By Paul Gardner
Coming up shortly, the next meeting of the International Football Association Board, IFAB, the curiously composed little group that dictates what soccer's rules should be.
The agenda for the meeting has been published, and it is the usual hodge-podge of the good and the not so good. And, this year, of the very bad indeed.
The good is a proposal that would allow an extra (i.e. a fourth) substitute to be used in overtime periods. A sensible move and one that (says he, keeping his fingers securely crossed) is not open to abuse.
The very bad is the eighth and last of the proposals that IFAB will consider. It is designed to abolish what has become known as “triple punishment” -- a phrase that is as misleading as it is pernicious. We’ll come to that.
At the moment, the offense of “denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity (ogso)” -- i.e. fouling an opponent who is about to score, or at least get off a shot on goal -- brings an automatic red card. If the foul was in the penalty area it also brings a penalty kick. That is when the complaints start about triple jeopardy -- red card (hence the team reduced to 10 men), penalty kick, and subsequent player suspension.
This, says the proposal (it comes from FIFA) is “widely considered to be too severe.”
What the amendment is seeking to do is to abolish the automatic red card for denying an ogso, when the offense is committed in the penalty area. A red card would be given only for certain offenses -- they are spelled out as handball, holding, or “an offense committed from behind.” For all other offenses whistled as denying an ogso, a yellow card will be enough.
But a player will still get a red card for denying an ogso if his foul (whatever it may be, no exceptions) is committed outside the area. Which gives us the strange notion that a serious red-card foul committed outside the penalty area becomes a lesser yellow-card foul when committed inside the penalty area. That is the sort of precedent that rulemakers are usually careful not to set. It is also worth pointing out that this apparent non-relaxing of the red-card rule is something of a sham, given that referees, probably correctly, do not make many denying-ogso calls from that distance.
Anyway, why should the rules be lenient to a team that has illegally prevented its opponent from scoring? Given the low-scoring levels of the modern game, denying an ogso is a serious offense, a game-winning or game-saving offense and -- in terms of tournament qualifications -- quite probably a multi-million-dollar-saving offense.
Under those circumstances (those temptations, one might say), the punishment must be harsh. The triple jeopardy is not too severe. It does not present a problem. Though -- and this is a different matter, one not mentioned in the amendment -- it may become a problem if referees, affected by the propaganda against it, become reluctant to enforce it.
And there is, of course, some evidence of that. But the answer is not to cave, but for the authorities to insist on the rule being applied, and to back the referees when they do that. Instead we have a pusillanimous FIFA proposing that the sport back down and withdraw a sensible rule in favor of one that will encourage more rule-breaking and fouling.
Getting back to the core of the matter, the nature of that triple punishment. It’s not clear that a penalty kick should be regarded as a punishment. What the penalty kick does is to re-establish the goalscoring situation that the defending team’s foul play destroyed. You can argue that there is an element of punishment there, because the PK almost certainly (but not always) will be a more favorable situation for the attacking team.
If denying an ogsowere followed by the award of a goal, now that would be real punishment. But that is not what happens. The penalty-kick taker’s direct opponent will be the goalkeeper -- who might well be the opponent who committed the foul. The pressure, of course, is all on the kicker. The goalkeeper, either as the fouler or simply as the keeper, has nothing to lose in this situation. If he saves the penalty, then we might well have another “triple” situation but one that works in favor of the offending team. The goalkeeper becomes a triple hero -- firstly for getting away with a red-card foul, secondly for making the save, and thirdly for ensuring a crucial win.
There is a strong flavor to this attempted rule-change suggesting that one of the main considerations is to avoid ejecting goalkeepers.
It is also odd to find a player’s subsequent suspension included in the trio of punishments. Again, why is FIFA suggesting that the rule-makers take the side of the offending team? If being concerned about losing players for later games is to become a matter for the rules, then it would make much more sense, and be much healthier for the game, if FIFA were to propose a rule amendment showing consideration for the victims of fouls, rather than for those who commit them.
Consider one of these triple punishment situations. What if the player dribbling in on goal is injured by the foul? Not too badly injured, but enough for him to miss the next two games. The equivalent of a two-game suspension ... is that not an extra punishment for the innocent team? Why should they not be in some way compensated for that, especially if the rules are now going to look more kindly on the offending player and his foul?
As for the nature of the penalty area fouls that would still require a red card, the wording of the FIFA amendment raises a massive question. The defender will be red-carded if he denies an ogsoby handling, or “by holding or an offense committed from behind ... when he has no opportunity to play the ball.”
Whoever wrote that needs reminding of the history of his own rulebook. Back in the early 1990s the sport became concerned (at last!) about violent tackling. The tackle-from-behind was singled out as presenting the gravest danger, and after several years of temporizing on the issue, FIFA finally got round to banning it in the 1998 rulebook -- although the reference appeared in the “Decisions of IFAB” section of Rule 12, rather than as part of the rule itself: “A tackle from behind, which endangers the safety of an opponent, must be sanctioned as serious foul play” - i.e. red-carded.
Things were complicated in 2002 when the rulebook added a new “Additional Instructions” section which included, under a definition of serious foul play, challenges endangering the safety of an opponent “from the front, from the side or from behind ...” - a definition that obviously deprived the tackle from behind of any special status. Yet that wording, and the original wording introduced in 1998 -- which clearly does give special status to the tackle from behind -- continued to appear in the same rulebook for three years.
The ambiguity continued until 2005 when the IFAB Decision in Rule 12 was amended to remove the reference to the tackle from behind. It now read: “A tackle which endangers the safety of an opponent, must be sanctioned as serious foul play.” In the current rulebook, the IFAB Decision reference no longer appears -- but the reference to dangerous tackles made “from the front, from the side or from behind ...” remains in a new “Interpretation of the Laws” section.
It seems quite plain that the rulemakers decided to avoid singling out the tackle from behind for special punishment, presumably because it implied that other forms of tackle (from the front or side) were less dangerous. A debatable, but certainly not an idle, point.
But the proposers of the new “triple punishment” amendment seem to be unaware of that history, and have now re-introduced the idea of offenses committed “from behind” as warranting harsher punishment. Obviously this flies in the face of what the current rules say ... so how can IFAB even accept the amendment for consideration?
In short, the “triple jeopardy” amendment is ill-thought out. It is also badly worded. But above all it is a dangerously retrograde proposal. Those who propose it cannot make a serious case for it. Nor do they admit that its acceptance would increase the likelihood that last-ditch, denying-an-ogso type fouls will be committed. Especially ominous is the fact that the amendment is an attempt to undo an existing rule, a rule that comes down harshly on negative, destructive and frequently cynical play.
IFAB should seriously consider that. But we are probably about to witness another example of why IFAB itself is a problem. IFAB has eight voting members: 4 Brit members, representing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 4 members appointed by FIFA.
Under IFAB regulations, six votes are needed to change a rule. As this amendment comes from FIFA, one can safely assume that the four FIFA votes will support it. If all four, or three, of the British members vote against it, the amendment will fail. To pass, the amendment needs the votes of two of the British members - two votes from four countries whose referees are already more reluctant to give red cards than any others that I am aware of. Which leaves little room for optimism that this wretched revision will be rejected.