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Head-Butts When Nani Walks: A look at two different head-butt calls in the MLS

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Similar events, different outcomes.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This might be one of the easier articles I ever have to write about the Laws of the Game. I’m just going to take a minute to answer two questions.

  1. Was there a head-butt in the Orlando City FC v Colorado Rapids match on Saturday?
  2. Was Damir Kreilach’s red card for a head-butt valid?

First, a disclaimer:

I am not a PRO referee nor a professional referee. I primarily referee adult recreational and youth leagues and write software as my primary function in society. On average, I am involved in around 150 games a season, most of them U16 and older. My goal for this next year is to make my way up to a grade 6 in the USSF system. I have yet to be the center official in a professional level match. It is my goal here to look at the cards/incidents and how I feel the Laws of the Game apply to them and how I interpret those laws based on information I receive in my annual re-certifications through USSF.

If you’re interested in becoming a referee, please check this link for information on how to locate your state officiating group.

Law 12

First, we’ll start by looking at Law 12 of the IFAB Laws of the Game. This law is very aptly titled “Fouls and Misconduct”. Reading my previous post on the differences between an intentional action and a deliberate action will be of great help going through that law, but for our purpose here we really only need one part of Section 1:

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

- charges

- jumps at

- kicks or attempts to kick

- pushes

- strikes or attempts to strike (including head-butt)

- tackles or challenges

- trips or attempts to trip

If an offence involves contact it is penalized by a direct free kick or penalty kick.

Careless is when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution. No disciplinary sanction is needed

Reckless is when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent and must be cautioned

Using excessive force is when a player exceeds the necessary use of force and/or endangers the safety of an opponent and must be sent off

There isn’t a direct line drawn, but excessive force is always considered Violent Conduct:

Violent conduct is when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball, or against a team-mate, team official, match official, spectator or any other person, regardless of whether contact is made.

So it’s pretty straight forward: if a player strikes or attempts to strike another player, it’s considered violent conduct and is a sending-off offense.

The Incident in Orlando

It’s pretty clear that not once, not twice, but three times Nani makes an attempt to head-butt Kellyn Acosta. Enough attempted butts that it probably caught Tina Belcher’s attention. If we remember Law 12, it says that if you strike or attempt to strike a player, it’s violent conduct. However, it doesn’t necessarily talk about making the motion of a head-butt.

Personally, I feel that this should be called a head-butt. It doesn’t matter to me that Nani “pulls to the side” or “is controlled”, the fact is he is making the motion to hurt another player.

Kreilach’s Red

Again, it’s pretty clear that Damir Kreilach leans his head into Carlos Gruezo. While it can (maybe) be argued that the motion was part of Damir standing up, it’s a very tenuous argument. As stated before, there is little to no wiggle room in this part of the laws. Striking, attempting to strike is considered to be violent conduct and is therefore a straight red.

What I Would Have Liked to See

Unfortunately, this video doesn’t have a head-butt in it, but it does show what I would have liked to see in both cases.

Even when you don’t have VAR or a communication system, I think it’s important for the center official to always use all the resources when making a decision. If you have a communication system, it’s very easy to ask the assistant referees if they saw anything thing. If you have access to a video assistant referee, then you have the opportunity to take another look and make sure the call is right. Sometimes, it’s a matter of making the check just to be sure.

Unfortunately, the public doesn’t have access to the communication systems the referees use, but there are symbolic gestures either referee could have made. Taking a couple seconds to run over to the assistant or check the screen would have been helpful to everyone involved that may have otherwise felt as though the incidents were not given enough consideration.

In both cases I can see how and why the referee made the decisions they did, but I can also see how there’s room to make the situation better for everyone involved. Too many of these incidents in a match can cause a very, very chippy ending. I think if a slight touch is going to be a red, three attempts (contact or not) should be a red. I hope that this is something that can be corrected through the refereeing group soon.

There’s a lot more to Law 12, but I’ll save that (along with offside... woof) for another day. This was just a great opportunity to look at two different ways of looking at a similar incident.

(I think I like the idea of using song titles as the base for my article titles. This one was inspired by “Sidewalks When She Walks” by Alexisonfire.)