Rulemakers to give defenders another break?

By Paul Gardner

The annual meeting of the International Football Association Board -- IFAB, the group that makes and unmakes soccer’s rules -- can hardly be called one of the sport’s glamour occasions. But it is a highly important one, for the decisions made are quite likely to have a profound effect, for better or worse, on the game.

I’d have to say that most of the Board’s recent decisions have done little to improve matters. In particular, the Board has totally failed to come to grips with the relentless way in which soccer is becoming more and more physical -- with the inevitable ebbing of the unique soccer skills -- the dribbling, the ball artistry.

Sometimes it is a case of one step forward, followed soon, and quietly, by one step back. IFAB has a habit of caving in to expediency, of altering the rules when they become a problem. The much-vaunted campaign against the tackle from behind, for instance, was all the rage in the 1990s. It was singled out for special mention in 1995 -- but only in the Additional Instructions section. The tackle from behind as a separately identified offense then advanced to inclusion in the Decisions of the IFAB section, but it never made it into the wording of Rule 12 itself. It proved difficult to get any consistency from referees on the calls, and so the tackle from behind was quietly dropped from the rule book altogether in 2005. Logically, we still have plenty of such tackles that go unpunished.

A similar retreat in favor of fouling defenders is now to be discussed at the Board’s next meeting in March. It was decided back in 1991 (again, this first mention came not in the wording of Rule 12, but in the appended Decisions of the IFAB) that a player who fouled to prevent another player from scoring, should be red-carded. The phrase “denying the opposing team an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” appeared in the rules fo the first time. By 1997, this had been incorporated into Rule 12 itself as a “sending off offense.”

Now comes -- certainly later than I, for one, expected -- the awaited reaction. The objection applies to offenses committed in penalty area. It is too harsh, the critics say, to send the offender off. That constitutes a triple punishment for the offending team: The penalty kick against them, having to play with 10 men, and further suffering because the offending player will be suspended for at least one game. Keith Hackett, the man in charge of England's premier league referees (he is stepping down in January) summed it up: “Just award the penalty kick if it is inside the penalty area, and caution the player.”

I must point out that this would apply only to a “regular” foul. If the foul is violent enough to warrant a red card, then the card would be given.

The matter has been submitted by FIFA for IFAB’s “discussion and decision.” And the betting here is that IFAB will comply with FIFA’s “suggestion” and that the “denying an obvious scoring opportunity” wording will become meaningless, indeed will, in all probability, disappear from the rules.

For this reason: if you are not going to red-card a player for committing this offense inside the penalty area, how can you red-card a player who commits the offense in a less dangerous position outside the area?

It is greatly tempting to see in this suggested rule change yet another concession to goalkeepers, who are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries. After all, it’s not as though referees have ever been quick to eject goalkeepers, anyway.

If the change goes through, then we can expect a change in the mentality of all defenders. It is pretty clear that players do have an actuarial approach to fouls, they do weigh the risks vs the benefits. This is not a slur on the players, merely a measure of what now passes for professionalism.

With this change, the risks become considerably less. After all, the player will not be sent off, his team will not be reduced to 10 men, he will not be suspended ... and there is always the chance that the PK will be missed or saved. So why not commit the foul?  What’s to lose?

Another topic directly concerning goalkeepers and penalty kicks will come under IFAB discussion next month (again at FIFA’s request): the vexed question of players who employ feints during their run up to take a penalty kick.

On this subject, I find I’m firmly in the goalkeepers’ corner. I have an almost total conviction that, years ago, there was either a rule or a guideline that banned such feints and insisted that the player taking the kick made an unbroken run up to the ball. But I can’t find anything that supports that conviction. Could I have dreamed that one up?

Certainly, feints are now common place. They reached their appointed, and ridiculous conclusion in the recent Africa Cup of Nations when Egypt’s Hosni Abd Rabou came to a virtual stop during his run up, paused as Algerian goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi made his dive, and then simply stroked the ball into the now unguarded part of the net. The episode was sheer farce, and Chaouchi was understandably enraged at being made to look foolish.

What should have happened is that the referee should have cautioned Abd Rabou for unsporting behavior, and ordered the kick retaken. But he did nothing.

IFAB should certainly act to prevent any more absurdities. Demanding that the run-up be unbroken seems to be the only solution. Oh well, score another victory for the goalkeepers!

7 comments about "Rulemakers to give defenders another break?".
  1. John Daly, February 15, 2010 at 8:22 a.m.

