Rule Changes: The best, the worst -- and one that needs reversal

By Paul Gardner

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.

33 comments about "Rule Changes: The best, the worst -- and one that needs reversal".
  1. westy kent, February 15, 2016 at 9:12 a.m.

    i don't see coaching from the sidelines as a big deal one way or the other. I would much prefer to see instant replay on offsides calls. Linesman raises a yellow flag to say it's too close to call, les play continue while the booth takes a quick look and stops play for an offsides or lets it continue if not. Simple rule that would have changed the wrong outcomes in many high level games.

  2. Kent James replied, February 15, 2016 at 9:39 a.m.

    I agree with your assessment, but the AR should keep the flag down if it is too close to call, and then the play could be reviewed if it resulted in a goal (if no goal, play continues). One of the complaints about TV review is that it would take too long, and this way, we might actually have more playing time as a result (since most close calls would allow play to continue, resulting in fewer breaks for an offside infraction).

  3. Randy Watson replied, February 15, 2016 at 2:12 p.m.

    I've heard people suggest this regarding instant replay before: That AR's should keep their flags down if it's close, and overturn any resulting goals if it's offside. But what if there's a quick counter attack for a goal by the team that wasn't offside, or even a red card, before the play is proven to be offside -- are you going to take legitimate goals for the team that wasn't offside off the board (and what about cards, dismissals etc that happen in that period)?

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, February 15, 2016 at 3:20 p.m.

    Hey, it is OFFSIDE. As for review of a play by the tv booth, no, it wouldn't take very long, after all they use this in hockey, and it is almost instantaneous. The reason some say it takes too long, this emanates from football or basketball replays. This Law will ALWAYS be the subject of discussion and subject to possible changes.

  5. Kent James replied, February 17, 2016 at 5:18 p.m.

    Randy, if the team that wasn't offside gets a counterattacking goal, it would stand. You could consider it an advantage call.

  6. Joey Tremone, February 15, 2016 at 9:37 a.m.

    The best change in modern times was the goalkeeper back-pass rule. It was DREADFUL when a goalkeeper could pick up every back-pass, bounce it a few times, hold onto it for 10 sec, then punt it as far as he could. Cynically defensive teams would do this a dozen times or more a game and waste huge amounts of time.

  7. Kent James replied, February 15, 2016 at 9:40 a.m.

    That was my first thought when I saw the title of the article; completely changed the game, and it's shocking that PG, given his hatred of all balls not played to feet, ignored this.

  8. Kent James, February 15, 2016 at 9:41 a.m.

    Paul, while I agree coaches sideline antics don't add much to the game, if the rule was being ignored while it was in place, isn't it somewhat fruitless to reinstate it? There are bigger fish to fry...

  9. Barry Ulrich, February 15, 2016 at 10:29 a.m.

    Weary, the correct term is OFFSIDE, not offsides.

  10. R2 Dad, February 15, 2016 at 10:38 a.m.

    If coaches are going whinge from the technical area, I'd much rather that technical area be down at the corner flag then at the centerline. Keeps him away from the other coach (who is at the other corner flag) and no one can hear his braying. If they need to watch the match, sit in the stands. Annoying coaches problem mitigated.

  11. beautiful game, February 15, 2016 at 10:49 a.m.

    WOW!!! The issue at hand is coaching from the sideline? What about the constant handling of the ball after a foul in order to delay the restart? What about unpunished encroachments? What about the off-side rule that's had its day? What about players mouthing off to the referee? What about the the straight red card in the penalty box? What about bench players running unto the field after a goal is scored? The bottom line is that referees are not on the same page of the rule book.

  12. Gus Keri, February 15, 2016 at 10:53 a.m.

    In addition to the goalkeepers not being allowed to handle the ball from a back pass, my favorite rule change is giving 3 points, instead of 2, to a win.

  13. Gus Keri, February 15, 2016 at 10:58 a.m.

    Another rule change, I suggest, is a retroactive video review to all infractions that have negative effects on the game and punishing the offenders. examples: pulling shirts and diving. This will clean the game completely of these dirty tricks.

  14. Albert Harris, February 15, 2016 at 11:14 a.m.

    I tend to agree with Gus about retroactive video reviews of 'dirty tricks' including the horror tackles that get excused under 'he didn't have any evil intent'. Please! That makes all the broken legs and strained ligaments go away, now doesn't it. Totally opposed to it on offside (thank you, Barry). Sounds good but the only thing it will do is take away goals because the powers that be will never buy in to letting play continue until the review is in. They will flag and play will stop so the only reviews that are checked will be the ones where goals are scored and (God forbid) a AR actually incorrectly favored the attacker, the goal will be wiped out. Let the present system continue. At least the mistakes tend to even out.

  15. John Soares, February 15, 2016 at 1:07 p.m.

    I agree with Gus! AND if we are going to get picky.....and obviously we are:) Here is one I find very annoying. Once a goalie is outside the area he is just a regular player. Therefore he should NOT be able to play the ball on to the area and then pick it up, wastes time and gives him and team an unfair advantage. Why is this action not a "back pass"?

  16. Kent James replied, February 15, 2016 at 1:17 p.m.

    Since you're getting technical, I think a goal keeper playing it to himself is technically a dribble...:-). But if the keeper gets the ball from a back pass outside the area and dribbles it in an picks it up, I believe that's still counted as a back pass (and therefore a violation).

  17. Bob Ashpole, February 15, 2016 at 1:15 p.m.

    I agree that allowing coaching from the sideline was a horrible change that had negative impacts on senior and youth soccer. Unfortunately youth soccer organizations must think coaching from the sidelines during matches is a good idea. Otherwise youth organizations and clubs would ban it. Most coaches, even youth coaches, focus on winning today at the expense of any longer term objective.

