‘Spitting fines for footballers’ was the headline in a national newspaper a few weeks ago. The story behind the headline was that Enfield Borough Council has passed a bye law under section 235 of the Local Government Act that stated that ‘no person is permitted to spit in, into or from any relevant public space including all of the borough’s parks and open spaces’. Of course fines for spitting are nothing new, I’m sure older readers will remember when all Reading buses carried a notice banning spitting with the threat of a £5 fine because I think it was believed to spread TB.
Enfield’s new bye law would probably have gone unheralded had it not been for the letter that the council sent to all football clubs in the area. It asked them to remind their players that the council’s litter patrol staff had the authority to prosecute anyone they witnessed spitting. This provoked outrage from the local clubs calling it ridiculous, laughable and unenforceable. Local television even wheeled out football coaches who claimed it was impossible to play football with out spitting because of the high energy involved. If that’s the case I wonder why we never see tennis players spit on court.
Spitting is of course mentioned in the Laws of the Game, in fact it has a rather unique position. I say that because there are ten offences for which a direct free kick is awarded and seven for which a player can be sent off and spitting is the only one that appears in both categories. Perhaps I better explain that. Not every direct free offence is also a sending off offence and not every sending off offence is also punished by a direct free kick. If for instance a player was to use abusive or insulting language whilst the ball was in play, the referee should stop the game and send the player off but it would be restarted with an indirect free kick. If a player pushes an opponent it is a direct free kick but unlikely to result in a sending off. Even kicking an opponent is not necessarily a sending off offence. If it was done as part of a tackle and with excessive force then the player would be sent off for Serious Foul play. If a kick was made not as part of a tackle, then it could be Violent Conduct, which is a sending off offence.
Where spitting is different is that if a player spits at an opponent whilst the ball is in play, it is a direct free kick offence but also a sending off offence in its own right. The point is of course that it is not spitting as envisaged by Enfield’s Littler Patrol; to be a direct free kick offence in football it has to be at an opponent. The spit doesn’t actually have to hit the opponent it just has to be directed at him or her. Spitting as a sending off offence is a little wider because it includes spitting at anyone not just another player. That could include the referee, his assistants, club officials or even spectators. I recall seeing a professional player spit at a spectator, who had been baiting him when he went to collect a ball that had gone out of play.
Spitting was introduced into the Laws of the Game in 1997, the same year as denying a goal scoring opportunity was also made a sending off offence. It was after a Manchester United player was seen on television to spit into the face of an opponent as they left the field. The footballing authorities were shocked and disgusted but unlike Enfield Borough Council, they have never tried to stop spitting altogether.