One of the most unedifying sights in present day football is the grappling of opponents at corners or when free kicks are played into the penalty area. The PGMO which controls Premier League referees are issuing a statement and DVD to clubs on this topic this month. You have to ask, what are they going to say?
Firstly, there can be no doubt that it is a foul. Law 12 says, ‘A direct free kick will be awarded if a player holds an opponent,’ with the further explanation, ‘Holding an opponent includes the act of preventing him from moving past or around, using the hands, arms or the body.’ This takes in shirt or short pulling and grabbing hold of opponents and dragging them to the ground. The problem from a referee’s point of view is how to spot it and how to stop it.
When you see the replays on television it all seems so obvious, players with their arms all around their opponents, holding them back, pulling them down, so why don’t referees spot it? There is however a video that I would like all doubters to watch. It shows two small groups of players in a small room both with a basketball. One team has to bounce their ball to a team mate and the other group pass their ball in the air. Viewers are asked to count the number of time the balls are bounced or thrown. During this exercise something extraordinary happens on the video but at the end when the viewers are asked if they have seen it, they all invariably say no. The reason they didn’t see it is that they were focused on watching the ball. This is the same reason why referees often don’t see the pulling and holding, because they are concentrating on the ball, where the real action should be and miss all the off-the-ball behaviour.
How can it be stopped?
The instructions to referees in the Laws of the Game, are first to warn any players holding an opponent before the kick is taken. If the holding continues before the ball is in play, then the player must be cautioned. If it happens once the ball is in play, then the free kick or penalty kick should be given and the player concerned shown the yellow card. This will probably mean watching those players and not following the ball for a short time. The classic example of this was in the 2008 European Championship, when Howard Webb warned Poland’s Mariusz Lewandowski who took no notice and as the ball came over pulled his Austrian opponent to the ground. Webb rightly gave the penalty to Austria which enabled them to draw the match. Although it was the only decision he could give, the Polish were enraged and death threats were made. Webb and his assistants were given an armed police escort and he was removed from the tournament before the knock out stage.
This highlights the other major obstacle, the attitude of clubs. Remember how earlier this season, Michael Oliver gave a penalty when Ryan Shawcross of Stoke quite clearly pulled down Swansea’s Wilfred Bony. Their manager, Mark Hughes claimed that holding had always gone on and that Shawcross had been unfairly penalised because of previous media coverage. He claimed that the only other players referees had penalised were those pulling back opponents who looked likely to score. I have not seen the proposed DVD, which ironically has a voice-over by Howard Webb, but I hope it makes clear that holding any opponent and not just those prevented from scoring, is a foul, and will be penalised when ever seen by the referee. And just as important, that any referee doing so, will be fully backed up.