Rules versus Discretion in Soccer a.k.a. Football

It has been pointed out that the only thing funnier than “someone who never played the game” trying to improve soccer is someone who calls football “soccer”. Admittedly, the nomenclature I use is endogenous to my audience, but that is neither here nor there.

The rules of football are perfectly distilled examples of the merits of rules versus discretion in optimal policy. Historically, the “laws of the game” codified by FIFA was a relatively sparse tomb that made copious use of the phrase “in the opinion of the referee”. This reliance on referee discretion has contributed as much to the evolving game as globalization, nutrition, and greater athleticism. YouTube is a wonderful place to watch footage of older matches and stare aghast as the world’s very best players try to shatter each other’s tibias and femurs every few minutes. (Brief digression: to really appreciate this, watch this collection of George Best dribbling and note how to succeed at dribbling at any time meant the opposition would inevitably try to break his legs). As our cultural norms have shifted, away from preferences for ultraviolence on fields of play, so too have the enforcement norms amongst football referees. This is at the margin, mind you, with many inframarginal fans and participants left indignant by the cowardice imposed on the game.

I previously questioned the overreliance of the game on referee discretion, much the way I sometimes questioned discretion in monetary policy. My views on monetary policy have shifted somewhat away from pure rules commitment, in part because of what I have viewed in football, and the introduction of a massive institutional shift away from discretion in two dimensions has been nothing sort of disastrous for the experience of both watching and playing a high-level professional game. The introduction of Video Assisted Replay (VAR) and its application to the enforcement of 1) Offsides and 2) Handball infractions has changed not just how the game is optimally played, but the entire emotional arc of observing and playing the game.

  1. Offsides
Premier League are considering removing the drawn lines when using VAR for offside calls

The offsides rule is quickly defined as such: you may only pass the ball to a player who has between themselves and the goal either i) the ball or ii) two opposition players. The two player bit always confuses people until they remember that the goalkeeper counts as a player.

The rule is, historically speaking, revealing in its continued structure. First, it is on its face silly that they’ve never changed the rule to “one non-goalkeeper between the player and the goal” and make an already cognitively challenging rule to monitor that much easier to enforce. It seems like the kind of rule change easily smuggled in with little opposition, not unlike eliminating offsides for throw-ins, which happened roughly a century ago. Second, there has always been a looseness to what body parts can place a player offsides – in a sport where hands cannot be used, it seems odd that they might shift the imagined lines.

For the purposes of this discussion, what matters is that what might seem a rule with little gray area was actually rife with two forms of important discretion. First, the already alluded to application to body parts. Second, given that a linesmen 40 yards from the middle of the pitch must track the ball and players often 50 yards from it, the triangle of vision they must manage simply does not allow for fine-grained analysis. They’re not tracking limbs, they’re tracking center mass, and barely at that. All of this adds up to enforcement guided by the discretion of the referee and the norms that inform them. Those key norms over time boiled down to 1) Even is onside, 2) When in doubt, the benefit is given to the attacking player, 3) the only parts that should matter are those that can play the ball i.e. flailing arms don’t count. Defensive lines were welcome to play an offside trap i.e. a high line with a governing centerback managing the line and yelling “step!” when a key offensive player might be put in an offside position. But such a strategy came with the risk of relying on a cognitively overwhelmed linesman not leaving your hapless goalkeeper one-on-one against a marauding forward.

VAR was erroneously introduced on the false premise that the weakness of offsides enforcement was the fuzziness of observation when, in fact, the entire institution was predicated on that fuzziness. Without that fuzziness, the advantage shifts strongly to the defensive player(s) because they are facing the passer, giving them the half-second to step forward, placing the offensive player offsides. Such a strategy was too much of a gamble before – placing a player 3 inches offside was sufficiently unlikely to be acknowledged, and goals too scarce, to warrant frequent reliance. Further, as it turns out, the “even is on” norm is critical to offensive counter-attacking. Which leads to the single greatest error in the introduction of VAR: the comically thin 1-pixel lines with which positioning is assessed. Presented with the fallacy that video technology could assess position with <1inch precision, “even is on” ceased to exist because effectively no two players would ever be deemed even. Without additional explication, I will simply note that assessing when a pass was executed is sufficiently fuzzy that <1 inch precision is not on offer.

How to fix it

It’s actually fairly simple in this case – you reconstruct VAR to mimic the ideal referee of the past. You make the lines wider. If those lines overlap at all, the players are deemed even. The system should either a) assign the body parts that are relevant to the rule and make the lines 6-10 centimeters wide or, b) construct the lines at center mass and make them 15-25 centimeters wide. In this manner, we get the best of both worlds – the key elements revealed by 100 years of discretionary enforcement and the uniformity of computational augmentation.

