In various sports, a professional foul is a deliberate act of foul play intended to bring about an advantage for the perpetrator's team. Professional fouls are usually committed to prevent an opponent from scoring.
In association football, a professional foul involves a defender fouling an attacking player in order to prevent them from scoring, or a handball offence that denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. The resulting free kick or penalty may offer the attacking team a lower chance of scoring than the original playing position, and the defending player therefore has an incentive to tactically foul the attacking player or use their hand. Offending players are cautioned or sent off depending on the circumstances of the foul.
The offence is popularly but inaccurately referred to as the "last man" foul, leading to the incorrect belief that if a defender is the last member of the defending side and in a position to stop an attacking player with an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and he does so, he should automatically be sent off. This so-called "last man" is typically the defender in front of the goalkeeper but it can be the goalkeeper. However, the terminology "last man" has never been included in the Laws of the Game.
Under the Laws of the Game, what constitutes an obvious goalscoring opportunity is left to the discretion of the referee; however, several factors are given to help referees decide. These are: the distance between the offence and the goal, the likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball, the direction of the play, the location and number of defenders.
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 infamous handball discussed below. In that instance commentators were divided as to whether this professional foul was cheating or a legitimate exploitation 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 caution Young and 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 more exciting. A subcommittee was appointed to produce some suggestions, chaired by Jimmy Hill and including Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton.
After a number of high-profile incidents, including the one in the 1980 FA Cup Final, the sport's governing body in England, the Football League, recommended in 1982 that any offence that denies the attacking player an obvious scoring opportunity should be deemed "serious foul play" by English referees and would therefore receive a red card, in order to deter offenders.
The subcommittee 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. The rule was finally fixed into the Laws of the Game by IFAB in 1990 and referees were instructed by FIFA for the 1990 World Cup to send off players for a professional foul. In 1991 the IFAB made an addition which deemed that a player who committed a handling offence that denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity should be sent off for serious foul play.
In 2016 the laws of the game were amended to a yellow card for a DOGSO offence resulting in a penalty kick providing that the player was making a genuine attempt for the ball.
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 Manchester 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, and 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, albeit with Lehmann booked.
Another controversial situation occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana. In the last minute of the second extra time period with the match tied 1–1, Uruguay's Luis Suárez committed a deliberate goal line handball save from Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah, denying a certain game-winning goal to Ghana. 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 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 afterwards said, "The 'Hand of God' now belongs to me. Mine is the real 'Hand Of God'. I made the best save of the tournament." Ghana's John Pantsil stated that "[t]he goal should have stood rather than the player being sent off", and that "[i]n the same situation [as Suárez], there is no chance the Ghana players would have used our hand." Some argued for lengthening the suspension as Suárez's handball offense was committed at the end of extra time (as opposed to early in the match) so there was no further period of normal play during which his team was handicapped by being reduced to ten men. Others maintained that Suarez's punishment was in line with the laws of the game; he was unable to participate in the penalty shootout and was banned from Uruguay's next match, and noting that if Ghana had converted the penalty kick then the handball incident would have far less controversial.
In the 2014 FIFA World Cup third-place match, for pulling back Dutch winger Arjen Robben who had a clear run on goal, Brazilian defender Thiago Silva received only a yellow card instead of what most commentators regarded as deserving of a straight red card. Robin van Persie converted the resultant penalty kick for the Dutch.
The quickest professional foul and resultant dismissal in the FIFA World Cup was committed by Colombian defender Carlos Sánchez Moreno in the 2018 edition; for a handball in the third minute to prevent Shinji Kagawa from netting into an open goal.
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. Trailing teams often also commit intentional fouls late in games in order to stop the clock and get the ball back, rather than allow the opponent to run out the clock.
In addition, there are specific rules governing obvious goal scoring opportunities called clear path fouls.
The professional foul in rugby league embodies a similar concept to other sports, 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.
- Palpably unfair act, the equivalent term in gridiron football
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"In a close match, with seconds ticking down and a team being down by one or two points, a coaching strategy could be to foul and stop the clock and make the other team earn their victory by way of the free throw."
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