There is no triple punishment, Sepp!

To the German version of the text

The myth of an alleged “triple punishment” lives on. Even FIFA President Sepp Blatter twitters about it, saying it was “upheld” in the last session of International Football Association Board (IFAB) – the guardian of the laws of the game.

To make it very clear: Nothing like a “triple punishment” was upheld, the IFAB has simply not changed the traditional and consecutive understanding of the laws of the game. In this sense, the last part of Sepp Blatter’s twitter message expresses the correct assessment of the question.

Basically, this is a good thing, since most of the recent discussion has been remarkably imprecise. Even the wording “triple punishment” clouds the argumentation and has a populist lack of conceptual clarity.

Let’s try to clear it up a bit:

If I commit a foul in the box (coincidently preventing a goal), three things have to happen:

  1. The laws of the game provide – as a game-technical result – a penalty kick against my team.
  2. As a personal punishment, I will be sent off.
  3. According to the rules of my (local and) competent association, a time-limited ban will be imposed on me.

From the perspective of law doctrine, one can have a heated discussion on the question if the three aforementioned consequences are “punishment” in the sense of their material effect. Fewest of all the game-technical result “penalty kick” is a punishment, most of all the ban imposed by the football association is one.

The game-technical result (penalty kick) does not target the player, who infringes the laws of the game. It is simply the order of how the game is to be continued, after it was interrupted due to the foul. Thus, it is not “punishment”. Culpability or expiation is not involved; it merely outlines how to proceed with the game. And if the defense player did not manage to commit his professional foul in a timely manner and outside of the box, the consequence will be a penalty kick, because he simply fouls in the penalty box and that would lead to a direct free kick everywhere else on the pitch. Even according to the wording this is not a sanction, it is a “free kick”. This kick is “free”, because one receives it without contribution, just for the reason that the other team breaks the rules. The same applies to the “penalty kick”, although its name implies something else. At least in the German colloquial language the “penalty kick” has lost its potential character as a punishment for years, after being named “Elfmeter” (spot kick) – focusing more on the distance of the spot from the goal line. Moreover, the penalty kick was never meant to be a punishment historically. Its name obviously serves the purpose of describing its specific dangerousness, namely the highly increased likelihood of scoring a goal out of it. Hence, it is doctrinally an antecedent to a “technical goal”, known from other sports. It fulfills compensation of the violation of the laws of the game by the opposing team, however it does not fulfill expiation purposes. Consequently, a penalty kick is also a mere game-technical consequence.

The personal punishment for the player must be sharply divided from that. Herein, the personal misconduct of the player is sanctioned by the rules. This punishment is almost always based on culpability and expiates the breach of the rules against the opposing team. This punishment has general- as same as special-preventive aspects: The specific player cannot commit further violations of the rules in the respective match and generally the other players realize that unfair behavior is not accepted but sanctioned by the laws of the game: If you behave badly, you are no longer allowed to play with the others. Thus, they will avoid breaches of the rules in the future.

The next consequence is the ban of the player, who was sent off in the match, according to the statutes and regulations of the football association, in whose jurisdiction the match was carried out. For this consequence, starting point is the incident of the sent-off itself. However, valuation standard for the disciplinary proceedings is the actual behavior that ultimately lead to the sent-off. The sent-off and the subsequent ban are combined to an over-all punishment, consisting of several acts; the sent-off merges in the subsequent ban. This punishment shall animate the guilty player to rule-compliant – or ideally fair – behavior in the future. After all, this is the case for every sent-off, not only for those sent-offs being imposed due to a professional foul. This is no “double punishment”. Either one can understand the sent-off as a temporary ban until its final valuation in the association proceedings, or one can accept this fact as an allowed coexistence of disciplinary competence (like an ad-hoc exclusion from a competition after three false starts) and punishment competence of the respective associations. The severity of the misdoing can be taken into account during the subsequent disciplinary proceedings by the bodies of the football association. This means, that the player can be banned for a reasonable period according to his offence: In extraordinary cases he even can be acquitted. If he commits a “normal” professional foul – not jeopardizing the opponent’s health by holding onto his jersey for instance – a relatively short-time exclusion can be imposed to him, while a brutal attack must lead to a significantly longer ban. Anyway, even having the sum of all these consequences on my mind, I cannot identify any injustice here.

However surprising the insight may be that irregular behavior will lead to considerable consequences: this has nothing to do with “triple punishment”. Every foul that requires a sent-off brings the consequences described above. It might be a reasonable recommendation to play according to the rules, if one would seek to avoid negative consequences. That early sent-offs due to professional fouls would destroy “great games” or even “football itself”, is not apparent to me: We have seen several great fights of shorthanded teams, which have made a great match regardless of the reduction of team and even could win.