    It is not that often that I agree with Paul Gardner, but I am in almost total agreement with him on this article. However, I would like to add the question:- When will FIFA act upon the ridiculous grappling, wrestling, blocking, pick setting, etc., that goes on at free kicks and corners? Football at corner kicks resembles the NBA these days! Players, mainly defenders, wrap their arms around each other and referees rarely have the backbone to award penalties or have been advised by their respective authorities that they should not punish the miscreants! Why?

  2. Rick Redman, February 15, 2010 at 9:24 a.m.

    Seems at the higher levels of soccer, most of the rules are ignored. Soccer at one time was a game of skill and finesse. It now is a game of professional cheating. If FIFA is not going to enforce rules, don't bother to write the and make a rule book. I coach younger players & it is difficult to teach them correct soccer play following the rules when referee's and pro players ignore the written rules.

  3. John Molinda, February 15, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.

    I agree with Paul Gardner and the commentors that the game is relentlessly transitioning from skill to combat. The problem is not with the rules themselves but the enforcement of the rules. My daughter is now playing collegiate soccer and in her entire career (over 500 matches I would estimate) she has NEVER seen a red card shown for a foul (other than a couple of spitting or swearing type fouls). Also, there were many times when I wish she could have waived her right to a penalty kick for being fouled in the penalty area because then there might have been a reasonble possibility that the referees would actually call the fouls.

  4. Roy Gordon, February 15, 2010 at 10:15 a.m.

    On the taking of penalty about allowing the goalkeeper to move in any direction once the whistle has blown? This will force the taker of the penalty kick to move immediately to the ball. It will also create a scenario whereby the PK is not a virtually automatic goal.

  5. Austin Gomez, February 15, 2010 at 11:52 a.m.

    ADDENDA to be issued for the inquisitive Paul G:

    First, let us be correct in the legislative terminology of the IFAB, wherein these 4 Nations, that comprise Great Britain, + 1 FIFA representative all compose the International Football Association Board (with FIFA's power of only 'suggesting' LAW changes) who only possess the 'power' to amend, change, or delete the LAWS of the Game! Forsake the faulty word: 'rules.' This word does NOT exist, as these primary 14 Laws were written in the 1863 of England!

    Secondly, after so many years of a particular Law change: traditionally/ mandatorily, it has been faithfully followed by all certified Referees, then these IFAB Decisions thus become 'INHERENT.' and hence, though not actually stated in the LAWS via print, but still have a lasting EFFECT into the transmission of how the GAME is to be CONDUCTED/ PLAYED by the PARTICIPATNS! By the way, DECISIONS on the Laws were initially placed into the Framework of the Law's 'corpus' AND guidework for the express reason: 'demanding that all REFs consistently make their Decisions according to the Law Book' --- insofar as 'telling-Referees-how-to-officate properly!

    Thirdly, the GAME changes just as the PACE of the Game has changed throughout the years - decades, etcetera.
    Therefore, if a well=written LAW has to be amended because of a needed, up-to-date 'modification,' then so be it!... with the End Result being for the Lawchangers: SAFETY & FAIRNESS for all the 22 Participants (only) with its Final Result being the ENJOYMENT of this "Most Beautiful Game" for its most important ingedient: the Spectators who wish only 1 fundamental objective --- to view the Skills, the creative Artisty, fun-filled Excitement of all the individual Players, which should then determine the Winner of that Contest!

    This is my OPINION with regard to this Article................"de ipso facto"

  6. Richard Nathan, February 15, 2010 at 6:23 p.m.

    Why not allow a substitution for the first player on each team red-carded in a game? With such a rule, a player who fouls to deny a goal-scoring opportunity (including a keeper) would be sent off and, if appropriate, a penalty awarded. But the offending team would not be required to play a man down unless it has committed multiple red-card offenses. To assure adequate deterrence of dangerous play, however, I would also suspend the red-carded player for a minimum of the next two games.

  7. Derek Bell, February 16, 2010 at 9:57 a.m.

    Alright first things first its only a sending off if there is no other player close to the fouled player, if a player is close then its not a clear goal scoring opportunity so hence no red card, Secondly come one mr Gardner whos side are you on, its unfaur for the keeper if the PK taker stutters and stalls???? its called ADVANTAGE and the PK taker should have the advantage not the defending team hells teeth man they were the ones who commited the foul you said so yourself and now you wnat to take even more advantage away from them?? As for the tackle from behind it is illegal, thats why you find most players now tackle from the side, it migh seem the same but its not directly from behind. Finaly only FIFA can make rule changes no wonder the game is so misunderstood over here when its complicated more than it needs to be. Come on MR Gardner dont sit on the fence take one side you cant have it both for the agressing team and the fouled team suerly if fair is fair make it fair all over.

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