A case against football's annoying shirt rule

FIFA needs to ease up on a few laws,starting with the mandatory punishment of shirtless goal celebrations.

According to FIFA's Law 12, Aguero is displaying too much happiness here.

His instinctive reaction was to pull off his jersey and wave it over his head while his overjoyed teammates chased him down as he ran bare-chested towards the crowd that was mad with joy.

The television cameras didn’t catch it that day, but Aguero was flashed a yellow card by referee Mike Dean, for what can only be described as the crime of “excessive displays of joy."

The same thing happened when AndresIniesta took off his shirt after scoring the match-winning goal for Spain in the 2010WorldCup final against the Netherlands and was booked by HowardWebb who later admitted that he was unwilling to.

According to FIFA’sLaw12 that was implemented in 2004, "A player who removes his jersey after scoring a goal will be cautioned for unsporting behaviour."

In what is considered a clarification, the law states that “a player will be deemed to have removed his jersey, if the jersey has been pulled over the player's head, or if his head has been covered by the jersey”.

According to that illustration, these are bookable offences:

But this is not:

FIFA’s only reason for this law is that, "Removing one's shirt after scoring is unnecessary and players should avoid such excessive displays of joy."

In essence, FIFA is that parent that buys you a fancy new bicycle but tells you you can’t ride it for more than 20 metres from the house.

Because of FIFA’s vagueness in defining what the reason is behind what many see as an inconvenient rule, a lot of theories have been thrown around as to why.

It is important to state here that this is not a defence of football players who take off their shirt despite being well aware of the consequences (or being too dim to not know about it), but an evaluation of the rule by itself.

So the reasons that have been raised as the one behind the rule range from the sensible to the outright ridiculous so I’ll attempt to address a few of them.

The most well-reasoned argument for this rule is that a player taking off his shirt wastes precious time to put it back on. And time wasting is a reasonable argument because in November 2002, a couple of years before Law 12 was implemented, this happened:

Diego Forlan had scored what turned out to be Manchester United’s winning goal in a 2-1 win against Southampton, and he ripped off his shirt to rejoice with the fans.

Seconds later after the restart, he was still unable to put the shirt back on and he had to comically chase down the ball for almost a full minute, bare chested, with his shirt in hand.

It’s easy to see how this embarrassing situation can turn a few heads and be seen as unsporting, but there’s no way this isolated incident can be used to broadly paint the simple art of putting a shirt back on.

Goal celebrations by their very nature waste a considerable amount of playing time, some more than the others.

While a reasonable summation, pulling a shirt off and then back on takes less time than most goal celebrations you have these days from this:

To this:

Another well-intentioned reason that has revolved around the subject is the fear that players could display political, religious, or even personal messages that could offend viewers.

It’s clear to see how this could potentially get out of hand, but the thing here is, according to the rules, you could raise your shirt to display a message as long as your shirt does not go over your head (as was already explained).

There’s another argument that reasons that shirt sponsors lobbied for this rule to be in effect as the moment a player scores is when the most focus is on him, so a shirtless goalscorer is denying their brand those few seconds of assured screen time.

This is such a self-defeating argument that I figure it’s pointless to waste any time on it, because there are a whole lot of other times during matches that the television cameras focus on a player without a goal being involved.

The other silly argument is that due to football’s global appeal and the broadcasting of the game to all corners of the world, FIFA thought to safeguard the Muslim world’s sensibilities against a public display of bare chests which makes you wonder what they do when players strip off their shirts after the game to exchange shirts with other players or just flex their abs.

Now I already mentioned that this was not an argument for or endorsement of players who deliberately pull their shirts off despite the consequence, but it’s important to cite a few incidents that have brought mockery on FIFA’s rule.

In 2011, Eric Hassli tried to get around the rule by wearing two jerseys with his name and number printed on both while playing in the American Major League Soccer for the Vancouver Whitecaps against New England.

The player was already booked when he put his team 1-0 ahead from the penalty spot and promptly ripped off one jersey and threw it into the crowd.

It’s important to note here that this player would not waste any time putting his jersey back on because he already had another one on; he didn’t display any message on his shirt; he didn’t show any skin to sensitive people; and the sponsors are happy because their logo is displayed anyway.

So what did the referee do?

He booked him with a second caution and sent him off despite protests that he wasn’t really breaking the rules.

While playing for Dnipro in the Russian Premier League, Ghanian defender Samuel Inkoom jogged towards the bench as he was being substituted.

However, before he left the field of play, he stripped off his jersey to reveal only his club’s undershirt.

Just as he crossed the line to the other side, the referee showed him a second yellow card that meant he was sent off into the dressing room, and his substitution voided as a result.

It was yet another baffling application of the law.

The problem with Law 12 is not that it exists to curb unsporting behaviour, but that it doesn’t leave much room for the application of common sense on the referee’s part.

Much in the same way referees apply their own discretion in booking players for fouls or even time wasting, they can equally book players who waste time putting their shirts back on, or players who put messages underneath them, or players who have abs and biceps that hurt the viewer’s eyes.

However, Law 12 leaves no wiggle room for this provision. It rigidly insists on a mandatory caution for stripping of any kind regardless of the context.

The way I see it, stripping off in celebration of a goal is a harmless unrestrained act of joyous delirium that players should not be deprived of, and they definitely should not be punished for it.

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