No need for significant tampering with laws of football

Something I feel Association Football has over other sports is the simple and unchanging nature of its rules (actually “laws”). There are only 17 laws of the game (a sizeable proportion of which refer not to gameplay itself but to equipment and such like), and they are very simple. In fact, very often, when reference is made at the start of a season to changes in the laws of the game, this should properly be a reference to interpretation; the laws themselves rarely change much.

Not only does this provide simplicity, but also consistency through the ages. You can go back and watch a Cup Final from the early 1970s, or the brilliant Brazil of Pele, or whatever, and you know that the laws of the game were more or less the same then as they are now. There have been some minor amendments – notably around when or how the goalkeeper is entitled to hold the ball (the back pass law and precise rules around regaining “possession” having dropped the ball), interpretation of offside (which now gives the overwhelming benefit, both positionally and in terms of “interfering with play”, to the attacking team), and the restart of play (most obviously and most recently the kick-off, which is no longer required to go forward at all). Some interpretations have changed too, including around the “professional foul” and the precise circumstances in which an immediate red card is a legitimate punishment. However, the fundamentals are unchanged and easy to understand. Compare this with almost any other version of football, and the consistency is remarkable.

The game’s rules body, the IFAB, has now produced a report on some quite radical outline changes. I happen to think these are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but they are worth looking at.

Match timing change

I don’t like it at all

One proposal is for the game to consist of two 30-minute halves, but with the watch stopped for every dead ball (between a penalty being awarded and taken, between a goal and kick-off, between a card and restart of play, between a signal for substitution and restart, etc).

I can see why this is thought worthy of consideration, but for me it is impracticable. At amateur level, where there are not even linesmen far less stadium clock assistants, it would put too much pressure on referees, who have plenty more to be dealing with. (At amateur level a referee doesn’t generally stop the watch at all, just taking a mental note of the length of any exceptional stoppage. At least, that’s what I did…)

Half/full-time only on ball going dead

On balance, I don’t like it.

Rugby fans will remember this year’s Six Nations match between France and Wales, where play continued for a full extra quarter (20 minutes) as France sought the winning try and conversion. The laws state that the game should only end once the offensive team concedes possession or forces the ball to go dead; but the practical outcome was ludicrous.

Equally ludicrous, perhaps, was Welsh referee Clive Thomas’ decision to blow for full time as Brazil took a corner against Sweden in the 1978 World Cup – the kick was headed directly into the net, but the goal deemed to have been after time. That was equally ludicrous.

Association Football does perfectly well in comparison to either these days. There is clarity about the minimum amount of time to be added, and the whistle is typically blown with the ball near the half-way line or after a clearance. That is fine.

The proposal here is for half-time or full-time to occur only upon the ball going out of play. For me, this could make the final minutes highly artificial, with a team needing a goal desperately trying to keep the ball fairly central, and the defensive team trying to carve out opportunities simply to launch it out of play. I do see the potential advantage in the clarity of the situation, but for me there is nothing wrong with it as is.

Passing to yourself at restart

On balance, I don’t like it.

This idea is that the player taking a corner, goal kick or free kick could simply dribble – something allowed from a free hit in field hockey, by comparison.

I am not vehemently against this, but I wonder how practicable it is. When would we deem the kick to have been taken?

Another proposal would allow the goal kick to be taken even with the ball moving. Although I see why (essentially to speed up play), this seems an unnecessary complication to the laws.

A further proposal is for goal kicks to be taken on the side the ball went out. This seems consistent, because this is a requirement for corners. However, it would actually slow down the game potentially, just at a time the other proposals are designed to speed it up. (In practice, it would also often be difficult for a referee at amateur level to judge the side.)

Notably, the current laws require any goal kick or free kick from within the penalty area to leave the area before the ball is deemed to be in play. It is unclear how this requirement would be dealt with. I say leave well enough alone!

Back pass penalty

I thoroughly dislike it!

Perhaps the most bizarre proposal is to make handling of the ball by the goalkeeper from a back-pass throw-in an offence, thus penalised by a penalty kick.

What?!

The laws of the game are clear that handling the ball from a back pass, like offside, is not an offence. It is merely a technical infringement, thus penalised by an indirect free kick. Leave it be!

A ‘penalty goal’

On balance, I like it.

The specific proposal here is for a goal to be awarded where a player other than the goalkeeper stops the ball entering the goal with the hand.

I have in fact long advocated that when a goal is certain to be scored and is stopped by a foul, a ‘penalty goal’ should be awarded – I outlined the details here.

So I wonder about limiting this to handball. Nevertheless, I like the principle and perhaps it is a useful starting point.

Clearer definition of ‘Handball’

I like it – it’s necessary.

This is a nightmare for referees. What appears incredibly simple in theory is not at all in practice.

The law states essentially that handball must be deliberate but is unclear about whether any movement of the hand/arm and subsequent touching of the ball or the specific intent to play the ball is meant. I always called it according to the former, but I may well have been wrong.

Sudden death penalty

On balance, I don’t like it.

The proposal here, again in fact an alignment with field hockey, is to deem the ball dead as soon as a penalty is saved, as per a penalty shoot-out.

This is designed to stop encroachment into the penalty area as both teams chase the rebound, but I do not see the problem. You can stop encroachment merely by stopping encroachment!

I can see some merit in stopping the lottery of the rebound follow-up. However, it would be inconsistent with the other laws of the game and I see no compelling reason to make this change.

General changes 

I like them all.

Some other changes are already being trialled, and I have to say I quite like them:

  • changing the order of kicks in a penalty shoot out (these would become more like a tennis tie breaker, with the team winning the toss going first but then kicks proceeding two for each team);
  • captains only speak to the referee (I used to insist on this anyway); and
  • players leave the field at nearest touchline even for substitutions (to save time wasting).

However, beyond these and a couple of others noted above (alongside a minor amendment I would make around allowing a goalkeeper to take a free kick inside his/her own area from the hands), there is not much wrong with the laws as they stand.

Keep it simple…

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