Play Fair: Taking A Hammer To The Rules of The Game

An introduction to the document produced by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) looking to make changes to game of football.

Fair Play Rule Changes

There are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to attempting to improve the game of football. One side of the argument suggests that the game is fine as it is. Many believe that it is already the best and most popular game in the world and should be left alone. An alternative view is that you cannot stand still and it is prudent to make changes from time to time when there is an opportunity to make improvements for players and spectators alike.

I come down on the side of the latter view, and believe it is necessary to make alterations to the Laws to move with changes in the way that the game is played. If you look back to the late 1950s at video footage of games played at that time, you will realise that it has changed since then, and some amendments are necessary to keep the game up to date. As a regular columnist on the best West Ham fanzine ever, Over Land and Sea, as a co-author of this blog, and in my book Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I have frequently suggested changes that I believed would improve the game.

Within the book I made regular calls for the introduction of video technology, and devoted more than one chapter to this as it is something I am very much in favour of, as long as it is introduced in the right way and doesn’t alter the flow of the game. I am pleased to say that this is something that is now well on the way to becoming part and parcel of the professional game at the top level. In my prelude to our game against Stoke City in April 2015 I explained how I believed it should work, and future chapters on the topic reinforced my reasoning, especially resulting from some of the poor refereeing decisions that went against us in the 2015-16 season.

We had a batch of games in the second half of the season; away at Manchester United in the cup, away at Chelsea and Leicester in the league, and at home to Palace and Arsenal, all five of which resulted in draws. With a video assistant referee, all five would probably have resulted in victories, which would have seen progression into the semi-final of the cup, and eight more points in the league, which would have given us a Champions League place. Some will argue that these incorrect decisions balance themselves out over a season, but in reality they do not. I cannot recall a single instance where we benefitted from a contentious decision that later proved to be wrong in that season.

In my book I also unleashed another big bugbear of mine, the question of timekeeping, and timewasting. In a later article for Over Land and Sea, and also within the book after the home game had been played against West Brom on 29 November 2015, I went to town on this topic, and also re-watched the whole game on Sky with a stopwatch, and bemoaned the fact that less than 25 minutes of football was actually played in the second half of the game.

On 23 January 2016, after the game against Manchester City on that date, I wrote a chapter entitled Crime and Punishment. In this I pushed for changes in respect of the awarding of penalty kicks, questioned the need for having a penalty area, introduced my reservations about the offside law, questioned the concept of deliberate handball, and even made suggestions about increasing pitch sizes and goals by around 10% to allow for increases in sizes and performance of the human body since the original sizes were brought in 150 years ago.

The Laws of the game haven’t changed drastically in my lifetime (I’ve been following since 1958) but there have been some developments and amendments to the laws, and changes to rules of competitions. Some will say they have been beneficial, others will say that tinkering sometimes confuses the issue. So, for example, one of the most controversial laws in the game is the offside rule. This provokes a lot of debate, and was introduced initially to prevent “goal-hanging”. But quite how a player could be accused of “goal-hanging” when just inside his opponent’s half is beyond me. One change I would like to see is that a player can only be offside in the final eighteen yards of the pitch, but I reckon that change is a long way off. But it shouldn’t be.

The offside rule used to include “interfering with play” and there are a number of famous quotes surrounding this along the lines of “if he’s not interfering with play, or seeking to gain an advantage, then what is he doing on the pitch?” I haven’t quoted it exactly I’m sure, as there are contradicting views as to who first said it, but many attribute it to Bill Shankly. Nowadays they talk about first phase, second phase, active play etc. Anybody with any doubt as to the complexity of this rule should look up Law 11 in the Laws of the Game. It is a minefield, and almost impossible to explain.

Other changes in the last fifty years or so include the introduction of substitutes (many younger people will not remember a time when substitutes were not part of the game), the back pass rule, goalkeepers now being allowed to run with the ball without bouncing it (look up some old footage of the game to see this), the six second rule for keepers (but how often is this broken without being penalised?), three points for a win (it used to be two), and penalty shoot-outs. I am old enough to remember European ties ending all square and progression to the next round of the competition being decided by the toss of a coin. Many will believe that these changes have benefitted the game, although of course there are always detractors.

Recent innovations which are gaining momentum but still give rise to controversy in their initial trial stages include experimentation with video assistant referees, and changes to the sanctions for denial of obvious goalscoring opportunities. Now the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the independent guardians of the rules of the game, have issued a discussion document entitled “Play Fair”. I was looking forward to reading their proposals. The main aims are to develop the Laws to promote integrity and fairness, improve accessibility, and use technology to benefit the game. The three-pronged strategy within the document is a kind of five-year-plan to improve player behaviour and increase respect, increase playing time, and increase fairness and attractiveness. For each of these three areas they have three sub-divisions: “no law change needed – could be implemented immediately”, “ready for testing / experiments”, and “for discussion”

I will look at each part of the strategy in turn and consider its merits, and spread my writing over five articles on consecutive days, starting with this one. Many are sound ideas, (and even include areas that I have previously touched upon) that would improve the game in my opinion, but are they tackling all of the real issues that give rise to controversy? They don’t have any proposals for changes to the offside rule, the awarding of penalty kicks when the goal is not really being threatened, and they don’t really tackle the handball situation. Nevertheless some of their ideas are sound ones and I will describe them in some detail in following articles.