A yellow card just for talking to the ref? Soccer’s big leap at Euro 2024

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Being a referee at a major international soccer tournament is an easy job, said no one, ever, or at least not accurately.

But for the beleaguered arbiters in the middle, taking control of a high-stakes game featuring passionate soccer stars with all their fiery emotions, may be about to get a tiny bit simpler.

This summer’s European Championships will feature a fascinating shift in refereeing policy, that essentially permits the only verbal contact between players and refs to come through a team’s captain.

If it works as intended, it could have a dramatic effect on the game, and the way certain aspects of it look.

“Explaining a decision with up to 22 players mobbing you is impossible for a referee,” UEFA managing director of refereeing Roberto Rosetti wrote in an open letter released this week. “It can lead to a breakdown in communication, with the beautiful game turning very ugly very quickly, which, everyone agrees, is bad for the image of football.”

Scenes where groups of irate players swarm around a hapless referee have routinely formed one of the most uncomfortable images in modern soccer.

The new idea where only the captain can engage in dialogue with the official borrows heavily from the sport of rugby, where the skipper is the primary conduit of information with those in charge. That method has helped rugby retain an expected level of two-way respect during games, which usually holds true, despite the inherent physicality of the sport and, frankly, the imposing size of some the players.

UEFA’s decision is a major step for soccer, and potentially a transformational one. If it works well, it would be no surprise to see it adopted universally. The concept is that not only will the captain enter discussions with the referee over certain calls in real time, but also be held accountable for controlling his players.

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“We ask that all teams ensure their captain is the only player who speaks to the referee,” Rosetti added. “We ask the captain to ensure their teammates do not encroach upon and surround the referee, allowing direct conversations to take place in order that the decision be relayed in a timely and respectful manner.”

Players who do not “keep their distance’ will be subject to an immediate yellow card. In the case where a team’s captain is also their goalkeeper, an outfield player will be listed as the refereeing contact before the game.

FOX Sports soccer analyst Alexi Lalas looks at it as a gradual process of behavioral change. 

“They’ve tried to curtail mass confrontation, that’s been one of those things where you have players constantly surrounding and pressuring the ref,” Lalas told me, via telephone. “It is almost a custom and a tradition and it is a little untoward. I have friends who literally cringe at this kind of ganging up and back and forward. 

“When you try to bring something new in it is possible that you may have a period of complete mayhem at first. Players are creatures of habit and you could be giving out multiple yellow cards in the space of five seconds to several people. Unless the referees are really prepared to hold firm and actually do that, then the whole thing might fall on deaf ears.”

UEFA appears determined to make this work. UEFA refereeing staff visited and met with each of the 24 qualified teams in the build-up to the event to explain the intention and implementation of how things should function.

At a month-long preparation camp currently underway, referees will be instructed that  extra responsibility now falls upon them, to clearly and calmly provide extra information about the thought process behind their decisions to the captains.

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The basic premise is that clarity leads to a greater level of understanding, and less emotionally heated responses and antipathy towards the officials.

It will be a challenge. The pace of the modern game, the complexity of evolving rules and the added presence of VAR presets more nuances than at any time in the game’s history. UEFA research estimates that between 200 and 250 decisions per match, one every 22 seconds, all with ever-present television cameras from multiple angles.

Players, especially in the heat of the moment, have become accustomed to showing their indignation when decision go against them. This is the first step in trying to get that under control.

“This is about protecting the image of the game,” Rosetti added. “Unacceptable players behavior is a problem for the officials. We will be strong with mobbing and clear dissent.”

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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