker is preparing to take the free kick. As above, tactics of that sort are usually so obvious that they almost seem laughable … but they are not. Merely being amused allows the defenders to achieve their goal (holding up the restart) with no compensating penalty (the caution).
It is important that referees understand DRP tactics on free kicks and not confuse them with FRD. The major difference is that, with DRP, the referee’s response should be swift and certain because the damage will already have been done.
FRD on the other hand is a tactic that seeks to interfere rather than prevent. As such it is less obvious and is designed to suck the referee into a haze of options that often achieve one objective while the referee is focused on dealing with another objective.
It begins with geometry. The distance not being respected is a 10-yard line from the ball to the wall. But it is not simply a line. It is also a set of angles defining how far to the left, to the right and above the wall the ball can be kicked without its path being stopped by an opponent. Sometimes, of course, the attackers don’t care about those angles. They may be close enough to the goal and the wall may be sloppy enough that they will try to blast the ball through the wall. No finesse, just power and luck.
But for most other free kicks, the critical elements are the angle from the ball to the left and right ends of the wall and to the top of the wall. The impact of those angles is a function of three measures: distance to the goal, number of opponents in the wall and the distance from the wall to the ball. The first two factors are out of the attacking team’s (and the referee’s) control. The third factor is defined by Law 13.
Any distance from the ball to the wall shorter than 10 yards is deemed to have unfairly (and illegally) created angles that, all other things being equal, make the scoring of a goal more difficult. Further, the shorter that distance, the greater the impact in favor of the defenders. The right to a quick free kick restart is so strong that the Law expects the referee to defer to the attackers, even though there may be a clear violation of the minimum distance, if the attackers believe that a quick restart would allow them to beat the reduced angles (for example, they see an exploitable “hole” through the wall).
Using a DRP tactic is high risk (depending on the referee’s character) because the likelihood of a caution is usually greater than with an FRD tactic (though the reward is both as great and more certain). FRD tactics force the referee to make more judgmental decisions and thus lower the probability of a caution. At the same time, by forcing the attacking team to request enforcement of the distance, the defenders may lose the objective of cutting down the angles but they still gain the benefit of delaying the restart (which may translate into the ability to bring additional defenders into the wall, thus rearranging the angles more to their benefit).
Ironically, even with the minimum distance being enforced, the defenders may not lose all of their angle reduction advantage if the referee can’t or won’t actually enforce 10 yards but, instead, lets it go at some lesser distance.
Referees should not enter the field in a competitive match if they do not understand and appreciate the tactics defenders use to gain advantages in situations, such as free kicks, where it might appear that the attackers have all the rights. Defenders will gnaw away at those rights as often as possible, to the extent the referee allows it (through ignorance or inattention), and whenever they are willing to pay the price.
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