By Paul Gardner
There has been some encouragement recently for those of us who think the time has come, is really way past due, when there should be some radical changes in soccer’s rules, and in the way that those rules are formulated.
Firstly, there was FIFA president Sepp Blatter launching a broadside against the use of the shootout as a tiebreaker. Likening the shootout to “a tragedy,” Blatter said that soccer “loses its essence” when matches are settled by penalty kicks. Soccer “should not go to one-to-one, because when it goes to penalty kicks, it loses its essence as a team sport.” Soccer games, he declared, should be decided “11 vs 11.”
A few days later we heard from Theo Zwanziger, formerly head of the German soccer federation, now the head of a special FIFA committee appointed to suggest changes to the FIFA statutes. Zwanziger let it be known that he had been considering the abolishment of the International Football Association Board, the ancient body that, for the past 126 years, has been in charge of deciding exactly what the sport’s rules should say.
As a convinced anti-shootoutist, and an equally devout anti-IFABist I applaud both Blatter and Zwanziger. But I do so while wondering whether anything will come of their words. This is not the first time that Blatter has pilloried the shootout. He did so in 2006, in much the same terms, right after the World Cup final in which Italy had beaten France in a shootout.
At that time he said that “a replay, or gradually deducting players in extra time and playing golden goal” would be better solutions. He evidently wanted change before the 2010 World Cup: "We have four years or so, so I think we have time," he said, and asserted that high-level discussions would start soon.
I’m not aware of any such discussions, and the topic simply melted away. Until another high-profile shootout - Chelsea’s recent win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final -- triggered Blatter to open fire again.
This time, Blatter repeated his belief that shootouts destroyed the team essence of the game, but made no suggestions about possible alternatives -- he referred the matter to Franz Beckenbauer, the chairman of Task Force Football 2014, yet another committee devoted to making the sport better: “Perhaps Franz Beckenbauer with his Football 2014 group can present us with a solution, if not today then tomorrow.”
Sadly, as happens so frequently with any attempt to change things in soccer, Blatter’s notion met with immediate rejection. From Beckenbauer, who remarked that shootouts “bring emotions into play and are a lot more attractive than the toss of a coin, for example”.
No doubt they are, but it is sad to see Beckenbauer so quickly and so vigorously refuting a threadbare solution that no one is advocating.
The quick demise of a good idea seemed also to be the story of Zwanziger’s thoughts about abolishing IFAB. “It looks like IFAB will continue,” is the latest from Zwanziger. “We initially considered dissolving it but now IFAB, which has historic and important values, will be preserved.”
No mention of what those “important values” might be. But at least there may be an attempt to diversify the IFAB membership (at the moment, half of its eight members have to be Brits). A new IFAB could also include representatives of the media or technical specialists from soccer, Zwanziger added.
Which leaves me wondering whether Zwanziger is dissembling about the continuation of IFAB. What he is advocating seems to me to be a totally new body -- but one which will retain the IFAB name. I suggested something very similar back in 2006, and if that now comes to pass, well, six years qualifies as prompt action on the IFAB time scale.
What I was looking for was this: a goodbye to the idea that preserving a structure that dates from 1886 continues to serve a useful purpose. It does not -- in fact, it is an obstruction to progress. The abolishment, then, of IFAB. Its replacement by a full-time body whose membership reflects the worldwide game. At the moment, to highlight a massive absurdity, there is absolutely no guarantee that any of the four FIFA members on IFAB will be from South America ... while Wales and Northern Ireland and Scotland are each assured of a vote.
The new body would have a larger and more expert membership and, as far as I can make out, that seems to be what Zwanziger is aiming for. One aspect that Zwanziger does not deal with, though, is transparency.
It is traditional in soccer to surround referee activities with secrecy. Referees do not have to signal what calls they are making (indeed, there isn’t even an agreed set of signals anyway). They do not have to explain matters to the press. They are, in fact, rarely heard from. When players or coaches criticize the refereeing, they can expect to be fined.
That whole atmosphere of concealment has to be changed. I have suggested that any new body have a public face, that it employs a PR officer. I make that suggestion with some hesitation because I’m well aware that there is a lot of overlap these days between genuine PR work and spin-doctoring. But open discussion of the rules and of refereeing must be the first aim.