Many pieces of football legislation have come under a lot of scrutiny, particularly in recent years since the introduction of slow-motion replays, multiple camera angles and the like. Numerous rules of the game have gone under the microscope whether simply amongst fans or amongst football’s governing bodies and the powers that be.
Deciding what constitutes a foul in a particular circumstance has been a regular visitor to the slab of examination and discussion in the world of football and as the game has developed and evolved over the years, so have the rules of what constitutes foul play.
What would be considered a bookable offence 10 years ago is now a straight red card and free kicks are now awarded for challenges of minimal contact. But while the laws on what constitutes a foul seem to be continually changing (in practice at least), part of the rule for awarding penalties has gone untouched.
During Porto’s impressive 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich this week, Colombian striker Jackson Martínez won a penalty for the home side’s first goal. After dispossessing last-man Xabi Alonso, Martínez then looked to round Manuel Neuer, but after knocking the ball away from the German keeper, the striker went down under apparent contact.
There is and always will be debate about whether the contact Martínez received from Neuer was enough to bring him down, to put him off balance, or to warrant a foul of any kind, but the debate I wish to raise – which is one that tends to go completely unnoticed during many penalty decisions – is whether or not Martínez still had control of the ball.
The point is, that as Martínez knocked the ball away from the grasp of the Bayern keeper, he kicked it far enough away from himself that he had very little chance of actually retaining the ball and indeed scoring, as the incoming Dante was almost certainly going take possession regardless of whether Martínez was on his feet or not.
Whether a player or team is still in possession of the ball is taken into consideration by referees when they are deliberating over a red card decision but I argue that it is something that should be considered during these kinds of incidents, too.
Many fouls that result in penalties are easy to analyse; an attacking player is brought down by a defender after a mistimed challenge or an ugly tackle and everyone agrees that a penalty should be awarded. But there are some instances, like during the Porto-Bayern match where the decision shouldn’t be such a simple one.
Another example of where this happened recently was during Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Liverpool earlier this month. Hector Bellerin brought down Raheem Sterling in the box and the Merseyside club were awarded a penalty. While there’s no question that Bellerin did enough to bring Sterling down, it was certain that when the challenge occurred, the former QPR youngster was no longer in control of the ball and had effectively lost possession.
Anticipating a challenge, Sterling knew he just needed to get a touch on the ball, to get it away from the outstretched toe of the Arsenal man, it didn’t matter where the ball went, it just had to steer clear of touching Bellerin. So what Sterling did was just boot the ball out of play. He had zero intention or chance of crossing, shooting or keeping hold of possession, all he was doing was trying to get the final touch so that a tackle couldn’t be claimed.
While this is completely within the rules of the game, it feels unjust. Sure, the laws state that a foul can be committed on a player who isn’t in control of the ball, but it seems ridiculous that Arsenal were punished so heavily when Liverpool had effectively lost possession before the incident in question. Bellerin did not prevent Sterling from getting to the ball after all, Sterling was no longer in control.
If Sterling had attempted to stay in control of the ball, perhaps Bellerin would have been able to make the tackle, and the same could arguably be said for Manuel Neuer, but all that mattered was the Liverpool man got a touch on the ball first, regardless of where it ended up (Row Z would be fine apparently).
Too many times do we see goalkeepers coming out to meet onrushing attackers, only for the attacker to knock the ball away from them, regardless of direction or level of control and then continue to run into the keeper and claim a foul. To me, there is air of unsportsmanlike behaviour about it. It’s a difficult one to examine but something just doesn’t seem right, particularly these days when we see players moving their legs towards defenders to try and simulate contact.
If the challenge on the attacker – whether he is still in control of the ball or not – is particularly rash, ugly or dangerous, then a penalty should be awarded, but in this writer’s opinion, that shouldn’t be the case if the challenge in question is simply a case of minimal contact (which they usually are).
Implementing a rule change to try to combat this wouldn’t be without its difficulties. So many rules in football come down to the personal judgement of the referee and the Martínez incident on Wednesday would be tough to judge without a replay. Would Dante have definitely got to the ball before Martínez? It’s difficult to say for sure without a second look, but the Sterling incident (along with many others) was far easier to judge, there was simply no way that he was getting to that ball.
Perhaps in specific circumstances such as these, whether the attacker is still in possession of the ball should be taken into consideration. Of course it will always be something that won’t be possible to judge with 100% accuracy but aside from goal-line technology, is anything in football?
Maybe it would be an overreaction to a very small problem, or maybe the problem doesn’t exist at all because it’s completely legal. Still, taking control of the ball into consideration when making these decisions is something to think about for the powers that be.