UEFA's Euro 2024 rule change is meant to help referees - but it risks throwing them under the bus instead

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Only captains will be allowed to talk to referees at Euro 2024 - but while it’s a good rule to introduce, the timing could be terrible.

With one month to go until the opening match between Germany and Scotland, UEFA have decided to announce a sudden change to the rules for Euro 2024 – only captains will now be allowed to discuss decisions with referees during a game, with other players to be booked if they try to join in the conversation. On paper, it sounds like a perfectly good idea, but its last-minute introduction at a major tournament may just end up throwing referees under the bus. Again.

UEFA has said that it wants to stop teams from “mobbing” officials and generating scenarios that are “bad for the image of football.” The announcement added that it hoped asking all teams to allows only one player to approach referees would allows officials to communicate their decisions more effectively.

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This isn’t a new idea, by any means – IFAB, the body who set the game’s rules, were working on it as far back as 2016 and had been trialling a new version of the rule since the beginning of this year, but while the concept may not be without precedent it’s still bizarre to debut it in earnest at such a massive event, and doing so may well water its impact down.

Players have, for years now, been used to being able to get in the referee’s face with impunity – and it’s fair to assume that, in the heat of the moment in what may be the biggest games of many players’ careers, some of them will forget about the new rule and crowd the referee as they always have done. They are conditioned to do it at this point. And that’s going to put referees in an extremely tight spot.

Every time a controversial decision is made and the players mob the referee, the officials will suddenly be faced with a decision – either book half of a team at the same time, quite possibly dishing out a red card or two in the process, and risk completely derailing a game by making the ‘correct’ decision as far as the letter of the law is concerned, or just issue a few stern words and wave players away without punishment. The latter, of course, is what happens 99% of the time now, and it’s likely to become the default given the importance of the games in question.

Referees, contrary to popular opinion, don’t generally want to make huge, game-altering calls, especially if it involves handing out cards for what amount to technicalities rather than, say, bone-shattering tackles in high-stakes matches. Now, they are likely to be forced to take big decisions which affect multiple players at a time. If one player too many joins in the ‘debate’ over a decision, it shouldn’t be too problematic – but pity the referee who is put in a position where the rules suddenly ask them to book half a dozen players at once.

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Put in that position, there probably won’t be a single official in the tournament who would actually pull the trigger on booking an entire team – they would be all but forced to revert to ‘common sense’, a decision which would be perfectly reasonable whilst inadvertently undermining the next referee who needs to dish out one or two yellow cards for the offence in a slightly less charged moment.

As soon as one referee backs down from making a big call – a game-changing second yellow or a mass booking event – it makes it harder for the next referee to make it. This wouldn’t be the first initiative intended to reduce dissent which petered out. Remember, for instance, the Premier League instructing referees to issue a yellow for all instances of dissent back in 2008, which led to a brief flurry of early-season bookings before it was quietly given up on.

None of which means the rules is inherently a bad idea – it works very well in rugby union, for instance, and the way players treat officials is genuinely disgusting at almost all levels of the game – but it surely is a bad idea to ask both referees and players to completely change the way they interact after years of conditioning in matches which carry such high stakes. It makes the whole thing harder for referees to enforce. It’s one thing for a referee to become the ‘bad guy’ and make a massive call which turns a match in an early season game in League Two. It’s another to ask them to do in a European Championship knock-out match.

And UEFA does not have the best track record with these pre-tournament rules experiments. Back in 2008 (apparently a banner year for poorly-enforced and short-lived refereeing changes), they similarly told referees to take a zero-tolerance approach to pushing and shoving in the penalty area from set pieces – again telling players and officials alike to undo years of conditioning at the last minute ahead of a massive tournament.

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Most players just carried on nudging and shirt-tugging as they had done for their entire careers, and most referees carried on ignoring them because they didn’t want to give penalties which would appear incredibly harsh in massive games. The one exception was Howard Webb, who gave a late penalty against Poland in a group-stage game against Austria. Publicly, UEFA backed him in the face of death threats and protests from the Polish government – but Webb wasn’t selected to take charge of any knock-out games afterwards. Cowed and given good cause to be afraid of following suit, other referees decided to let Webb become the first and last referee to follow UEFA’s mandate and the whole thing was quietly forgotten about afterwards.

It’s worth noting that the rule UEFA now wants to enforce appears to be different from the one being trialled this year by IFAB too – that trial was situational, allowing referees to determine when the captain should be the only one to talk to them by declaring that rule to be in effect via a hand signal. That gives officials a bit of wiggle room, doesn’t ask them to book the one player who gets a bit too enthusiastic, and gives players a chance to back down in potential ‘mob’ situations before the cards fly.

The concept at stake here is a sensible one, and worth persisting with – but it remains bizarre that the commitment to it comes so late in the day ahead of such a big tournament. It will put referees on the spot and force them to make big calls which will inevitably generate controversy in huge matches, and that can’t help the rule’s chance of survival. Refereeing these games is quite hard enough with a substantial paradigm shift with a month’s notice.

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