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The concept gained notoriety in association football after an infamous incident in the 1980 FA Cup Final when Willie Young of Arsenal committed a deliberate foul on Paul Allen of West Ham, when Allen had a clear run at goal. As the laws of the game stood, the referee (George Courtney) could only award West Ham a free kick, which he did. This provoked a national debate on deliberate fouls that denied opponents the chance to score a goal. At the time, the English game was suffering a downturn in attendances and the chairmen of the Football League clubs decided to consider ways in which the game could be made exciting. A subcommittee was appointed to produce some suggestions, chaired by Jimmy Hill and including Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton.
The sub-committee produced several suggestions, including making the professional foul a mandatory red card offence, which they submitted to the IFAB for consideration. All the suggestions were defeated. However, the Football League was determined to have their way, and instructed its referees that professional fouls (including deliberate handball to stop a goal being scored) should be deemed serious foul play, which was and is a mandatory red card offence. The new interpretation was first issued to referees prior to the 1982-83 season, and one of the first players to be sent off for a professional foul was Lawrie Sanchez in the Football League Trophy.
FIFA first instructed its referees to send off for a professional foul prior to the 1990 World Cup, and in 1991 IFAB added decisions to the law which provided that a player who committed a foul or handling offence that denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity should be sent off for serious foul play. These decisions were incorporated in the laws in 1997.
Currently, if a player denies a player an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by foul means, whether deliberate or not, he is almost certain to be sent off. An obvious goalscoring opportunity means that the attacker has the ball at or near his feet, is close to the goal area and is moving towards the goal, and has no more than one defender or the goalkeeper in his way. These are known by referees as the 4 Ds and only a foul that has all four can result in a red card. Also if the foul occurs in the penalty area, the referee will award a penalty.
A notable example of such a foul was the 1998 tackle by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, playing for Manchester United at Old Trafford, who ran from within the Newcastle penalty area almost the length of the pitch to run down and trip Newcastle United's Rob Lee - with a clear goalscoring opportunity one on one with United goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw. Solskjær was immediately sent off by referee Uriah Rennie (with the match finishing 1–1 and prolonging the Premier League title race with Arsenal).
In the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final, Arsenal's Jens Lehmann brought down Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o, then Ludovic Giuly tapped into an empty net. However referee Terje Hauge overruled the goal, awarded Barcelona a free kick on the edge of the box, and showed a red card to Lehmann, making him the first player and only goalkeeper to ever be sent off in a Champions League/European Cup final. According to Arsenal, the general consensus was that the goal should have stood and that the Gunners continue the game with eleven players.
Another controversial situation occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana. In extra time with the match tied 1–1, Uruguay's Luis Suárez committed a deliberate goal line handball save from Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah in the last minute of the second extra time period. As per the laws of the game, the referee issued Suárez a straight red card and awarded a penalty kick to Ghana, but Asamoah Gyan missed on the penalty kick, leaving the game level at the final whistle. Uruguay went on to win 4-2 in the shootout, and Suárez' teammates carried him around the pitch as a hero. Suárez afterward said, "The 'Hand of God' now belongs to me. Mine is the real 'Hand Of God'. I made the best save of the tournament." He was banned for the next match, although some have argued for and against lengthening the suspension. Ghana's John Pantsil argued that the referee should have allowed the goal to stand instead of pointing to the spot, stating, "In the same situation [as Suárez], there is no chance the Ghana players would have used our hand." Since Suárez's handball offense was committed at the end of extra time, there was no further period of play where his team was reduced to ten men, as opposed to if he had received the red card earlier in the match.
The professional foul in rugby league embodies a similar concept, a deliberate breach of the rules in order to prevent a scoring opportunity. The penalty for this offence is 10 minutes in the sin bin.
The majority of professional fouls are either holding down the tackled player after a break has been made in order to allow his teammates to reform in defence, interfering in the play when making little or no attempt to return to an onside position, or tackling or impeding the progress of a player not in possession when a try may possibly be scored. The latter situation may result in a penalty try.
- David Beckham - Professional foul The Guardian, 13 October 2004
- The Joy of Six: Solskjaer moments guardian.co.uk, 28 August 2007
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Last Man Foul YouTube
- Hughes, Matt (26 April 2007). "Lehmann to sign new contract". The Times (London).
- World Cup 2010: Luis Suarez handball against Ghana 'instinctive', says Uruguay coach The Telegraph, 3 July 2010
- Don’t condemn Suarez for Ghana’s failures Calgary Herald, 3 July 2010
- World Cup 2010: Fifa may extend Luis Suárez ban guardian.co.uk, 3 July 2010
- Kelly: Cheating pays off at the World Cup thestar.com, 3 July 2010
- World Cup 2010: Uruguay's Suarez given one-match ban BBC Sport, 3 July 2010
- Professional foul The Guardian, 13 October 2004