Radical change could be on its way. Football; the most popular, simple and - arguably - conservative sport on the planet is long overdue a 21st century overhaul. This weekend, the game’s lawmakers, the IFAB, convene in County Down, Northern Ireland for their 123rd AGM. On the agenda for discussion are a number of potential rule-changes which would have the greatest impact on professional football since the back was abolished in the aftermath of the awful bore-fest that was Italia ’90.
The International Football Association Board has been the ‘guardian’ of football’s laws since 1886. Four FIFA representatives and one each from the home nations sit at each meeting, and a three-quarters majority is needed to pass any motion (which can be submitted by any of FIFA’s member associations).
In 2009, it is surely anachronistic that the British FAs should still be so disproportionately represented on the IFAB panel, but what more should we expect from an organisation which Sepp ‘women footballers should wear hotpants’ Blatter has, in the past, acclaimed for its “stable and steadying influence” on the world’s favourite game?
While tennis (with the notable exception of Roger Federer) has welcomed the retrospective decision-making HawkEye system with open arms and rugby union ushers in controversial new laws (or ELVs) designed to move the sport away from insidious negativity and adapt to the modern era of professionalism, football remains, staidly, the same. The governing bodies still shy away from the introduction of technology to ease the burden on under-fire referees, but at least this year’s meeting will discuss several potentially crucial developments which could alter certain aspects of the game forever.
What might these changes be? Let’s take a look.
Sin-binning players for second bookable offences. Backed by the first and only refereeing galactico, Pierluigi Collina, the introduction of sin-binning or the ‘orange card’ has long been cited as a means of improving on-field discipline. This will mirror rugby’s introduction of the temporary removal of a player for infringing the rules. Raymond Kennedy, president of the Irish FA says: “The offence would be dealt with on the day and the team offended against would be the team to benefit. We see a lot of merit in it and I am hoping they sanction an experiment at youth level for a season or so.” Hit or miss? The current disciplinary model makes it rational for defenders to take out opponents in attacking positions, picking up a ‘professional’ yellow card, rather than concede a goal. As in basketball, cynical behaviour or dangerous tackling should be dealt with in a harsher manner than ‘technical’ offences like shirt-removal during goal celebrations or kicking the ball away. Just imagine Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard or (insert your favourite diver here) languishing on the bench for ten minutes as punishment for ‘simulation’ (i.e. cheating in order to win a penalty). Justice would be meted out in a fair and proportionate manner, dealing with offences summarily during the 90 minutes of play...HIT.
20-minute half-time interval. Altering Law 7 – ‘The Duration of the Match’; the mid-game break will be extended by a further five minutes. This will apparently allow players more time to negotiate their way through the labyrinthine corridors of badly-designed stadia and brings the total time of the average match (accounting for stoppage time) closer to the two-hour mark. Hit or miss? Stuff the integrity; it’s all about the money. Primarily suits advertisers and few others – certainly not the common fan sitting in the stadium. In mitigation, a half-time pee could be undertaken at a more leisurely pace, with ample time remaining to purchase your balti pie/tongue-scorching cup of tea/massively-overpriced Coke product, so all’s not lost. Nonetheless this one’s a...MISS.
A fourth sub for games that go into extra-time. A change to Law 3 – ‘The Number of Players’ to increase the maximum number of substitutions in the event of extra time. Possibly designed with increasing the chances of achieving a result during the extra half-hour (more fresh legs = more goalscoring opportunities). Hit or miss? This change would allow coaches to play their full hand, thereby initiating any necessary tactical changes, before 90 minutes are up, with the cushion of a further sub remaining. Many a major tournament classic has been tainted by the unedifying sight of two teams limping through the extra period with penalties a painful inevitability throughout. It’s more a cosmetic tweak than a major facelift, but this change could help a little...HIT.
Two additional goal-line refereeing assistants. These additional officials (bringing the total to an unwieldy six) will assist the referee with decisions within the penalty area. Hit or miss? This proposal makes clear that the law-makers’ stubborn refusal to entertain the introduction of goal-line technology remains stronger than ever. It would be something of a compromise, which acknowledges that something needs to be done to resolve ball-over-the-line controversy – particularly in this moneyed age – but the possibility of human error remains. The referee’s once all-pervasive authority would be diluted even further and there could potentially be three conflicting verdicts on any penalty-box decision. Also, if this comes into force; spare a thought for those officials who would need to stand statically at the end of the goal-line, taking all kinds of abuse from irate fans for an hour-and-a-half. All in all, a...MISS.
In an ideal world, the IFAB would also find time to address the inherent silliness of making obviously uninjured players leave the field before returning at the referees behest; re-clarify the offside law (which was exposed by Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goal vs Italy at Euro 2008); and formalise the clever use of an aerosol spray to effectively maintain the 10-yard distance between kicker and wall at free kicks. However, progress comes slowly in football’s corridors of power.
For now, at least, fundamental reforms such as larger goals, reduced penalty areas, and micro-chipped balls will have to wait. While past innovations such as ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ goals were a flop, the IFAB should not fear change. The essential simplicity of the game must be retained at all costs, but not at the expense of innovation and modernisation. That is how the greatest game on earth can continue to grow for years to come.