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FIFA’s Lawmaking Body Considering an Unwanted Revolution in Football

The International Football Association Board, or IFAB, the body that determines FIFA’s ‘Laws of the Game’, have released a new document on Saturday in which they propose a number of significant changes to the rules of football. However, what does this potentially entail, and is it anything practically useful or another episode of ego-stroking which lacks any consideration for fans?

Technical Director of IFAB, David Elleray, describes the strategy document, called Play Fair, that was released as a “quiet revolution” which is aimed at “getting football even better” (Reuters). “My starting point was to look at the laws and say ‘what are they for?’ and if there is no particular reason then would changing them make the game better?” Some of the proposed changes within the document includes players being allowed to play free-kicks or corners to themselves and dribble with the ball, the ball not needing to be stationary when a free-kick is to be taken, goal-kicks no longer being required to exit the penalty area, and no follow-up attempts being allowed after a failed penalty as well as penalties being awarded if a goalkeeper handles a back-pass.

These are relatively minor changes, but IFAB went even further within other contexts of the game; for example, referees are to stop the clock whenever the ball is out of play, along with teams being docked points for players surrounding referees. Additionally, it is also proposed that the length of matches should be reduced from 90 minutes to 60 minutes without an stoppages, while the full-time and half-time whistles can only be blown once the ball goes out of play. Also, penalty goals are to be awarded when players handle on or near the goal-line, in a fashion similar to other sports such as rugby that award points for intentional illegal obstruction of a scoring opportunity by the opposition.

If the whole point is, as Elleray indicated, identifying and changing rules that seem to have no particular reason, this document does not seem to do a very good job of it. For example, if the ball no longer needs to be static for a free-kick to be taken, then what is the reason for it? If the intention is to keep the ball moving at all times, why not just do away with the whole concept of a free-kick altogether? It just makes so much more sense to have play stopped at a particular point on the pitch where an offence was committed, as things are now and have been for many years.

Granted, there are some things that football fans would love to see dealt with, such as the unsavory surrounding of referees after a decision has been made in an attempt to put the referee into a position where they may reverse their decision (Which, by the way, I have never seen happen, so just stop with it). But IFAB goes about it the wrong way in punishing the team for what is very much an on-pitch transgression that would be more effectively stamped out through individual naming, shaming and punishment than having everybody at the club suffering the consequences.

Furthermore, the wish to remove follow-up attempts to failed penalties and replace them with goal-kicks seems to be an attempt at rewarding the goalkeeper for either saving the penalty or putting the taker off, while at the same time punishing the taker for not capitalizing. All good and well, but it detracts from the spectacle of football. When your team is playing, and there is a penalty, do you not get that heart-in-mouth feeling when a penalty is saved or hits the woodwork and that mad scramble in the box ensues where the taker desperately tries to squeeze the rebound into the back of the net while the goalkeeper does their utmost to get back on their feet and smother the ball, all while defenders and attackers alike charge toward the general vicinity where the ball was last seen?

Even more problematic is the view to make football a rigidly timed, stop-start sport like American football, for example. One of the major aspects of football is the physical fitness required to complete a full ninety minutes, and again, minimizing the physical toll reduces the spectacle. How often have teams come charging back into a game in the closing minutes to salvage a result as their opponents started to tire? How many epic moments would we be denied were there no stoppage time, or the tongue-in-cheek ‘Fergie time’? Would Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy and reputation be as massive as it is now if the late drama of the 1999 Champions League final never occurred? I think not.

It all seems suspiciously much like an attempt to make football more uniform with other sports, in order for a large variety of sports to appeal to a larger homogeneous group of spectators (And so become even more profitable). But it all seems the wrong way round, considering that football is the world’s most popular sport, and draws an immense following all around the world already. So why change a formula that is, clearly, quite effective? We all have our own pet peeves when it comes to football, but all in all you are a fan for a reason, and wouldn’t watch football if it was so fundamentally flawed that it requires significant tinkering, or is not to your taste. And if you don’t like football, there are a number of other completely unique sports that might take your fancy.

These proposals will be discussed over the next months before the 2018 IFAB annual general meeting, which will occur in March. This meeting will determine whether these changes are to be trialed in competitive matches. Unfortunately, we, the fans, probably won’t have much say in the whole process, because it looks like those in charge are completely out of touch with the man-on-the-street and only concerned with the financial gain column in the books.

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Marco Conradie
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