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Did Sebastian Giovinco actually deserve a red card?

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You might think it’s obvious…but hear me out.

MLS: Toronto FC at New England Revolution Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC’s last game was painful. There’s no way of getting around that. Careless defensive play resulted in a 3-0 deficit, before an own-goal and late penalty gave fans a glimmer of hope.

That was, until Sebastian Giovinco decided to grab the face of New England Revolution midfielder Wilfried Zahibo after he had attempted to knock the ball of out Seba’s hands. A red card soon followed, and any hope of TFC securing a comeback was gone.

But, did it deserve to be a red card? Despite the general consensus that it was a clear red card, I question the idea that any touch of the face automatically constitutes violent conduct. While Seba’s actions were completely unnecessary, I don’t think he deserved to be sent off.

Here is a replay of the incident.

Red Card Decision

There seems to be a presumption in MLS that putting your hands to the face of an opponent means an automatic red card. This was not only articulated by many knowledgeable MLS journalists and TFC commentators, but I saw it repeated again and again on Twitter.

During this week’s Instant Replay segment on MLSsoccer.com, Andrew Wiebe summarized this common presumption: “It’s hands to the face, that’s violent conduct. That’s a red card.”

But, where does that idea come from? Well, the FIFA Laws of the Game used by MLS state that violent conduct is a sending-off offence and defines it as set out below (I’ve added emphasis on the key parts of the definition).

Violent conduct is when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball, or against a team-mate, team official, match official, spectator or any other person, regardless of whether contact is made.

In addition, a player who, when not challenging for the ball, deliberately strikes an opponent or any other person on the head or face with the hand or arm, is guilty of violent conduct unless the force used was negligible.”

According to the Laws, there are two ways in which an action can be deemed violent conduct. The first way is when a player attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball. I can’t see how Giovinco used excessive force or brutality in this situation. He barely uses any force at all as he grabs Zahibo’s face. As a result, I think it’s clear that Giovinco’s actions don’t fall under the first part of the violent conduct definition.

The second way an action can be violent conduct is when a player deliberately strikes an opponent on the head or face, unless the force used was negligible. This part of the definition is what I assume is being referenced when people claim that a “hand to the face” is a red card.

However, this definition still requires that Giovinco must have “struck” Zahibo with his hand. When looking at the incident again, Seba grabs Zahibo by the face but does not “strike” or hit him. This alone should put to rest the claim that any hand to the face automatically results in a red card. The player at issue must “strike” the other player in the face or head, so not any touch or grab falls under this rule.

Even if Giovinco’s action was enough for a ref to deem that he “struck” Zahibo, there is an exception built into the definition. It is not violent conduct if the force used was negligible. Although this is a grey area where individual judgment comes into play, I’ll (confidently) argue that it was negligible.

When Giovinco grabs him, Zahibo’s head barely moves and he doesn’t try to remove Seba’s hand or seem to be under any pain or force exerted by Seba. Also, if you watch his hands, Seba doesn’t clench his fingers or use his hand to push Zahibo’s head once his hand is touching his face. He simply puts his hand on Zahibo’s face and then removes it. In my view, this is the definition of negligible force and should not have been a red card.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Insufficient Video Review

Another frustrating aspect of the red card was the lack of time the ref spent reviewing the play. His review was so short that I wonder if he even watched the incident occur more than once. It appears that he reacted instinctively to Giovinco putting his hand on Zahibo’s face and went with his gut on the red card.

However, it is difficult to assess such a nuanced rule as violent conduct in only a few seconds. There is no way he considered whether or not Giovinco touching Zahibo’s face was a “strike” or if the force used was “negligible”.

If he had taken the time to review the incident according to the Laws, I don’t see how he could come to the conclusion that it was violent conduct.

Conclusion

This isn’t the first time in recent years that the ref has gotten the substance of the rule wrong. Kaka was sent off last year even though he did not “strike” the opponent on the head, and in fact was joking around with an old teammate and friend.

In that instance, Kaka used more force than Giovinco did, and yet it was widely seen as an incorrect call. Unlike TFC, Orlando management reacted strongly to the red card, releasing a statement that argued there was no “strike” and no “excessive force or brutality” as required by the definition of violent conduct.

I don’t think that either case merited a red card, but if MLS referees want to call every hand to the face a red card, then MLS should at least change the rules to reflect that choice. Because there is no point adhering to the FIFA Laws of the Game, especially with video review being used to improve officiating, unless those rules are actually followed.

Regardless of my opinion, Toronto thought differently and chose not to appeal the red card. Missing Giovinco puts more pressure on other TFC players and it also raises the question of who should start in his place. Since Giovinco leads MLS with 1.19 expected goals and assists per 96 minutes played (according to Americansocceranalysis.com, among players with a minimum of 90 minutes played this season), you can’t truly replace him.

With that being said, I think Jordan Hamilton is the best available option for the next game. He has an impressive 0.82 expected goals and assists per 96 minutes played and has been unlucky to not see that result in more goals so far. At this point he is a better option than Tosaint Ricketts, who hasn’t found his best form yet after an early season injury.

What’s your opinion on the red card? If you weren’t familiar with the definition of violent conduct, does that change your view of whether Seba deserved a red?