Twice in recent weeks we've had top English Premier League coaches suggesting changes to the rules of the game. First it was Alex Ferguson -- the longest serving EPL coach -- who criticized the sometimes mystifying criteria that referees use when deciding how much extra time to add at the end of each half of a game.
Now we have Arsene Wenger -- the second longest-serving coach -- telling us that he doesn't think much of throw-ins. Just so you know: both coaches had an axe to grind. ManU had just lost a game to Aston Villa, and Ferguson thought the three minutes added on should have been more -- possibly allowing ManU to tie or even win the game. While Wenger was evidently recalling last season when Arsenal was beaten by Stoke City, both of whose goals came as a result of super-heaves by long-throw specialist Rory Delap.
Ferguson's suggestion I like. A more accurate way of measuring injury time - instead of relying on what seems like the referee's guesswork - makes sense.
Wenger's rule-changing idea I do not like. He's of the opinion that throw-ins should be replaced by kick-ins. I was present during the 1993 under-17 World Cup in Japan when just such an experiment was performed. Evidently, it was not considered successful by FIFA, because nothing more has been heard of it.
I found the experiment something of a farce, because you don't have to ponder the matter for more than a few minutes to know what is going to happen. And it is not good. In Japan, I asked the Brazilian coach Umberto Redes (who was coaching Qatar) what he thought of it, and he summed it up perfectly: "Maybe this is good for the Irish or the English, the way they play. But it is not good for soccer. If they're going to change the rules then they should make changes that favor the players who have soccer skills ... those who have skills with their feet."
Redes knew that each kick-in within the opponent's half would now be turned into what amounted to a long free kick into the penalty area -- one for the tall guys to battle for in aerial duels. Route 1 soccer, as the English call it. A rule change that encouraged messy goal-mouth scrambles. And not many goals.
Which was pretty silly, as Sepp Blatter, lauding the experiment, had said that it was designed to increase scoring. Another thing about the under-17 experiment was that it encouraged time-wasting. The Japanese team -- which had evidently studied the matter -- included a specialist kick-in taker. Whenever they got a kick-in, we had to wait while this player trotted over to take it (perversely, he always seemed to be located on the opposite side of the field). In one game, Japan had 23 kick-ins, and I estimated the time-wasting to be around five minutes.
This hardly supports Wenger's contention that kick-ins would "make the game quicker." Whether that is a good thing or not, in a game already played at 100 mph, is open to question. Wenger also makes the point that soccer should be played with the feet, not the hands, and therefore he finds Delap's long throws somehow "unfair." Blatter made the same argument in 1993 -- facetiously telling me that "I do not see in basketball, a game that is played with the hands, that they use their feet to put the ball back into play."
OK, the theory is good -- but the practice, the inevitability of a long ball, makes a mockery of it.
Pele has -- or some years back, had -- a similar idea. He wanted throw-ins abolished, and the restart to be made by a player holding the ball then dropping it to the ground to perform a drop-kick. He demonstrated it for me in his New York office. It played hell with the furniture, but -- because it was Pele doing the demonstrating -- was quite impressive. He assured me that players would not resort to long high kicks, but would play the ball quickly and smoothly along the ground, knocking over another trash can to prove his point.
Now that might be an improvement, if some way of banning long high kicks could be found.
Another problem with the 1993 kick-in trial was that it clearly devalued the corner kick. Any kick-in within, say, 30 yards of the opponent's goal became a bigger threat -- because the "no-offside on a throw-in" rule was also applied to kick-ins. Thus, such kick-ins became as dangerous as a corner kick and more dangerous than a regular free kick.
To sum up: to get rid of the throw-in is not a bad idea -- throwing the ball is not supposed to be, indeed clearly is not a soccer skill. But a kick-in has to have limits placed on it - possibly requiring that ball be played along the ground, and that opposing players be at least, say, three yards away.
Such a change needs a trial run. But it has to be season long, and it has to be performed by a competent professional league. And that is the big problem with any try-out of rule changes: no competitive league will want to be playing a different version of the game from the "real" game -- especially if (or most likely, when) they have to play cup games under the "real" rules.