When it comes to the weather, it takes something rather extreme to stop a game of football. This is certainly the case when compared to less hardy sports such as cricket or tennis for which even a light smattering of rain is often enough to send players running for cover. But how bad does the weather have to get for a professional football match in the UK to be abandoned?
In this article, we’ll explain the rules regarding weather-related match abandonments (that is to say, matches that start but are forced to terminate before the scheduled completion due to the weather). Before we explain how and why weather causes abandoned matches, let’s first explain the difference between abandonments and postponements.
The Difference Between Abandoned And Postponed Matches
An abandoned football match is one that has started but which is terminated by the referee (or other officials) before the scheduled conclusion (that is, 90 minutes plus additional time, plus extra time and/or penalties where applicable). In contrast, a postponed match is one that is called off before it has commenced.
Given that meteorological science is rather advanced these days (even if you wouldn’t think it some days!), it is far more likely for a match to be postponed in advance of the scheduled start than for a match to be abandoned due to the weather. In addition, it is usually clear before kick-off if a pitch will be unplayable, be it due to snow, frozen ground or waterlogging.
When Does The Weather Stop A Football Match?
For those seeking a concrete answer about how bad the weather must be to stop a football match, we are going to disappoint you. There is no maximum wind speed or quantity of rainfall or snowfall that automatically means a match must be stopped. Instead, it is very much down to the referee’s discretion.
Within the Football Association (FA) Laws of the Game there are various references to when a match should be abandoned, but they are – on the whole – rather vague (except when it comes to the crossbar, as we shall see later!).
Under Law 5, which relates specifically to the referee, it states that the referee (or any other match official) will not be held liable for various things, including if they “abandon a match for whatever reason”. They shall also not be held liable if either the field of play or the weather conditions “are such as to allow or not to allow a match to take place”. But it doesn’t go on to specify what such weather conditions might be, instead leaving it to the judgement of the ref on the day.
Essentially then, it comes down to the ref’s judgement about whether weather conditions are such that to continue the game would either be dangerous (to players, officials or fans) or just ludicrously difficult, unfair or unreasonable. Here we shall expand on the various weather conditions that could cause a ref to call a halt to a game.
Most of the time, players are more than happy to play in the rain. But it can cause problems when it rains so much that the pitch doesn’t drain properly, causing puddles on the surface that can pose a real hazard to players. In the upper echelons of the football pyramid, and especially the Premier League, the drainage systems in place at grounds are very effective and it is rare for matches to be postponed let alone abandoned due to rain.
And even in the lower leagues, it is far from common for a pitch to become unplayable due to rain once it has already kicked off. It is far more likely that a game will be postponed in anticipation of issues, usually in good time to allow away fans to cancel their plans to travel.
Although it is often the case that a pitch inspection before a match kicks off would often cause a match to be postponed, there have been occasions when play has been stopped due to rain. Once relatively recent example was in December 2018 when Accrington Stanley hosted Sunderland and the match was abandoned after 72 minutes due to a waterlogged pitch. Which didn’t go down too well with the 2,604 travelling supporters!
This sort of thing tends to occur when a very heavy downpour simply overwhelms the drainage system. In the UK we do not get such torrential rain all that often but even “just” heavy rain for an hour or so can have a similar impact. If the ball is simply not rolling or bouncing due to surface water, the referee may abandon proceedings. This may be as it is deemed unsafe, or because such conditions diminish the integrity of the result, or both.
A light smattering of snow can be an exciting addition to a football match and often the ground staff simply brush or shovel the snow from the pitch markings, the white ball is replaced with a brightly coloured one, and away they go. But if things edge more towards blizzard conditions, there is often no alternative but to call a game off.
This is as much about visibility as anything as the referee and other officials need to be able to see the ball and the players at all times or, frankly, anything could happen. Of course, this is also no good for fans who have paid to watch the game, not watch the snow! Aside from the visibility problems, a surface covered in a blanket of snow is also not going to be best for players keeping to their feet. As such, snowy conditions could readily be interpreted by the ref to be dangerous for the players.
This was the view the referee took when abandoning the match between Rangers and Hearts at Ibrox after 25 minutes in January 2015. The ref stated “I made the final decision based on player safety. There was a potential risk of injury.” Which is admirable. But there were questions on that occasion about why he’d started the game in the first place when it was already pretty darn snowy.
It takes a very strong wind to disrupt a game of football to the point at which it is abandoned but it does happen. For instance, Storm Eleanor in 2018 caused two Irish Premiership matches to be called off after they had started (Cliftonville v Ballymena, which was 1-1 at the time and Ards v Glenavon which was 2-0 to the away side). Often when it comes to high winds, the issue is not necessarily how it will affect the players on the pitch, but rather there could be a danger of debris being blown from the stands and striking spectators. That said, as with other sever weather conditions, where the wind is so strong as to make a mockery of the game, the referee may well call a halt to proceedings.
Probably the most dangerous weather phenomenon when it comes to outdoor sport in general is lightning. There have been many occasions when players have been struck by lightning while playing football and sadly some have been killed. One of the most extreme examples was when lightning killed a whole football team during a match in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998. Strangely, the 11 players who died were all from the away team and none of the home side’s players was seriously hurt.