  18. Ric Fonseca, February 15, 2016 at 3:25 p.m.

    Oh me oh my, coaching from the player's box? What's the big deal? And could someone please enlighten me about that Throw-in change, that a player had to put the ball in play from a TI, from within one meter (yard to some of you) from where the ball went out, then changed again that allows players to TI the ball taking maybe up to ten steps before releasing the ball and putting it into play? I see this and I cringe... so what's up with this?

  19. Bob Ashpole, February 15, 2016 at 3:53 p.m.

    "What is the big deal?" Prior to the change tactical decisions during senior matches were made by the players. This change in combination with allowing the coach to make substitutions gives coaches control over play on the field which they didn't have previously. As for youth, prior to the change youth coaches were allowed to make positive remarks from the sidelines during matches. IMO yelling tactical instructions or worse yet technical instructions at youth players on the field during a match is at best ineffective for development purposes. Of course most coaches don't yell tactical instructions at the players because they want to improve player development. They yell tactical instructions to they players to use in lieu of their own decisions to improve the chance of the team winning the match. Players learn tactics best by trial and error.

  20. Bob Ashpole, February 15, 2016 at 3:54 p.m.

    I forget to say that the coache's control over the tactics kills creativity.

  21. Barry Ulrich, February 15, 2016 at 3:55 p.m.

    Ric, the TI is a serious lack of officiating! Occasionally, you'll see a BPL referee motion a player back a few yards, which is still usually far from the point the ball went into touch. How often have we seen the ball go out of play very close to the Corner Flag, yet the player drifts upfield and releases the ball over 5 yards up from the flag? Seems to me that when the ball is out of play on the AR's side, the AR should be the one spotting and enforcing the TI location!

  22. Lonaka K, February 15, 2016 at 10:03 p.m.

    I have been advocating no coaching from the sidelines for years. When do students take classroom teaching and on exam days are given the answers by the teacher. NEVER! Why should coaches be allowed to create ROBOTS for players to the MNT and WNT. That is why the USA cannot develop creative strikers. They have NO element of surprise. Therefore if a spontaneous action is required on the part of the player they can't do it. Also, then you'll see who the great coaches/teachers of the game are. BAN COACHING FROM THE SIDELINES.

  23. beautiful game, February 15, 2016 at 10:29 p.m.

    How many referees count out properly the ten yards on a free kick. Most of them do a 9 or 8 count; and some a 7 count. What abnout the indirect kick in the penalty area. The rule says 10 yards for the wall; if less, the players must be on the goal line; this is never enforced.

    Lona K, you're on the money. I once saw a U-10 coach in NJ that never said a word throughout the game. At halftime, he gave a few instructions and let the boys get re-energized. BTW, the halftime score was 1-0 and the game ended 5-1).

  24. Filip Bondy, February 16, 2016 at 10:52 a.m.

    Rules changes that should take place:

    1. The player who creates the penalty in the box must take the penalty kick. Simple. It's that way in every other sport and would eliminate statistical skewing.

    2. At all but the highest levels of the game (and maybe even there), no headers outside the box. Relatively pointless, and dangerous.

  25. beautiful game, February 16, 2016 at 11:56 a.m.

    Soccer is too stagnant with reviewing its rules. Here we are in the 21st Century and the rules are basically the same and the referees are not held accountable. Why is it that a U-17, U-19, or U-23 international tournament has different rule interpretations than the global leagues? FIFA has the power to mandate consistency and has been derelict for decades to get its house in order.

  26. Scot Sutherland, February 16, 2016 at 3:40 p.m.

    PG, I am a big fan, both from a journalistic and soccer perspective. I can always rely on you to stir up a good conversation.

    This time you may have missed your audience. You write for Soccer America, and we are Americans. Coaching from the sideline is what we do, even as fans. I have been involved in soccer for the majority of my life and I never really understood the rule.

    The objective of the game is to win. Unfortunately, when the teams are evenly matched the game can easily become sloppy (not the beautiful game). If leagues worked harder to make games more even, coaching from the sideline would become more useful and less of a show.

    What should a coach really have to say when Chelsea plays Burnley? Some of the best coaches in the world are American. They coach form the sideline and prepare themselves and their teams with great commitment. To ask them to abdicate their leadership role during the game seems pretty ridiculous to me.

    When all 20 EPL teams have a legitimate chance of winning, coaching from the sidelines will move from remonstration to coordination.

  27. Scott Johnson, February 16, 2016 at 6:53 p.m.

    What about 3 points for a win, one for a draw? IIRC, that was made soon after the 1990 cup, after complaints of overly defensive play.

  28. John Bolger, February 16, 2016 at 7:09 p.m.

    My dream rule change:
    Once crossing over the mid field stripe cannot pass it back over.

  29. Amos Annan, February 18, 2016 at 12:42 p.m.

    Nonsense... coaches SHOULD be able to speak to players on the field and give tactical instructions.

  30. Amos Annan, February 18, 2016 at 12:44 p.m.

    Video review of DIVING should be done to punish this epidemic.

  31. beautiful game, February 20, 2016 at 8:11 p.m.

    This is all nonsense. The big picture is the inconsistency in applying the rules.

  32. Peter Grove, March 24, 2016 at 1:05 a.m.

    Actually, the word "intentionally" was removed from the main body of the definition of a foul (except a handling offence) in 1995, not 1997.

    For some reason (typo, perhaps?) the word still appeared in a later paragraph concerning offences committed in the pregnant

  33. Peter Grove replied, March 24, 2016 at 1:07 a.m.

    Stupid auto-correct. Last word(s) should read "penalty area. "

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