Offside, 5 March
FIFA is tying players up in new regulations.
Last week the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the game’s lawmaking body, approved a number of amendments to the laws of the game.
Out go the golden and silver goals. In come artificial pitches, which made a brief appearance in the 1980s before being outlawed. The number of substitutions in international friendlies will be limited to six players in order to stop Sven-style team swapping. The board did, however, reject a proposal from the German federation for half-time breaks to be extended from 15 to 20 minutes (presumably to allow the Germans more time to digest their half-time wursts).
And of course no rule-tinkering exercise is complete without at least one killjoy regulation. Now players who remove their shirts will be automatically cautioned. This rule was introduced a few years ago, yet in a moment of rare sanity FIFA scrapped it – though inflammatory de-shirting remained a cautionable offence. Why? ‘This decision should not be seen from a purely aesthetic perspective’, explained FIFA official Jose Maria Garcia Aranda. ‘Because in some situations and some countries this gesture can be considered as provocation, notably for the fans of the opposing team.’ This must come as a relief to players like Martin Keown and Luke Chadwick who, if players were to be cautioned on aesthetic grounds, would have been looking at straight red cards the moment they stepped out of the tunnel.
I always get nervous when Sepp Blatter and his chums start meddling with the laws of the game. If they’re not trying to clamp down on bad language or over-exuberant goal celebrations, they are invariably trying to stack the odds in favour of attackers. Ever since the 1990 World Cup, in which defences were definitely on top, FIFA has been rewriting the rulebook to discourage negative play. Occasionally they get it right. The 1992 change to the backpass rule has made it much more difficult for teams to cynically run down the clock. However, more often than not they get it wrong. The golden and silver goals were brought in to discourage teams from playing for penalties, but only succeeded in encouraging even more caution.
The new directive on offside is another classic example of how FIFA’s tampering has made matters worse. The problems started when the concept of ‘active play’ was written into the offside law in 1995. This amendment, which meant that inactive players in offside positions should not be penalised, might appear relatively minor but it has produced a considerable amount of confusion. When exactly is a player active? It’s a difficult call for officials and defenders alike to make.
In order to resolve the confusion FIFA issued new instructions in October 2004 in an attempt to clarify the law. But far from making things clearer, the outcome was further confusion. The stupidity of the new directive was highlighted when Southampton’s Gordon Strachan and Bolton’s Sam Allardyce started placing players in offside positions during free kicks. Defenders were flummoxed. Poor old Ian Walker, the Leicester City goalkeeper, got so distracted by Kevin Nolan standing on the edge of the six-yard box that he scrambled the ball into his own net by mistake. As a result the English Football Association was forced to issue a further instruction to officials – a clarification of a clarification – advising them to penalise players for ‘deceiving or distracting an opponent’.
FIFA rule changes have also made it virtually impossible for defenders to make any sort of physical contact. A tackle from behind is now an automatic red card offence regardless of whether it is dangerous. It could have been worse. Sepp Blatter reportedly wanted all sliding tackles banned, while his sidekick Michel Platini wanted to ban tackling altogether. Nobody wants to see reckless career-threatening tackles, but referees now penalise defenders where physical contact has been relatively minimal.
FIFA’s aim has been to promote attacking play and produce more goals. Okay, fair enough, we all love to see goals. But messing with the rules is not the way to do it. Far better that attacking teams get better at… well, attacking. Outlawing aggressive tackling or continually revising the offside rule is a poor substitute for devising new tactics or developing more skilful, creative forwards. Where are the dribblers and playmakers who are capable of springing an offside trap? FIFA shouldn’t be moving the goalposts to make it easier for attackers. The onus should be on attackers to raise their game.
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