In various sports, a professional foul is a deliberate act of foul play intended to bring about an advantage for the perpetrator. Professional fouls are usually committed to prevent an opponent from scoring.
In association football, a professional foul involves the last defender ("last man") fouling an attacking player in order to prevent them from scoring. The resulting free kick or penalty may offer the attacking team a lower chance of scoring than the original playing position and the last man therefore has an incentive to strategically foul the attacking player. After a number of high-profile incidents, including one in the 1980 FA Cup Final, the "last man foul"—any offence that denies the attacking player an obvious scoring opportunity—the sport's governing body, the Football League, recommended that such offences would be deemed "serious foul play", and would therefore receive a red card, in order to deter offenders.
The "last man" is defined as being the last member of the defending side in a position to stop an attacking player having an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. This is typically the defender in front of the goalkeeper but it can be the goalkeeper. 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 must result in a red card.
Even if a foul unambiguously prevents a goal, the Laws of football have no provision for awarding the score (there is no equivalent of the penalty try seen in rugby). Thus, even with the penalties involved, a professional foul may be a sensible tactic in some circumstances, such as Luis Suárez's famous handball discussed below. In that instance commentators were divided as to whether this professional foul was cheating or a legitimate exploit of the Laws.
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.
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.
In 1998 a 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. 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 handicapped by being reduced to ten men, as opposed to if he had received the red card earlier in the match.
In basketball, teams may deliberately commit personal fouls for strategic reasons. As the resulting free throws must be taken by the fouled player, teams may tactically choose to foul a player with a poor free-throw percentage. This became known as "Hack-a-Shaq" after Shaquille O'Neal who was a target of such tactics.
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.
Law 10.2a of the Laws of Rugby deals with intentional infringements. Referees are instructed to award a penalty kick in such instances and admonish, caution (resulting in a temporary suspension from the game), or send off the offender. A penalty try can be awarded if the referee believes the offence probably prevented a try being scored.
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