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More urgent than Van Basten's rule changes: soccer needs a total reversal of referees' negative mindset
by Paul Gardner, January 24th, 2017 2:25PM
By Paul Gardner

The problem is this. To praise Marco van Basten for speaking out on a topic that the soccer biggies never deign to address. Or to heap ridicule on him for making such a hash of his welcome declaration.

Dutchman Van Basten you will remember as one of the sport’s greats, a goalscoring forward, forced out of the game by injury at age 28. Since then he’s done some coaching -- including the Dutch national team -- without any great triumphs, and seemed to be slowly fading away, a fate emphasized when he took up his present job as FIFA’s Technical Director. I know that sounds pretty good, but you have to know that FIFA appointments of that sort are invariably sinecures, jobs that lead from obscurity to invisibility.

So it was really quite surprising to see Van Basten’s name in the headlines a couple of weeks back. And even astonishing to find him sounding off on a topic that FIFA -- and the rest of soccer for that matter -- never mention: Whether the sport needs improving, and if so how.

But while welcoming Van Basten’s new-found chattiness (he’s always been known as a guy who didn’t like giving interviews) I have to point out that his suggestions for changes that soccer should think about are far from encouraging. Two of them are old ideas that should have been thoroughly buried by now, but that keep popping up again -- a measure of just how hidebound soccer people can be.

Offside, for a start. How about getting rid of it altogether says Van Basten? Those of us in he USA know a lot about that -- it used to be a constant theme in the early days of the old NASL. Most of the owners were new to soccer and they were constantly riled by watching games in which promising attacking moves were killed off by offside calls. Heck, even goals were called back. As they were looking for a rip-roaring all-action goalscoring sport to bring in new fans, the owners kept up a constant anti-offside chorus and the hell with FIFA and its rulebook.

I think it did, finally, dawn on most of the owners that abolishing the offside rule was like a pebble thrown into a lake -- its ripples spread far and wide with mysterious effects. The likely culmination was that a no-offside game would be more, not less, defensively oriented.

Van Basten’s thinking on this seems to me quite amazingly naive:

“Without offside, the strikers could be behind the defenders.” As though the defenders would not take up deeper positions? But the biggest objection to banning offside is that, with forwards allowed to park themselves in opposing penalty areas, it would surely lead to a long ball game. And then what? The disappearance of midfield play? Quite probably. And all that would mean an emphasis on a more physical game, more big tough forwards, so bigger, tougher defenders. And more heading duels -- just when we’re discovering how dangerous they can be.

Evidently Van Basten thinks otherwise: “The attackers would have better chances, more goals would be scored. That's what the fans want to see.” Amen to the second part that declaration -- but the bit about more goals seems to me an utterly silly delusion.

Van Basten also wants to summon up, yet again, the sin bin. He’s recommending it for temporary banishment from games -- he suggests periods of five or 10 minutes. And when did a team ever have any problems playing defensively for a limited period like that? Is that what we want?

Has Van Basten never heard of time-wasting? Yes, he has. But he sees it as a problem only in the final stages of a game. The way to counter it, he suggests, is to make sure that -- during the final 10 minutes - the ball cannot be stationary for more than 10 seconds. No indication of whether this is another duty for the referee, or whether a timekeeper will take over in those final minutes.

We have new FIFA president Gianni Infantino to thank for the next one. His 48-team World Cup will feature 16 groups -- each with three teams. Raising the possibility that two of those teams, in their second game -- which would be the final game of the group -- could play a pre-arranged tie to ensure the elimination of the third team, which will not be playing on that day. So, ban tied games says Van Basten -- just as the old NASL did -- make any tied game end with a shootout, so that you always get a winner.

There’s more. Van Basten wants to revive the “rolling” shootout of NASL days, in which the kicker dribbles the ball in from 25 meters (35 yards in the NASL) while the goalkeeper can advance to the edge of the penalty area. This is also a battle with the clock -- the kicker will have 8 seconds to shoot, says Van Basten (the NASL version was 5 seconds).

I think the rolling shootout is, indeed, more eventful than straightforward penalty kicks. It also means fewer “goals.” Again, in a sport struggling to score even one goal in its showcase finals, is this the way to go?

More subs would be a good idea, according to Van Basten. No surprise that this brainwave came from a coach -- the result of a conversation with Pep Guardiola. Of course coaches (especially those from rich teams with powerful benches) like more subs, it gives them more chances to interfere in the course of the game.

But there is a fatal fault with rule changes recommended by coaches. I can’t think of any of them that has actually improved the game. Not surprising -- the aim of the coaches is to win games, and to increase their own involvement, not to play more attractive soccer.

An extra sub for an overtime game is a good idea -- as is investigation of temporary subs when an injured player has to linger on the sidelines for treatment (concussion injuries casting their ominous shadow again).

These rule changes proffered by Van Basten strike me as not having been given much thought. They range from the outright silly to the possibly useful. And they would have to be tested. Actually some of them -- banishing offside and the sin bin -- have already been tried and have never got anywhere.

Van Basten and FIFA could save themselves a good deal of trouble by -- at least for the immediate future -- dropping the idea of rule changes altogether and concentrating on another approach.

The search for a better, more exciting game -- that’s what FIFA is after, Van Basten tells us -- should begin with the rules exactly as they are, but a serious effort must be made to make sure that they are accurately enforced.

Item No. 1 on this agenda would be a demand to referees that they drop their age-old pro-defense mindset. Under this, when the referee has any doubt about a call, his call will favor the defenders. Nobody I have spoken with -- and I’ve spoken to plenty of soccer people of all types about this -- has any idea where that notion came from. For sure, I’ve been totally unable to find it actually written down anywhere.

It casts a thoroughly negative pall over refereeing, and the game. Much better that the benefit of doubt should be given to attacking players. Why not?

If that more positive approach were adopted, I’d say that the chances are that we would see more goals. And that would help undermine the problems that inevitably haunt a low-scoring sport.

Referees suffer under these problems -- but they help to perpetuate them. When a single goal may be the only score of a game, when 0-0 and 1-0 and 2-1 are the most likely score lines, referees may well call a conservative game, trying not to give a penalty, or a red card -- decisions that could result in the game’s only goal that would decide a game.

What is not so understandable is how referees are able to excuse the most blatant and violent fouls by goalkeepers -- the super-defensive player on the team. Benefit of doubt does not exist in these incidents -- the fouls by the goalkeeper are so obvious. But they are hardly ever called. They must be ... if only because a serious danger of concussion again presents itself.

I’ve no doubt that some rule changes will be necessary in soccer -- at least to face up to the concussion dangers. The sad thing is that, so far soccer has done absolutely nothing to try to reduce the incidence of such injuries. Such injuries, in fact, continue to be excused. The recent head clash between Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Hull City’s Ryan Mason resulted in Mason being rushed to hospital with a fractured skull.

Everyone was horrified -- but nothing that I have heard or read from England suggests than anyone saw anything wrong with the play itself. Cahill, it is emphasized, had no malicious intent. That is surely true. But it doesn’t mean that the sport of soccer has to live with violent, life-threatening head-to-head collisions.

Van Basten’s suggested rule changes will do nothing to stop such injuries. They are not intended to. But someone, somewhere, should be thinking about such matters. After all ... is it really more important to tinker with sin bins than to seek a way of avoiding serious head injuries? Wouldn’t a game free of such injuries be a better, healthier, more attractive game?