I am not fluent in Spanish, but I understand enough to distinguish between disagreement and a flurry of obscenity. Generally speaking, I punish Spanish F/A just like English F/A.

Recently I was AR for a game where all the players spoke English, and some spoke Spanish too. After one foul call by the CR, a player let fly with a very “colorful” insult at the CR. The CR (who speaks fluent Spanish, too) looked at him and gave him a verbal warning. In English, for everyone to hear.

After the game, I asked the CR if he would have responded the same way if the player had said the equivalent in English. He said no, it would have been straight red. His reasoning was that by choosing to use a language that fewer people understood, the player was doing the equivalent of mumbling under his breath. In other words, he didn’t make it public.

I have to applaud the CR for his man management in this case. The game proceeded without further incident. But I’m wondering if this principle is one that can be used in general. Does switching to a second language give the players more liberty?

USSF answer (April 17, 2011):
Under the Law, a player is sent off for using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures. That incorporates the whole of human communication. “Liberty” must be defined within the context of the particular interaction. The Laws of the Game do not care which language a player, team official, referee or AR speaks. What is important under the Laws is what that person actually says or means or understands. None of that is necessarily language-dependent. Given that basis, our answer follows.

Yes, the player should probably have been sent off for an infringement of the Law, but the referee chose not to do it. It would seem that his manner of dealing with the use of the colorful language was correct for this particular incident. It might not have worked for all of us and it might not work for that referee with another player or in another game, but it worked here. However, it did work and that is one of the elements of good refereeing, to find a solution that works for everyone and ensures that the Spirit of the Game prevails.

Remember, whatever the language, a red card for abusive, insulting, or offensive language cannot really be justified if, in the opinion of the referee, no one was abused, insulted, or offended by it.