By Paul Gardner
The annual meeting of the International Football Association Board -- IFAB, the group that makes and unmakes soccer’s rules -- can hardly be called one of the sport’s glamour occasions. But it is a highly important one, for the decisions made are quite likely to have a profound effect, for better or worse, on the game.
I’d have to say that most of the Board’s recent decisions have done little to improve matters. In particular, the Board has totally failed to come to grips with the relentless way in which soccer is becoming more and more physical -- with the inevitable ebbing of the unique soccer skills -- the dribbling, the ball artistry.
Sometimes it is a case of one step forward, followed soon, and quietly, by one step back. IFAB has a habit of caving in to expediency, of altering the rules when they become a problem. The much-vaunted campaign against the tackle from behind, for instance, was all the rage in the 1990s. It was singled out for special mention in 1995 -- but only in the Additional Instructions section. The tackle from behind as a separately identified offense then advanced to inclusion in the Decisions of the IFAB section, but it never made it into the wording of Rule 12 itself. It proved difficult to get any consistency from referees on the calls, and so the tackle from behind was quietly dropped from the rule book altogether in 2005. Logically, we still have plenty of such tackles that go unpunished.
A similar retreat in favor of fouling defenders is now to be discussed at the Board’s next meeting in March. It was decided back in 1991 (again, this first mention came not in the wording of Rule 12, but in the appended Decisions of the IFAB) that a player who fouled to prevent another player from scoring, should be red-carded. The phrase “denying the opposing team an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” appeared in the rules fo the first time. By 1997, this had been incorporated into Rule 12 itself as a “sending off offense.”
Now comes -- certainly later than I, for one, expected -- the awaited reaction. The objection applies to offenses committed in penalty area. It is too harsh, the critics say, to send the offender off. That constitutes a triple punishment for the offending team: The penalty kick against them, having to play with 10 men, and further suffering because the offending player will be suspended for at least one game. Keith Hackett, the man in charge of England's premier league referees (he is stepping down in January) summed it up: “Just award the penalty kick if it is inside the penalty area, and caution the player.”
I must point out that this would apply only to a “regular” foul. If the foul is violent enough to warrant a red card, then the card would be given.
The matter has been submitted by FIFA for IFAB’s “discussion and decision.” And the betting here is that IFAB will comply with FIFA’s “suggestion” and that the “denying an obvious scoring opportunity” wording will become meaningless, indeed will, in all probability, disappear from the rules.
For this reason: if you are not going to red-card a player for committing this offense inside the penalty area, how can you red-card a player who commits the offense in a less dangerous position outside the area?
It is greatly tempting to see in this suggested rule change yet another concession to goalkeepers, who are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries. After all, it’s not as though referees have ever been quick to eject goalkeepers, anyway.
If the change goes through, then we can expect a change in the mentality of all defenders. It is pretty clear that players do have an actuarial approach to fouls, they do weigh the risks vs the benefits. This is not a slur on the players, merely a measure of what now passes for professionalism.
With this change, the risks become considerably less. After all, the player will not be sent off, his team will not be reduced to 10 men, he will not be suspended ... and there is always the chance that the PK will be missed or saved. So why not commit the foul? What’s to lose?
Another topic directly concerning goalkeepers and penalty kicks will come under IFAB discussion next month (again at FIFA’s request): the vexed question of players who employ feints during their run up to take a penalty kick.
On this subject, I find I’m firmly in the goalkeepers’ corner. I have an almost total conviction that, years ago, there was either a rule or a guideline that banned such feints and insisted that the player taking the kick made an unbroken run up to the ball. But I can’t find anything that supports that conviction. Could I have dreamed that one up?
Certainly, feints are now common place. They reached their appointed, and ridiculous conclusion in the recent Africa Cup of Nations when Egypt’s Hosni Abd Rabou came to a virtual stop during his run up, paused as Algerian goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi made his dive, and then simply stroked the ball into the now unguarded part of the net. The episode was sheer farce, and Chaouchi was understandably enraged at being made to look foolish.
What should have happened is that the referee should have cautioned Abd Rabou for unsporting behavior, and ordered the kick retaken. But he did nothing.
IFAB should certainly act to prevent any more absurdities. Demanding that the run-up be unbroken seems to be the only solution. Oh well, score another victory for the goalkeepers!