By Paul Gardner
Every four years, as the World Cup rolls into sight, we get the news that the rules of the game are not quite as good as they ought to be. And so we learn that a minor change is necessary for the tournament to be played properly. Either that, or the referees are told that they need to be particularly diligent in enforcing a rule that is already in existence.
In 1994, for instance, there was the much ballyhooed announcement from FIFA that the tackle from behind would be very harshly dealt with -- that it would call for an immediate red card, in fact. To underline just how serious an instruction this was, FIFA let it be known that referees who did not enforce the ban would be sent home.
This was a welcome clampdown on a thuggish feature of the game -- but it never got off the ground. A mere 14 minutes into the opening game we got an absolutely classic example of the foul as Germany’s Thomas Haessler clattered into Bolivia’s Luis Cristaldo. From behind, right in front of the referee ... who called the foul, but so far forgot his instructions that he didn’t even show a yellow card. Which demonstrated rather neatly that calling for a change in the style of refereeing was one thing, but getting referees to make that change -- almost overnight -- was quite another matter.
We’ve also had a clampdown on players who look untidy -- the ruling was that all players must have their shirts tucked into their shorts. If caught with shirts flapping loose, they would be ordered off the field to get properly dressed, and not allowed back on until the referee gave the OK. Fashions change. Nowadays, no one -- certainly not the referees - seems to care at all if shirts dangle over the shorts.
At the World Cup in Germany in 2006, the call for action -- this one came from FIFA president Sepp Blatter himself -- had a crusading, almost moralistic flavor to it. The sport, so we were informed, was being corrupted by cheaters - indeed their activities had reached almost epidemic levels. The culprits were guilty of simulation, or attempting to deceive the referee -- a crime better known simply as diving. In 2005 Blatter had proclaimed that he was in favor of red cards for diving, but by World Cup time had calmed down enough to demand only that the referees be especially alert for diving activities, and yellow-card them immediately.
Maybe these clampdowns are necessary, maybe not. It is very difficult to say whether they have any effect. In 1994, as I recall, only one red card was given for a tackle from behind. Which could mean that FIFA was targeting a foul that wasn’t all that common anyway, or that the mere threat of heavy punishment had caused players to clean up their act -- or simply that the referees were not following their instructions. In 2006 there did not appear to be a rash of yellow cards for diving.
The idea of adjusting the rules to ensure that soccer, at its showcase event, is presented at its best, is hardly one to argue with. So what can we look forward to this year? Not too much alas. You’d think -- well, I would think -- that FIFA would take a look at the relentlessly diminishing number of goals scored in each tournament (in 2006 it was 2.3 per game, the second lowest ever), and put forward a change in refereeing that might help reverse that trend.
But the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which boasts a splendid record of getting things wrong, has come up with a rule modification which may well mean fewer goals. Players taking penalty kicks will no longer be allowed to run up to the ball, stop, and then take the kick -- after the goalkeeper has committed himself. As it happens, I think the change is a good one ... but its introduction now, just ahead of the tournament, without any other change to encourage scoring or attacking play, is highly disappointing.
Of the changes mentioned above, only one was clearly intended to favor attacking play -- the mythical ban on the tackle from behind. So the changes and the clampdowns are unlikely to go very far in producing a more open, exciting, attacking game. A great pity that, for an opportunity is being lost.
I suppose there is still time for Blatter to butt in with a call for a clampdown of some sort. But one wonders what would work? Calls for fair play sound great, but are basically meaningless when the sport is played worldwide, year in and year out, under rules and refereeing that are much too permissive in dealing with reckless and violent play.
If IFAB and Blatter will not help, we may have to rely on geography. Two of the best World Cups, looking at the quality of soccer played, were in 1970 and 1986. Both were played in Mexico, where altitude (Mexico City stands at nearly 1.4 miles high), supposedly a huge problem, actually helped to counter the overtly physical game and give skill a chance to shine. In South Africa, the altitude is less challenging -- five of the nine stadiums are over half a mile high -- but there’s at least a chance that it will help to produce a more attractive game.