By Paul Gardner
Just over a week ago I was talking of the refereeing clampdowns that invariably accompany each World Cup, wondering what would be clamped down on this time.
Well, there's good news. It comes from Dr. Michel D'Hooghe, the Belgian who is the Chairman of the FIFA Medical Committee, and his target is violent tackling: "We will specifically tell our referees and let everyone know to use the red card as soon as a career-threatening foul is committed at the World Cup," D'Hooghe said.
That is a totally praiseworthy -- if somewhat delayed -- statement of intentions. Of course thuggish fouls should be severely punished, and the severest punishment is ejection, followed by suspension.
D'Hooghe has been campaigning for a cleaner game for some time now. In demanding action against dangerous play, D'Hooghe cites a campaign that he and the medical committee conducted during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Then, it was the use of elbows, particularly to the face, that came under attack. Red cards were demanded for such fouls, and the campaign, says D'Hooghe, was very successful, because the number of serious elbow-to-face injuries went down from 12 in the 2002 World Cup to only two in 2006.
More recently, D'Hooghe compiled a video-nasty of frightful fouls, which he has been using in his campaign to cut out violent tackling. Since the video was compiled, there has been the case of Michael Ballack, victim of a wild tackle that tore ligaments in his ankle and has put him out of the World Cup.
As befits his position, D'Hooghe is looking at matters from a medical perspective, and makes the interesting observation that “The first doctor at the World Cup is the referee.”
I like the thought, but must question whether it tells the full story. The role of the referee is certainly massively important, and he is of course the man on the spot. But his role is circumscribed by the rules of the sport, which define in a non-medical way what constitutes violent play and what does not.
In short, the “first doctors” are the sport's rulemakers -- the members of the International Football Association Board, IFAB. They are the ones who decide, or try to decide, what constitutes reckless play, or use of excessive play, and how harshly the offense should be punished.
What the above sequence reveals is that the decision-making necessary during the elaboration of the rules would benefit from medical advice. Such advice would add a human element to the rules, would stand as a clear indication that we're dealing here with a game that should be fun -- and safe -- to play.
Those simple aims seem to have gotten lost somewhere over the past few decades. IFAB is a remote organization that meets only twice a year. It shows no evidence of life between those meetings. It evidently prefers this haughty existence, just as it insists, absurdly, on talking of laws instead of rules. This is all of a piece, a dry-as-dust committee, out of touch with the modern game, immensely satisfied with itself, believing it is preserving what is best in the game, while, in fact, it is allowing the game to be drastically changed by modern attitudes.
The best example of that complacency is precisely the matter of violent play and career-ending tackles. That is something that IFAB should be aware of. It should be IFAB that takes the lead in stamping it out. Instead of which, the call to action comes from FIFA’s Medical Committee.
That, quite possibly, poses a problem. It’s not clear who D'Hooghe means when he talks of “we.” Evidently it is not IFAB, which has never been known to issue a clarion call for action. It may be just the Medical Committee speaking. Let us hope, though, that it is actually FIFA speaking, for then D'Hooghe's anguish at the mayhem he describes has a chance of producing lasting results.
It is, after all, permanent results that are needed here. Which brings us back to the matter of World Cup clampdowns. Yes, I have decidedly mixed thoughts about such action. Dangerous tackling, after all, exists throughout the game. Does it not look unpleasantly elitist if it only becomes a problem when the game’s top stars are involved at the glamorous end of the sport?
Yes, it certainly does. But that may prove acceptable if a positive change at the World Cup results in the same change being made at all levels throughout the sport. As I remarked recently, the sad thing is that the history of clampdowns does not offer much hope here. They tend to burst like comets over a World Cup and then to quickly burn out.
Which is why the answer to these problems should be sensible, well-thought-out, rule changes. Rule changes that have a direction and a purpose, rule changes based on a generally accepted vision of what out sport should be, rule changes that encourage what is desirable in the sport, and ruthlessly root out what is damaging to it.
I wish Dr. D'Hooghe well with his campaign. If it succeeds, during this World Cup, in stamping out thuggish tackles it will have a tremendous effect on encouraging skillful soccer. But more is needed. IFAB should respond to D’Hooghe’s lead and embrace it enthusiastically. But does that sound like IFAB? Hell, no.
IFAB is much more interested in the narrow-minded task of protecting its bailiwick from intruders -- among whom D’Hooghe may well number. As it happens, IFAB has issued a firmly worded statement, as recently as nine days ago. This what it says:
“It has been noted that certain associations and confederations are unilaterally issuing their own instructions and recommendations to referees within their territories concerning the enforcement of the Laws of the Game, thus increasing the chances of differing interpretations around the world. We would like to reiterate that the International Football Association Board (or FIFA on its behalf) is the only body with the authority to issue such additional instructions concerning the Laws of the Game in order to ensure uniform application worldwide.”
I am not about to argue with the desirability of having uniform application of the rules. But this is a vinegary, school-masterish admonition, and my objection is simply that IFAB should have other more noble aims as well -- in particular a responsibility to maintain all that is best, and unique, in the sport. I see no evidence that IFAB does that. I have never seen a forward-looking statement from IFAB, never a statement showing enthusiasm for the sport of which it is supposed to the guardian
IFAB deserves the description that Winston Churchill once memorably applied to the civil servants of the English government’s Treasury Department: “There they sit, like inverted Micawbers, waiting for something to turn down.”