2. Handball

FIFA's takeover of the handball law has led to greater controversy and uncertainty

There is this silly posture that players now frequently assume, with their arms hidden behind their backs, as they try to move about athletically without the balance of their arms (it’s really hard, try it some time). This posture is a product of the rule that any violation inside the your defensive penalty box results in a penalty kick which results in a goal roughly ~70% of the time. That’s a very high value event when fixtures average fewer than 3 total goals per game, and is actually even higher value when you consider that scoring opportunities are endogenous to the current score i.e. teams are more conservative with a lead.

In case you did not know, you can’t use your hands, or arms, in football. You’d be within your rights to imagine that players have always gone about pegging the ball at the other teams arms when in the penalty box, trying to draw penalty kicks. You’d have been largely wrong though, for the simple reason that referees have historically been reluctant to reward such tactics. Under the loosely codified rubric of intent of action, proximity to the strike of the ball that eventually contacted their arm, awareness of the ball, or other such language, referees repeatedly made it clear that the penalty they least desired to award was one for a nebulous handball.

VAR stepped in, along with some mind-bogglingly stupid reinterpretation of the handball rule and said “Nope, if it touches the defending player’s arm in the box, it’s a penalty, and absolute chaos ensued. professional players quickly realized that any outstretched arm was to be chipped at and any leaping defender was to be collided with, in the hopes of producing a random arm-ball contact and, in turn, seven-tenths of a goal. Everyone hated it.

So what went wrong? Once again, it’s a case where the equilibrium of the game had evolved to entirely depend on discretion. The penalty box, and its single-sanction system for violations, was designed to deter teams for being overzealous in defense, and give attacking teams fair opportunity to score. That single-sanction, however, was so strong, that it only held in equilibrium through its discretionary, and therefore unpredictable, application by the referee. Sure, it’s arguably the single most powerful referee tool in major sports, but given that soccer is the most popular sport in the world, it certainly warrants respect as a stable second-best solution.

When VAR robbed the institution of its discretionary fuzziness, however, the equilibrium was shattered and the combination of a single-sanction system with a rule that cannot be perfectly complied with, well, the game was sent into minor chaos. The de factor rules had shifted so rapidly and so completely that neither players nor fans understood what was happening. Everyone was thinking more about if and when balls were in contact with arms than if and when it might go in the net. That’s not the ideal equilibrium for a sport, particularly if you’d prefer highlights that are more than penalty kicks (which make for exceedingly boring viewing).

How to fix it

There’s no getting rid of the handball rule. There’s no way to eliminate random contact with arms/hands. There’s no way to adjudicate intent well. If you can’t change the rule and you can’t change the monitoring quality, there’s only one thing left to do: change the punishment. Football should walk away from the single-sanction system.

Indirect free kicks from the spot of the handball

Why Indirect free kicks in the penalty box?

  1. They offer lower expected value than penalties,
  2. The expected value that does emerge reflects the ability of both teams, rather than just the shooter and goalkeeper.
  3. They sneak in a little bit of referee discretion when they identify the spot of the foul i.e. location determines value.
  4. They are fun as hell.

Which obviously brings me to monetary policy

Classic arguments about rules versus discretion are typically about constitutional constraints of elected and appointed officials. Maybe the most salient to our modern lives is how the Federal Reserve should go about it’s policy of increasing or decreasing the money supply i.e. what is the optimal amount of inflation? Regardless of what that number might be, or whether it should be adjusted with the assessed stage of the business cycle, the underlying argument is really about whether or not the targeted number should be chosen by people or set by a rule to which we are bound by a codified pre-commitment.

I myself was once a hard line “rules” person, or at least as hard line as one can be without being a monetary economist by field or training (for an informed opinion, ask this guy). Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate that rules only work if we know what we are doing when we set them and if we can credibly commit to them. These are big “if’s”. The reality is that there is no such thing as a “pure rule” setting – some amount of discretion is always baked in. If you can’t identify exactly where the status quo discretion is, or, more importantly, why we arrived at the current equilibrium level of discretion, you should proceed with extreme caution. You may find that the discretion you didn’t know was there was the only thing keeping the system afloat this whole time.

One thought on “Rules versus Discretion in Soccer a.k.a. Football

  1. Tony February 4, 2021 / 8:46 am

    I realise that I’m missing the point of your post but the rules of Association Football are determined by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) rather than FIFA. FIFA is represented on the IFAB along with the four UK national associations.

    Also “soccer” helps to distinguish Association Football from other forms of football e.g. Rugby Football aka “rugger”. Maybe Dr Makowsky attended an English public school where the term “soccer” was in common use.

    It may not be a coincidence that the Laws of the Game were originally drawn up in a pub in London not far from a very successful financial district regulated largely by “Dictum Meum Pactum”.


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