While awaiting the latest changes to the rules (the IFAB will announce them at the beginning of next month), I have been amusing myself trying to decide which has been the best and which the worst of the changes made during the past 25 years -- since 1990. And which change I would make, were I in charge of the rules, to improve the game.
The best change, I think, came in 1997. This was part of a major re-write of the rules. The physical fouls in Rule 12 no longer had to be “intentional.” The only one that, from then on, required the referee to decide on the player’s intent was handling the ball.
A trip was always a trip, whether accidental or deliberate, and a trip was always a foul. “We no longer have to be mind-readers” a referee told me at the time. A definite improvement. Such a pity that so few TV commentators seem to be aware of this.
The worst rule change is a no-brainer. The way that the change was made, and its origins made it suspect right from the start. It came from the coaches. The year was 1990 and the rule book of the time declared -- as it always had -- that the referee must not “allow coaching from the sidelines.” But FIFA was watching the coaches, it noticed that they were ignoring the ban, and it listened to them.
Before the 1990 World Cup an official memorandum circulated to referees announcing that sideline coaching would be allowed during the tournament -- but only from the team’s bench. That was what the coaches wanted. It was their idea and, surprise, surprise -- it was aimed at making them more important.
This was a major rule change being smuggled in through the back door. It took another three years for it to become official. With the 1993 rulebook came the bad news (it was one of the “Decisions of IFAB” added to Rule 5) that “the coach may convey tactical instructions to players during the match.” The hitherto unheard-of technical area arrived with the change. By 1995 there was a whole page devoted to that area, including a reassuring illustration of players sitting peacefully on the bench while a coach, on his feet, pointed calmly off into the distance.
The page let it be known that “Only one person has the authority to convey tactical instructions and he must return to his position immediately after giving these instructions.”
Coaches were not satisfied. In 1997 that “only one person” was modified to read “only one person at a time” and evidently it didn’t have to be the coach. The restrictions on what the coach must and must not do seemed to fade gently away. The 2009 rulebook makes no mention if him having to “return to his position immediately.”
By 2006 the drawing of the well-behaved bench and the calm coach was gone, but there remained an admonition that “the coach and other occupants of the technical area must behave in a responsible manner.”
With the 1993 rule change permitting coaching from the sideline, IFAB allowed the coaches to become a huge part of the action during the game. That is obviously what the coaches wanted. Good for the coaches, then -- but good for the game?
Hardly. Sideline coaching is all about inflating the role of the coach. Another attempt by coaches to magnify their role came in 1995. Paying far too much attention to the coaches (and no attention at all to the English language) FIFA announced that “For some time now coaches have been clammering (sic) for the chance to be able to exert more immediate influence on the course of the game.”
What the coaches wanted this time were timeouts. So FIFA obligingly indulged in more fiddling with the rules -- not a change this time, but an experiment at the U-17 World Cup in Ecuador. I was at that tournament and can report that the timeout experiment was a total dud. And somehow we still manage to do without timeouts.
The question is not why the coaches should want to become more important, but why FIFA (or anyone for that matter) should bother to listen to them.
By 1995 FIFA had already witnessed two years of sideline coaching, so they must have known that the one thing it did not do was to improve the quality of the game. Much more on-camera time for the coaches and their adolescent sideline antics, yes, plenty of that. And a lot more of the coaches’ tedious studio punditry and pedantry. But better soccer? Not that you would notice.
Coaches are not particularly interested in better soccer. They are interested in winning. They can wax super-lyrical about the joys -- and the necessity - of winning ugly. But you’ll not often hear them expanding joyfully about their desire to win by playing the beautiful game.
So be it. Winning is bound to be what coaches value most. But trying to help coaches win games is obviously a ridiculous aim for the rulemakers. If coaches are really helping their teams with all that sideline yelling and arm-waving then they need to tell us why they so frequently complain of giving up silly goals, and why their sideline faces so frequently express exasperation and disgust ... with their own players!
That would be the change that I would make. A move back to 1993 and a reinstatement of the “no sideline-coaching” rule. Players would make mistakes, would get things wrong? No doubt. But the mistakes would come from both sides and would probably make things more exciting anyway.
The coach would retain some influence during the game as he would still be in charge of substitution. For the rest he’d have to shut up and just rely on his players -- the very guys who’ve been listening to him all week. And I’m quite certain that decreasing the coaches’ input and relying more on the players is a bracingly positive step.