A pretty bothering consequence resulting from the vastly growing pace of football and technical skills of players over the last couple of years surely is the illegal use of arms present in somehow every modern football match at the highest level. Therefore, FIFA, UEFA and particularly national associations have targeted at toughening the detection and punishment of elbow offenses committed by players. Hence, it is the referees' responsibility to protect players in a preventive fashion and condemn this misconduct by strictly identifying and sanctioning such offenses, but also to be aware of a clear distinction between careless, reckless and elbow offenses using excessive force requiring no card, a yellow card and a red card respectively.
UEFA's Refereeing Instructors are using an understandable and actionable image (tool vs weapon) to determine this distinction that I would like to seize and combine with our interpretations:
1. 'Careless' means that the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making his challenge or that he acted without precaution. In the case of carelessly used arms in a duel, there is no further disciplinary sanction needed.
2. 'Reckless' means that the player has acted with complete disregard of the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent. He must be cautioned in this case. Players, who deploy their arm or elbow as a tool, are considered to have acted in a reckless manner and must receive a yellow card.
3. 'Using excessive force' means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent. In such a case, the player has to be sent off with a red card. Players, who deploy their arm or elbow as a weapon, are considered to have used excessive force and must be sent off with a red card.
The following clips are a compilation of several elbow offenses and illustrate that players very often use their arms in a subtle but efficient way to unfairly tackle their opponents and benefit from that, mostly when fighting for the possession of the ball in aeriel duels.
The classic example of an elbow used as a weapon: in the World Cup 2006 match between Italy and the United States, blue #4 deliberately and brutally tackles his opponent white #20 using his elbow as a weapon. He is correctly sent off with a red card by the referee, who has a perfect position to detect this infringement.
A player (white #11) is continuously attacked by some opponents close to the sideline being in possession of the ball. At first, he carts out his arms and recklessly makes physical contact with red #15. The play is allowed to continue. Seconds later, white #11 continues the illegal use of his arms and hits red #8's face, making strong and deliberate physical contact with the opponent which becomes specially visible in the real pace. He therefore uses his arm as a weapon, i.e. with excessive force endangering the safety of his opponent. For this reason, the offender must be sent off with a red card. This situation could have been avoided if the referee had detected the first elbow offense and stopped play due to that. This is a perfect example of prevention that would have been needed to avoid serious infringements and injuries in the context of the illegal use of arms. In addition, the referee should be reminded that it is useful to pay attention to an adequate (and in this case shorter) distance to the player he is about to show the card and to avoid that other players are standing between him and the offender during the card showing procedure.
While being in possession of the ball, red #31 deliberately makes strong physical elbow contact with blue #5. Indicated by a clear movement of the elbow towards the opponent's face and a sideways step into his direction, #31 clearly uses his arm as a weapon endangering the safety of an opponent. He must be sent off with a red card. It is a poor signal that the referee - fully aware of the instructions given by UEFA at the recent seminars - fails to issue the mandatory red card for this offense considering that his viewing angle could not have been better.
While jumping for the ball in the mid-air, yellow #11 unfairly tackles blue #24 with his arm which is clearly carted out and used as a tool in a reckless manner. He is correctly cautioned with a yellow card by the referee, who is furthermore using a determined and comprehensible body language to communicate his decision.
Two players are fighting for the possession of the ball in an aerial duel. Red #3 and Blue #7 therefore jump to reach the ball. #3 recklessly uses his clearly extended arm as a tool in this challenge and hence makes clear physical contact with the opponent's head. The referee and especially the assistant referee should be more alert to react appropiately to this situation. The offender must be cautioned with a yellow card.
After the five previously shown clips, this video is aimed at making clear that in some cases, elbows and arms are illegally used in an "only" careless manner. In the specific case, green #4 has got his arms in a natural position while starting to jump. He therefore acts without precaution but not more. The referee correctly does not caution the offender and only awards a direct free-kick. However, it must be clear that these situations are mostly the exceptions. Normally, the illegal use of arms should be deemed as reckless tackles as long as the arm has not been used as a weapon with excessive force.
Last but not least, a more debatable video example: Two players are fighting for the ball in an aerial duel. Blue #8 jumps into his opponent Yellow #6 with a slightly extended arm and thus makes contact with latter's cheek. It remains unsure whether the offender has deliberately used his arm as a weapon to endanger the safety of his opponent. If the referee has this opinion, he must send him off with a red card. There are however also arguments in favour of a reckless use of his arm as a tool (e.g. no clear movement of the arm towards the opponent), which requires a yellow card. From our point of view, both disciplinary sanctions, a yellow card and a red card are both appropiate and defendable. According to the information we have, FIFA ruled this decision taken by the referee as correct back in 2010.
Finally, it must be underlined that one key to a successful detection of the illegal use of arms is to have an optimum positioning and good viewing angle on the infringements. If this is guaranteed, awareness is needed. I hope that this post contributes to the latter.
You have almost managed it, just one video is missing! Sometimes, players' arms are (ab-)used as weapons - don't send them off for that, please ;)