Why playing the ball matters in a tackle

The Ristic tackle on Omar Bravo in Thursday’s game at Kansas City provided MLS’ weekly controversy and has also fueled animated debate among fans about what exactly constitutes a foul and a PK. There are a number of factors that commentators, fans, coaches, and players eagerly discuss and debate: did the tackle come from behind, was it a one- or two-footed challenge, were the studs up, how high was the tackle, was it late, did the defender get a piece of the ball? Interestingly enough, however, the FIFA Laws of the Game (available here) say nothing about these qualifiers. Follow me after the jump for a little analysis about how all of this works.


Here is the official definition of an offense penalized by a direct free kick (or a PK, if it occurs in the box), from Law 12 on Fouls and Misconduct:

A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any

of the following seven offences in a manner considered by the referee to be

careless, reckless or using excessive force:

• kicks or attempts to kick an opponent

• trips or attempts to trip an opponent

• jumps at an opponent

• charges an opponent

• strikes or attempts to strike an opponent

• pushes an opponent

• tackles an opponent


A direct free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any

of the following three offences:

• holds an opponent

• spits at an opponent

• handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own

penalty area)


It’s important to note that none of the things in the first list are in and of themselves against the rules. Odd as it may sound, kicking another player is not necessarily a foul. Any contact that isn’t ruled to be careless, reckless, or excessive, can be waved off. Tackling, for example, is obviously permissible in soccer. However, a tackle that the referee deems to be careless, reckless, or to have used excessive force, is penalized. While these three terms are vague, they’re not simply a list of adjectives describing risky tackles. As defined by FIFA, each represents one category in an escalating scale of dangerous play. Here are the guidelines provided by FIFA, not in the Laws of the Game but in the "Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees":


"Careless" means that the player has shown a lack of attention or

consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.

• No further disciplinary sanction is needed if a foul is judged to be careless

"Reckless" means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the

danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.

• A player who plays in a reckless manner must be cautioned

"Using excessive force" means that the player has far exceeded the necessary

use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.

• A player who uses excessive force must be sent off


Obviously these are only guidelines, and rather subjective ones at that. The decision is ultimately up to the referee. However, a number of factors not explicitly listed in FIFA’s official rules have come into common currency as ways of determining whether a foul has been committed and whether it was careless, reckless, or used excessive force. This is where that list I offered at the beginning of this post comes in.


Why have these factors become important? Because they are ways of observing the "care" involved in a tackle or other physical play. So even though the rules don’t mention "going for the ball" or "coming in from behind", considering these elements allows the referee to evaluate the play in question. If the player making a tackle does get to the ball, this indicates that some "care" was involved; a tackle that plays the ball is generally considered less careless or reckless than one that only takes out the opponents knees. A defender could get the ball in a careless or reckless tackle, too, and this doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be penalized. Nonetheless, taking such factors into consideration allows the ref to make a reasoned and informed decision.


I’ve argued in a few places that I think the ref made a good no-call on Ristic’s play on Bravo, but that it could have easily been called the other way and been justified. Because the Laws of the Game give so much leeway to the referee, this is often the way it goes. It seems that general opinion was split about 75-25 in favor of calling a PK, and those three-quarters have a good argument. But claiming that the tackle has to be whistled for a PK is wrong, too, because the final decision has to rest with the official. While claims that the tackle was as dangerous as those that have produced season-ending injuries this MLS season seem exaggerated, I don’t think anyone would argue that Ristic wasn’t a very, very risky play and could have easily made him MOTM for SKC.

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