Professional foul

What Is a Professional Foul in Football?

For complete newcomers to football, the term ‘professional foul’ is definitely one of the most confusing – on paper it sounds like a compliment! There is a strategic element to committing a professional foul that can help the player’s team to resist conceding a goal, but the punishment forthcoming is usually so severe – unless you like taking an early bath – as to render the professional foul as an absolute last resort for a defending team. So, what is a professional foul in football and what is the normal punishment?

Gaining an Advantage: By Fair Means or Foul

There are often dozens of fouls committed in a football game all over the pitch. Most result in a free kick, or a penalty if the foul is made in the 18-yard box, while the punishments dished out by the referee range from a raise of the eyebrow and a stern word to a red card for the most heinous of tackles.

A professional foul is the same but different, if that makes sense. We can define a professional foul as one deliberately committed by a player in order to gain an advantage – as opposed to simply being a mistimed or over-zealous tackle.

The most common professional foul in football occurs when an attacking player is about to go clear through on goal – to prevent that from happening, a defender will foul the attacker by any means necessary; it could be a shirt pull, a trip or an unadulterated clattering. In short, a professional – or ‘last man’ or ‘tactical foul’ as it is known colloquially – foul is one that prevents the opposition from enjoying a clear goalscoring opportunity.

What Is the Punishment for a Professional Foul?

Examining a play using VAR
Robert Hoetink /

When a foul is committed on the football pitch, the referee has to make a quick decision on any punishment that will follow – of course, in games where VAR is live, they do have the back-up of the video official watching on from behind the scenes.

The first thing that the referee must determine is whether or not the foul denied the opposing team a clear goalscoring opportunity – if it didn’t, the perpetrator will likely get away with a yellow card at worst, unless the tackle could be filed under the ‘ultra violent’ category.

If the foul does stop a potential goalscoring opportunity from unfolding, the referee now has to get their thinking cap on. Once upon a time, this would have been an automatic red card, but football rules governor IFAB has since relaxed the legislation to give the match officials more leeway to decide their punishment based upon the individual circumstances.

Since 2016, a professional foul has no longer been an automatic red card – the referee will decide whether the contact between the two players accidental, which can allow for a lesser sanction, or deliberate….in which the perpetrator will still automatically be dismissed.

Today, the clear definition from IFAB of when a red card must be shown is: ‘Denying a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent whose overall movement is towards the offender’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick.’ That denial can come from holding an opponent, pushing or pulling them, a trip, making no attempt to play the ball, serious foul play or violent conduct.

But that’s not all. The referee will also need to make a snap judgement on whether the scenario unfolding was actually an ‘obvious goalscoring opportunity’, looking at:

  • Distance between the offence and the goal
  • General direction of the play
  • Likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball
  • Location and number of defenders

It can be something of a minefield for the match officials to get through – often they, and even video officials armed with slow motion replays, will get their decision wrong as far as the letter of the law is concerned.

Famous Last Man Fouls

For decades, a defender could haul down an attacker that was clear through on goal, safe in the knowledge that the worst outcomes would be a free kick for the opposition and a yellow card for the perpetrator. But that all changed after the 1980 FA Cup final, when Arsenal’s Willie Young took out West Ham’s Paul Allen in cynical fashion – denying the Hammers a clear goalscoring opportunity while he escaped relatively unscathed with a booking. .

Little did they know it at the time, but that foul would – after two years of meetings, trials and negotiations – ultimately change the face of football forever. By 1982, a panel of experts had been drafted in to come up with ways to make football more exciting – this was at a time when attendances were dwindling and the beautiful game was considered rather less attractive by fans. One of their motions was to eradicate such tactical fouls from the game – they wanted perpetrators to be punished with a red card whenever such cynicism prevented the opportunity to score.

IFAB initially rejected the idea and its various alterations, but finally the ruling body cracked and made professional fouls a red card offence in time for the World Cup in 1990 – Benjamin Massing, of Cameroon, the first to enter the rogue’s gallery for his full-blooded take-out of Argentina’s Claudio Caniggia.

Federico Valverde was hopelessly outpaced by Alvaro Morata in the Spanish Super Cup game of 2020, and so the Real Madrid man did the only thing he could – hacking down his Atletico opponent to prevent him from having an easy chance of scoring a late winner.

Valverde was shown the red card, as per the rules, but Atletico made nothing of the resulting free kick and so the game went to penalties; which Real won to lift the trophy. So, the midfielder was justified in his ‘tactical’ foul; in one sense, it won his team the cup final.