By Paul Gardner
It's gratifying to see that the International Board (IFAB) has not let us down. It has shored up its reputation for avoiding serious issues by postponing action on a couple of tricky matters that were included on its agenda for last week’s meeting. Both came under the heading "Items for Discussion and Decision."
You can forget about the Decision. As for discussion, let's see. Firstly, there was that business about making feints in the run up to a penalty kick. Should such "broken" runs be banned? IFAB will think about it -- and come back to it in May. Seems odd. What's to think about? Do the members of the board never do any thinking until their annual meeting looms? I rather think that must be the case. Or worse, do its members ever actually watch any games? If they do, they must have seen examples of this ploy, and surely, given their position and authority, they would have formed an opinion about it? If ever there was a case for a clear cut yes or no, this is it. There should not be much need for discussion. Yet no decision was made.
That all suggests that IFAB members do not do much preliminary thinking -- even after an item has been placed on the upcoming agenda. Take the second of the suggested rule changes -- which also, apparently, needs further cogitation until May. This is a more serious topic, of fundamental importance to any attempt to stamp out deliberate fouling. This is the Item for Discussion and Decision -- it was submitted to the Board by FIFA:
To discuss sending-off offenses, particularly the triple punishment (penalty kick, red card, player suspension) that results when a player denies an obvious goalscoring opportunity to the opposing team.
I do not know when it was submitted to IFAB, but that statement was up on the FIFA website for some weeks before the meeting. Yet it is so loosely worded that it cries out for an explanation, and is simply asking to be misunderstood.
The problem is this. The red card for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity is being singled out for special treatment. It is held to be too harsh, as it brings the triple punishment described -- part of which, of course, is that the offending team has to subsequently play with 10 men. So just give the penalty kick and forget about the red card. The penalty kick would, in effect, replace the red card.
Of course, should the penalty kick fail, then the offending team has managed to escape unscathed, and the defender who committed the foul has learned that it is probably worth fouling when a goal looks inevitable. So maybe he gets yellow -- but it's still worth it.
That is bad enough. But more worrying is that there is no explanation offered as to why this particular form of penalty-kick offense should be treated differently from any other. After all, the triple-punishment argument applies to any red-card offense committed in the penalty area. You can stretch things a bit, and say that it also strongly applies to a red-card offense committed just outside the area, when a free-kick poses considerable danger for the defending team.
I presume -- though this is not made clear -- that a distinction is being made between violent fouls and non-violent fouls. The violent fouls will still be red-carded, but the non-violent will get, at the most, a yellow.
Which means that the phrase "denying an obvious scoring opportunity" will be fully applied, complete with red card, only when the offense is committed outside the penalty area. A real Alice-in-Wonderland scenario.
We can tumble a bit further down the rabbit hole by pondering this: One of the most frequent offenses in the current game is the tactical foul. The use of a minor foul -- nothing particularly physical or dangerous, a shirt-pull of a mild body block will do -- to break up a promising attack by the opponents.
These destructive fouls -- totally deliberate, utterly cynical -- show a complete lack of respect for the rules. A yellow card is mandatory (though far too frequently not given).
Logically, you might expect that a tactical foul committed inside the penalty area, the ultimate danger zone for the defending team, should be treated more harshly. Which can only mean a red card. But under the suggested revision they would have be treated in exactly the same way as if they had been committed 40 yards up field, which means lightly, and once again a penalty kick would replace the red card.
I fear that the likely resolution of these absurd contradictions -- once IFAB has "discussed" the matter -- is that the whole notion of "denying an obvious scoring opportunity" will disappear from the rulebook. This would be the standard IFAB response when faced with the problems that inevitably arise from trying to enforce stricter refereeing. It is really quite pathetic how often the decisions go in favor of allowing a greater freedom to foul.