The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup has seen Australians unite behind football like never before – in fact, on 16 August 2023, the Matildas and the Lionesses produced the most watched television show in Australia on record.
Those who have tuned in over the past month would likely agree that, for better or worse, the referees and other officials have at times had as much of an impact on the outcome of a match as the athletes themselves.
There have been quite a number of consequential on-field decisions, to name but a few: red cards have been awarded to key players, including to England’s star striker Lauren James for stepping on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie, and to Jamaica’s Captain, Khadija Shaw, for a tackle during the 92nd minute of Jamaica’s group-stage draw against France. A foul by Wendie Renard later denied France a crucial goal in the 100th minute of its quarter-final against the Matildas, and who could forget the impact of the video assistant referee’s (VAR’s) use of goal-line technology (GLT) to rule that Lina Hurtig’s penalty kick had crossed the goal-line, knocking out the four-time champions USA in the round of 16.
Those that are on the unlucky side of a match-altering decision can be left feeling an extreme sense of injustice. Following the weekend’s final matches of the tournament, which saw heartbreak for the English Lionesses and Australian Matildas, but absolute elation for the Spanish ‘La Roja’ champions, this article takes a look at whether (sometimes controversial) on-field decisions can be challenged after the clock has stopped.
Laws of the Game, Tournament Regulations and the FIFA Disciplinary Code
When it comes to football, on field decisions are principally governed by the International Football Association Board’s ‘Laws of the Game’ (Laws of the Game).
The Laws of the Game regulate matters as diverse as: the field of play; the duration of the match; fouls and misconduct; corner, free and penalty kicks; the ball; the players; and the referee and other match officials.
Relevantly for our purposes, Law 5(1) states that each match is controlled by a referee, ‘who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match’. Law 5(2) clarifies, amongst other things, that ‘decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final’.
Interestingly, the Laws of the Game go an extra step, in that law 5(7) provides that match officials will not be held liable for any ‘loss suffered by any individual, club, company, association or other body, which is due or which may be due to any decision taken under the terms of the Laws of the Game or in respect of the normal procedures required to hold, play and control a match’.
In addition to the Laws of the Game, FIFA’s ‘Regulations, FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 20 July – 20 August 2023’ (FWWC Regulations), are also relevant and contain specific provisions applying to on-field decisions. Consistent with the Laws of the Game, the FWWC Regulations provide that ‘[n]o protests may be made about the referee’s decisions regarding facts connected with play. Such decisions are final and not subject to appeal, unless otherwise stipulated in the FIFA Disciplinary Code’.
Article 9(2) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (the Code) then stipulates that on-field referee decisions are final and may not be reviewed by FIFA’s judicial bodies, other than with respect to the disciplinary consequences of a decision which ‘involve[d] an obvious error (such as mistaking the identity of the person penalised)’.
Protests and The Field of Play Doctrine
So what happens when the match is over, and someone remains dissatisfied with a particular decision or the flow on sanctions for a following match?
The short answer is that the disciplinary consequences of an on-field decision may be subject to review, but in only the most exceptional of cases will the outcome of a match be altered.
In limited circumstances, one may have recourse to Article 18 of the Code (and Article 9 of the FWWC Regulations), which provides that protests may be permitted if based on the following grounds and lodged within a short time period following the relevant game:
- an ineligible player’s participation in a match;
- an unfit field of play: or
- an obvious error by the referee, in which case the protest may be directed only at the disciplinary consequences of the referee’s error.
Over the years, some have tried their luck with appealing an on-field decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). However, these challenges inevitably failed due to the ‘field of play’ doctrine, which has been developed and consistently recognised by CAS and upheld by the Swiss Supreme Court.
This doctrine is based on the premise that referees must be able to officiate freely, without legal interference, and acknowledges that a degree of human error is inevitable and acceptable.
Of course, these days, the degree of a referee’s permissible error is reduced by corrective mechanisms for use during the match, such as VAR and GLT in football. Whilst criticisms of VAR abound, it is precisely because of the ‘field of play’ doctrine that it is such an important tool in the officiating of a match. Indeed, even during Sunday night’s final, VAR was used to both award Spain a penalty for an English handball in the box and to confirm that the English goalkeeper, Mary Earps, had validly saved such penalty. Whilst both decisions were ultimately inconsequential to the final result of Sunday’s match, Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ during a 1986 World Cup quarter final shows just how important the use of on-field aids can be in circumstances where the ‘field of play’ limits recourse to appeals after the final whistle has blown.
The rationale for the ‘field of play’ doctrine has several limbs. Firstly, certainty of outcome of games and tournaments is critical, and the live nature of sport speaks against allowing off-field decisions to override on-field decisions. Secondly, referees are sport specific experts, and their specialist understanding of the sport, combined with their proximity to the actual events, is to be preferred over arbitrators who lack such technical expertise deciding after the fact. Thirdly, enabling challenges to on-field decisions may result in endless legal proceedings following a match, wasting resources and undermining the ‘in-the-moment’ excitement that underpins the very nature of sport.
The emphasis the ‘field of play’ doctrine places on a referee’s ability to officiate a game freely, and the acceptance that a degree of error may be present in a referee’s decision-making, results in challenges to on-field decisions being unlikely to be successful. Indeed, for CAS to uphold an appeal of an on-field decision an extremely high bar must be met, which has been described variously as the relevant decision being ‘arbitrary’, ‘bad faith’, ‘breach of duty’, ‘malicious intent’, ‘committed as a wrong’ and ‘other actionable wrongs’.
In an oft-cited passage from proceedings related to the Olympic Games, one CAS Panel put it: “Before a CAS Panel will review a field of play decision, there must be evidence, which generally must be direct evidence, of bad faith… there must be some evidence of preference for, or prejudice against, a particular team or individual.”
The CAS Panel accepted this was a high hurdle to satisfy, but was of the view that if it were lower, the flood-gates would be opened for dissatisfied participants to seek review of field of play decisions.
The long and the short of it is that, unless something has happened to interfere with the legitimacy of the match itself (i.e. ineligible players and unfit fields of play), or a referee’s decision has been taken in bad faith or is otherwise tainted, the results of a match are likely going to stay as they were when the whistle blew.
The ‘field of play’ doctrine and applicable sport-specific rules ensure, for good reason, that the on-field decisions of referees are generally not subject to legal challenge, save for where they have flow on effects after the match in question. So, whilst one may (legitimately) feel like a loss is unjust when on the unlucky side of a controversial decision, ‘rough justice may be all that sport can tolerate’, especially if we want to continue to live in the moment.
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