As such, the prospect of a lightning strike has to be taken extremely seriously by the officials at games. In the modern era, especially at the top levels of the game, it is likely there will be someone monitoring such things and the referee would be informed if there was an immediate prospect of a thunderstorm descending.
Much like when a full blizzard descends, if thick fog drifts across the field of play, there is very little chance anyone is going to know much about what’s going on. If the ref can’t see the ball, or indeed what the players are doing, then it is clearly time to stop things. Usually in such circumstances, the match would be suspended in the hope the fog would clear, but if it became clear to the ref that no improvement was imminent, the match would be abandoned.
In contrast to some of the other more predictable weather events, it is unlikely that fog could be foreseen too long before a game in many cases. Hence fog has caused the abandonment of plenty of games over the decades, including the FA Cup third round match between Newcastle United and Swansea Town in January 1953 (which lasted just eight minutes).
Are Abandoned Matches Replayed?
According to The FA’s Laws of the Game, “An abandoned match is replayed unless the competition rules or organisers determine otherwise.” This is a little vague but it covers the eventuality that a match has been abandoned for something like crowd disturbance. In such a scenario it is possible that the governing body or competition organisers could penalise the team whose “fans” were causing the disruption by awarding a win to the other team. This can sometimes occur if abandoned matches are referred to the Football Association Disciplinary Commission.
When an abandoned match is replayed, generally speaking it doesn’t matter what score the match was at the time of the abandonment; the replayed match will start from scratch at 0-0. This could prove particularly irritating to sides who held a handsome lead at the point at which their game was abandoned.
What Happens To Bets Placed Abandoned Games?
Rules could vary somewhat from bookie to bookie so if you have placed a bet on a football match that is subsequently abandoned, the best thing to do is check with the customer service team of the bookie in question. If you want to find out before you place any bets, all good online bookmakers will have links on their sites to the rules that are in place in various circumstances.
Although there is sometimes variation in the rules when it comes to abandoned matches, in general bookies will simply void your bet(s). This will mean they return your stake and you will neither have won nor lost your bet. Having said that, if your bet has already settled by the time the match has been abandoned, the bet will stand and you will be paid out if it won or lose your stake if it lost.
An example of a bet that might have settled before an abandonment would be the first goalscorer. If you backed a player to score first and they duly delivered before the match was terminated, you’ll be paid as normal. If you back a player but a different player scored first, you’ll lose your bet. If no player has scored before the match is abandoned, your bet will be declared void and you’ll have your stake returned (assuming the bookie follows this set of rules, which is relatively common).
Other Reasons A Football Match Might Be Abandoned
There are all kinds of reasons football matches have been abandoned over the years, and here are some of the more notable examples.
Medical Emergency – One sadly not-all-that-uncommon eventuality that can cause a match to be abandoned is some form of disaster, tragedy or medical emergency. This can range from a fan having a heart attack to a stadium disaster to a player collapsing. Of course, the most high-profile recent incidence of this last issue came when Denmark’s Christian Eriksen almost died at Euro 2020. Amazingly though this game was not actually abandoned but was restarted after a lengthy delay. In other similar situations the game has been abandoned, however.
Health Officials Stop Play – When Brazil hosted Argentina in a World Cup qualifier in September 2021, the match only lasted a few minutes. Rather than a troublesome storm causing problems or bolshie fans storming the pitch, the reason was rather more administrative in nature: Brazilian health officials walked onto the pitch during the match because they thought some of the Argentine players had breached rules relating to the global health crisis at the time. Health Officials 1-0 Football.
Broken Crossbar – Although these days it is a highly improbable occurrence, the official Laws of the Game make reference to a situation in which “the crossbar becomes displaced or broken”. If it can be replaced or repaired, the teams are good to carry on (with a dropped ball). But if no repair job can be undertaken, the match has to be abandoned. And, in case you were thinking it, no you cannot use a rope or “any flexible or dangerous material” in place of the crossbar.
Outside Interference – This part of the rules covers a range of possibilities including floodlight failure, objects being thrown onto the pitch that injure players or officials, or animals on the field of play. With animals, it would generally lead to a stoppage rather than an abandonment, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a herd of cows breaks into a lower league stadium and churns up the field of play to such a degree that the match can’t continue.
On-Pitch Brawls – Over the years, there have been various occasions in variations locations around the globe when on-pitch brawls between opposing teams have resulted in so many players being sent off that the match in question had to be abandoned. Famous examples include the so-called “Battle of Bramall Lane” between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion in March 2002. Through a combination of sendings off and injuries, Sheffield United were left with just six players on the pitch, meaning that (based on the Laws of the Game) the ref had to abandon proceedings.
UFOs – Bizarre as it sounds, a professional football match was once suspended (though not quite abandoned) because of unidentified flying objects! It happened in Florence in October 1954 when Fiorentina hosted Pistoiese. As Gigi Boni, one of the fans at the stadium that day recalled, “I remember clearly seeing this incredible sight They were moving very fast and then they just stopped.” He went on, “I think they were extra-terrestrial. That’s what I believe, and there’s no other explanation I can give myself.” Well, who are we to disagree?