Week 12 of the Barclays Premier League was full of controversial refereeing decisions. From Wes Brown's sending off for Sunderland to Kevin Mirallas' yellow card for Everton in the Merseyside derby, it wasn't a comfortable weekend to be a referee.
Whenever an incident happens on the field, every fan expects the referee to make the correct decision. Yet referees don't have the benefit of slow-motion instant replays, and have only their assistant referees with whom they can consult for input. Often times, the referee's view of an incident is not ideal, and can be blocked by other players. Yet they are expected to get decisions correct every time.
With the benefit of instant replays, it is often much easier to make those decisions. Should Wes Brown have been sent off for Sunderland? No. Should Kevin Mirallas have been red carded for his horrible tackle on Luis Suarez? Absolutely.
What makes a referee's job more difficult, though, is that the vast majority of fans (and even some professional players, coaches and analysts!) do not fully understand the laws of the game.
Case in point: Arsenal's penalty kick in their game against Southampton.
After a Tomas Rosicky corner kick was delivered into Southampton's penalty area, referee Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot. His reason was that Southampton defender Jose Fonte pulled the jersey of Arsenal's Per Mertesacker. Replays showed that Fonte did indeed have a handful of Mertesacker's jersey, that he impeded the German international from reaching the ball. Clattenburg was absolutely correct to award a penalty kick.
Yet it didn't stop the inevitable outcry on Twitter.
Fans voiced their opinions, which ranged from "That's never a PK - referees always let that go!" to "The ball was behind Mertesacker - need to take that into account!" to "Glad to see a referee finally call that - happens all the time!"
Regardless of your opinion as a fan of the beautiful game, the FIFA laws of the game are very clear on what constitutes a foul, and in particular, a direct free kick. Consider the following from FIFA:
The following conditions must be met for an offence to be considered a foul:
• it must be committed by a player
• it must occur on the field of play
• it must occur while the ball is in play
Group of Four
• tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball
• holds an opponent
• spits at an opponent
• handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)
For this group of four direct free kicks fouls, the referee is concerned with whether the action occurred, not with how it was done.
For fouls in this group of four, the FIFA laws of the game require the following action to be taken:
• restart with a direct free kick for the opposing team where the offence occurred
• exception: if the offence was committed by a defender inside his own penalty area
• penalty kick for the attacking team
The laws of the game are very clear. Pulling a jersey (holding an opponent) is not allowed and is punishable with a direct free kick, or a penalty kick if the offence occurs within the penalty area. Mark Clattenburg was absolutely spot on to call a penalty in Arsenal's favour.
Fans (as well as players, coaches and anyone else who watches the game) would do well to familiarize themselves with FIFA's laws of the game. Some of your preconceived ideas about how the game is officiated might actually turn out to be completely false.