Could football and hockey learn more from each other on rule changes?

Just over a year ago I wrote this piece on the difference between officiating (association) football and (field) hockey. It touched at the end on what the two sports could learn from each other. As both sports embark on a round of rule changes, are they doing any learning?

Football

The changes to the Laws of the Game to apply from June have been poorly reported, as some expected changes (notably to the penalty kick) have not in fact been accepted.

The outright changes to the laws are that:

  • from a goal kick or defensive free kick in the penalty area, the ball will no longer have to leave the area to be in play;
  • substituted players will leave the field by the nearest boundary line; and
  • yellow and red cards will be available as sanctions to team officials as well as players.

How thrilling.

The real changes are, as ever, to the interpretations and explanations of existing laws and procedures. Most notably, the laws of the game now clarify what may be described as “gaining an unintentional advantage” (my phrase) as one of the three instances:

  • a change of possession;
  • the creation of a “promising attack”; and
  • the scoring of a goal.

A team “gaining an unintentional advantage” so defined will be penalised if it comes about due to the ball striking the hand and will cause a dropped ball if the ball strikes a match official.

This means that even an unintentional handball will be penalised if it leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal. It also means that if the ball hits a match official (most obviously the referee), play will no longer automatically continue; if this leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal then play will re-start with a dropped ball. Notably, “handball” is itself more specifically defined (players must not make their body bigger unnaturally or hold their hands above their heads or they are liable to concede the offence of the ball hits the hand or arm) and the procedure for a “dropped ball” is amended so that it is not longer contested (possession returns to the team which last touched the ball except in the penalty area, where possession automatically goes to the goalkeeper regardless of last touch; note the laws were amended in 2012 so that no goal can be scored direct from a dropped ball).

There are some other technical changes too, perhaps most notably that:

  • forwards will not be able to interfere with a defensive “wall” at a free kick;
  • goalkeepers will be required only to have one foot on the line at a penalty kick; and
  • the team winning the toss will be able to choose to kick off (with the other team then choosing ends).

The IFAB (the International Laws Committee, in effect) also highlighted the requirement for captains to be responsible for the conduct of their team and for respect for referees, but made no specific amendments in this area.

Hockey

Hockey’s new rules are officially already in force although, as with football, in practice they will only apply from next season.

There are two highlight changes:

  • the game will be played in four quarters (maximum 15 minutes) with time stoppages at penalty corners at all levels (although the precise nature of that stoppage will still vary between levels); and
  • the “kicking back” (ahem, “player with goalkeeping privileges”) is abolished, albeit technically as an experiment.

In fact, there are some other subtle changes which are less reported by will likely make more difference to game play, notably the allowing of a free hit for an offence inside the circle to be taken anywhere in the circle and the abolition of shadowing inside the circle of attacking free hits just outside the circle except where they are taken immediately. There are also some very minor amendments to the permitting of the propelling of the ball by any part of the body by the goalkeeper (this was previously restricted to feet and kickers), the penalising specifically of the taker of a penalty corner (the gloriously named “injector”) for any attacking encroachment into the circle, and (usefully for umpires) the specification that an offence must be by definition “against an opponent”. There is also some tidying up over the end of a penalty corner, which is now consistent at all times for all purposes (with common sense on face masks still being worn briefly after the penalty corner ends also being written into the rules).

Rejected changes

A proposed change to the laws of football which was widely expected to proceed by some reporters but did not happen was to the end of the penalty kick. There was an experiment in some leagues that the penalty kick would end as soon as it was saved or hit the frame of the goal, with play then restarted with a goal kick. This would have brought penalty kicks taken in regulation into line with penalty kicks taken in shootouts (and also right at the end of the game or half) – and interestingly also with penalty strokes in hockey.

Hockey-like experiments with “sin bins” (i.e. temporary suspensions from play) and rolling substitutes are ongoing.

Alignment

The most obvious alignment above concerns the coin toss before the match. As they were before 1997, football captains will again, like hockey captains, be entitled to choose to start the game (but doing so cedes the right to choose ends). Interestingly, the justification given for this was the amendment to the kick-off rule in 2016 which brought the kick-off in football almost exactly into line with hockey’s centre-pass (or “pushback” or “passback” as it is still more commonly known, even though the ball need not be pushed and can be played forwards).

However, for me the most interesting trend is the notion (again, note this is my phrasing) of “gaining an unintentional advantage” with regard to handball. This is not a million miles away from hockey’s rule that any contact with the ball by the body is an offence, but (like any offence in hockey) is penalised only if it causes a disadvantage to an opponent. Could football be heading in the same direction with handball (or even, in the longer term, more generally)?

Both sports are also introducing procedures to speed up the restart when the defending team receives a free in its own defensive area.

Divergence

Some of the changes will in fact cause divergence. Hockey will, for example, keep the rule that play simply continues if the ball strikes an umpire. Hockey also retains the requirement that players leave (as well as enter) the field on the same side within three metres of the centre-line for substitutions, which will be specifically contrary to football. Hockey goalkeepers will also still be required specifically to have both feet on the goal-line for penalty strokes.

Football is also introducing cards for team officials, something hockey abolished. There is also little prospect of football moving towards quarters, which hockey will at all levels (at least so far as the rule book is concerned) from next season.

Future

The football authorities are better than their hockey counterparts at explaining the precise reasoning for changes to the laws. Agree with the changes or not, their purpose is clearly outlined in football; it is arguable whether this is so with hockey. The amendment to require all hockey matches to be played over four quarters with time stoppages for penalty corners has raised particular concern because, to many, it is an unnecessary time-keeping complication at lower levels with no clear purpose.

The outcome of the way changes are presented is that it is easier to see where football may be going (hence the interesting idea that it may be heading towards a more hockey-like interpretation of an offence as needing to cause a disadvantage to an opponent, at least in some instances, before it is penalised).

There has been some discussion in football of moving to rolling substitutes as hockey did in the 1990s (at the same time, in fact, that it removed offside). However, with the changes to the requirements for leaving the field for substitutions just introduced, this would appear now to be unlikely in the short term.

The report (by former referee David Elleray) which recommended the ball be put directly back into play from goal kicks (now adopted) and that penalty kicks not have rebounds (which was expected to be adopted but was not) also included two further proposals taken directly and overtly from hockey. One was to have the game shorted to two halves of thirty minutes but with time stopped for all breaks in play (not exactly as hockey but close); and the other was to allow “self-passes” at free kicks (i.e. remove the restriction that a player taking a set piece cannot play the ball again until it has been touched by another player). However, neither of these has even reached experimental status.

The likeliest convergence for me, therefore, is the possibly reasonably imminent introduction of “sin bins” (temporary suspensions from play) at all levels of football, although exactly how this will be done is anyone’s guess.

Fundamentally it seems, for now at least, that there is as much divergence as convergence between the sports when it comes to the rules.

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