The ambiguity of taking free kicks
Former Reading goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy who was transferred to Queens Park Rangers earlier this season, made his debut for his new club against Liverpool. It probably wasn’t the debut he wanted for his new team lost 3-2. No blame could be attributed to McCarthy however, as two of the goals were put past him by his own team mates. The first one interested me because it arose after the referee had awarded a disputed free kick to Liverpool, just outside the penalty area on McCarthy’s left hand side. The QPR defenders were still protesting to the referee with their backs to the ball, when a Liverpool player quickly took the free kick. The ball played across the QPR goalmouth caused a panic resulting in an own goal.
The taking of free kicks is something of an ambiguity for referees. The Law is unequivocal in its wording. ‘The ball must be stationary. The kick must be taken from where the offence occurred and all opponents must be 9.15 metres (10 yards) from the ball. A player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he fails to respect the distance.’ If you read that, you may feel that at every free kick, the referee must ensure that all opponents are ten yards from the ball before he indicates the restart and any who don’t retreat will be cautioned. However in the interpretations in the back of The Laws of the Game, the situation is seen somewhat differently. Under the heading of distance it says, ‘If a player decides to take a free kick quickly and an opponent who is less than ten yards from the ball decides to intercept it, the referee must allow play to continue’. In fact, the International FA Board are keen for free kicks to be taken quickly. It helps speed up play, making the game more entertaining for spectators. What’s more, it says that the whistle need not be used for free kicks except when the appropriate distance is required, for example at the wall, or when the kick is delayed for other reasons such as substitutions.
What this means for the members of the offending team is that they must keep their wits about them and not act as the QPR players did, turning their backs on the ball. Does this mean from the referee’s point of view, that he can ignore the part of the law which says he must caution any opponent who has not retreated the required ten yards? Well not quite. The interpretations also say that if a player decides to take a free kick quickly and an opponent who is near the ball deliberately prevents him taking the kick, the referee must caution the opponent for delaying the start of play. I was pleased to see referee Phil Dowd do just that when a Liverpool player stood on the ball at a QPR free kick. So often we see players get away with it in the professional game so that when I warn players about it at my level, they think I am making it up.
Of course, in the professional game, not only are they encouraged to do it, they are actually taught to do it. Alan Shearer when commenting for BBC’s Match of the Day 2 on the incident at the QPR v Liverpool game congratulated the Liverpool player for his action. ‘So he got a yellow card,’ he said, ‘at least he stopped QPR taking a quick free kick giving his team mates time to reorganise’. Once again we have pundits on the BBC telling their audience, including young players, that it’s alright to cheat and to hell with the consequences. Surely we have the right to expect better.