Reading the soccer rule book -- or any rule book -- is not really anyone’s idea of having a good time. But someone has to do it once in a while, so I’ll save you the trouble with a quick skim through the latest version of FIFA’s “Laws of the Game.” I shall call them rules, though.
It’s not exactly a massive task. Just 17 rules, taking up 51 pages. What I’m looking for are the changes made since last year’s edition -- trying to keep up to date. FIFA makes that an easy task -- any changes are marked with a vertical line in the margin.
So I can tell you very quickly that there are only six changes to the rules this year. I can also report that none of the changes is of any great consequence. There is nothing here that is going to have any effect on the way that the game is played.
The rules are ordered in such a way that the first seven rules all concern matters that need to be decided before a ball is kicked, before the action begins. Four of the six changes come within this section. If you can contain your excitement, they deal with the various shapes of goal posts, the listing of substitutes, and the color of undershorts. Only one of them contains a hint of action, though rather deflated action, as it tells the referee what to do should the ball burst during a penalty kick. Not exactly your everyday occurrence.
The other two changes are revisions of what is already in rule 8. Actually, the first -- concerning the kickoff -- is nothing more than a reshuffling of the order of the paragraphs, plus a couple of new headings. The second -- a definition of dropped ball -- contains the new wording: “A dropped ball is a method of restarting play when ...”
That is not quite the end of the excitement, because there are three amendments in the “Interpretation and Guideline” section: An amplification of the term “team officials” (making it clear that it includes coaches); and new instructions to referees as to what to do if an extra ball or (this is the new bit) “other object or animal” gets on to the field during play. Plus something that will presumably go down well with certain MLS clubs (indeed, it might have been written for them), a new clause about field markings: “Where artificial surfaces are used, other lines are permitted provided that they are of a different color and clearly distinguishable from the lines used for football.”
They mean soccer, of course -- but it is precisely the unsightly football, American football, lines, that have been legitimized.
So the International Football Association Board, which revises the rules, has not had a very busy year. It’s minimal activity, its minor tweakings, seem designed to prove that IFAB is still alive, though only just.
IFAB could, for example, have spent some time ridding the current rules of stupidities and ambiguities. The rules contain -- have contained for years -- a blatant absurdity that must be the most laughably fatuous clause in any set of rules anywhere. No clues from me to this clueless wording -- but you now have a reason for reading the rule book.
There is another, lesser, stupidity that could easily have been expunged this time -- because it concerns the kickoff, one of the sections that IFAB did alter. But the definition still contains the wording “The ball is in play when it is kicked and moves forward.”
What possible reason can there be for including those final three words “and moves forward”? The old requirement that the ball had to travel “the distance of its circumference” (which was always a pretty daft sort of definition anyway) was abandoned 15 years ago. If you look at Rule 13 (Free Kicks) you’ll find a much simpler notion: “The ball is in play when it is kicked and moves.” So even the slightest nudge to move the ball means it is in play. That should be enough for a kickoff.
In any case, this is one of those fussy relics from ancient times that most, if not all, referees ignore. How can they tell -- and who cares anyway? -- in which direction the nudge is made?
Of more weight is an ambiguity about the referee’s use of his whistle. In Rule 14 (The Penalty Kick) we are told that the “referee signals for the penalty kick to be taken.” No mention of a whistle -- under that wording his signal could simply be a wave of the hand, or a nod of the head, or a shout. But the Guidelines section has a “Use of Whistle” section, which says that “the whistle is needed to ... restart play for penalty kicks.”
Quite possibly this vagueness is deliberate, trying to allow the rules to apply to the crudest level of the sport where, perhaps, the referee doesn’t have a whistle. Maybe.
The somnolent IFAB could have done some tidying up, but didn’t bother. But there is a much more serious dereliction of duty on IFAB’s part. It has, yet again, failed to pay any attention to events and developments in the real live, on-the-field game.
There is, for a start, the matter of the shoot-out (kicks from the penalty mark is the official term). Recently published statistical research (see this column Dec. 17, 2010) has shown that the team that kicks first (meaning, in effect, the team that wins the toss) wins the shootout 60% of the time. A modification of the order in which the kicks are taken has been suggested as a way of correcting that overwhelming bias. IFAB shows no signs of being aware, either of the problem or the suggested solution.
Nor does IFAB tackle the by-now almost scandalous problem of cheating at shoot-outs and regular penalty kicks. Goalkeepers regularly advance from their line before the kick is taken, which they are not supposed to do. But they are hardly ever called for it. A recent stark example came in the third-place game at FIFA’s Club World Cup -- a save by goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr gave Al Sadd the win in the shootout. “A superb diving stop,” says FIFA’s web site -- totally ignoring the fact that Saqr had advanced nearly a yard off his line before Ryohei Hayashi made his kick.
Encroachment is an equally big problem -- it is forbidden, but it occurs on virtually every penalty kick. Another recent example -- Barcelona-Viktoria Plzen in the UEFA Champions League. As Lionel Messi ran up to take a penalty kick, nine players had already moved -- illegally -- into the penalty area or the D. Five Plzen players, four from Barcelona. The Plzen defender Frantisek Rajtorel was so far advanced that he was running right across the referee’s line of vision as he watched Messi!
There could thus be no possibility of the referee not noticing the incursion. With players of both teams encroaching, the rules say the kick should be retaken. It wasn’t.
In neither of the above examples of flagrant rule-breaking did the team being cheated make any form of protest. No one seems to notice any more.
When its rules are cavalierly ignored, IFAB ought to be concerned. But it prefers to deal with fashion issues. We can all be thankful that last year’s rule about the color of undershorts has now been expanded to take in both undershorts ... and tights.