Commentary

Soccer's new-look rulebook (Part 1): Much improved but still a way to go

By Paul Gardner

No doubt it was asking too much of ex-referee David Elleray and his colleagues to turn soccer's rulebook, almost overnight, into an easy-to-understand, organized, readable document.

They have, however, made an impressive start on the Augean mess left by the IFAB which, for over 100 years, has been discordantly assembling good rules and bad rules along with afterthoughts, duplications, errors, anachronisms, contradictions, amendments and just plain stupidities.

Yet Elleray et al have been able to introduce some order here, complying with their mission to make the rules “more accessible and more easily understood by everyone in football.” Everyone, please note. To open the rulebook to all, to end its days as a cryptic code book for referees.

For those who have long wondered why the rule book should contain a Rules section, followed by an Interpretations section, and whether that meant the Interpretations carried the mandatory force of the rules or not (I include myself in that lot) ... there is immediate relief. The separate Interpretations section is gone, absorbed into the Rules proper.

A way overdue revision. It has long been one of the most obvious failings of the IFAB rulebook that it is behind the times, always several years behind what is actually happening on the field. Another prominent trait, a hangover from Victorian days (IFAB was formed in 1886), has been its reluctance to allow outsiders any insight into its workings. A reclusive attitude that has unfortunately been passed on to the entire refereeing community.

But here again, this rewriting of the rules offers hope -- considerable hope. Over 40 pages are devoted to explaining new rule changes. The presentation is excellent -- we get the old wording printed alongside the new, followed by the reasons for the change.

It’s difficult to overestimate the significance of this sudden leap into transparency -- a prodigious jump from the 19th century to the 21st. Whether the IFAB itself is aware of just how far it has gone in torpedoing its own past is doubtful. We are also given a brief “History of The IFAB” which blithely claims that “the IFAB [has] changed the game and the mind-set of those who played and watched it.” Extraordinary. It has been over 100 years since the IFAB did anything proactive in the game.

I am saying, course, what I have said many times before: That soccer would be better off without the archaic IFAB, which should be replaced with a more professional, more knowledgeable, and less Brit-oriented group (four of its eight members are -- by statute -- Brits).

Should you have any doubts about that Brit presence, let me point out that, at the press conference that followed the most recent IFAB meeting last March, the dais featured just four IFAB members . . . from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The Brit influence has been slowly fading. Too slowly -- it was not until 1997 that the quaint phrase “ungentlemanly conduct” disappeared from the rules. Amazingly, at the beginning of this year, the rules were still insisting that players wear “stockings”; only with the rewrite will they at last be wearing socks.

Even so, the loose wording in Rule 12 of the rewrite -- “A scissors or bicycle kick is permissible provided that it is not dangerous ...” -- strongly suggests that the writers think the two terms are merely synonyms for the same action, a gaffe I have heard many times from Brits, whose vocabulary for the more intricate skills of the sport is notoriously inadequate.

I have been persistently calling for a rule change, or at least a modification, that will make it clear that goalkeepers cannot continue jumping recklessly into other players, so I was glad to see, in one of the Explanations, that a reference to “tackles” now reads “tackles or challenges.” The reasoning behind the change is given with exemplary clarity: “‘tackles’ implies a challenge with the foot but some challenges can be with other parts of the body (e.g. knee) and technically were not covered.”

It is with their raised knees that goalkeepers can cause serious injuries, so I see this one-word addition as a significant advance toward taming reckless keepers.

Elleray’s rule revisers are very much aware of the importance of accurate definitions, and have included a 9-page glossary of “football terms” -- another excellent innovation. Given that attention to clarity, it’s baffling to find the word “sanction” used repeatedly (15 times is my count).

Aside from being a word that not many people use, this is also a famously tricky word, one that Bill Bryson pounces on in his superb book “The Mother Tongue” as the prime example of a contronym -- a word that has two contradictory meanings. Sanction, warns Bryson, “can either signify permission to do something, or a measure forbidding it to be done.” Confusion looms where sanction lurks.

My sympathies are with Elleray. He needed a verb to describe what the soccer rules do to players who break the rules. Unfortunately for him the best choice -- “penalize” -- brings with it the threat of yet more confusion, because its associated noun “penalty” already has a soccer-specific meaning.

To avoid the confusion, Elleray opted for the slightly pompous and definitely dodgy “sanction” that does service both as a verb and a noun. But I think punish (and punishment) would have been a better choice.

Soccer's new-look rulebook (Part 2): Making room for the Spirit the Game

3 comments about "Soccer's new-look rulebook (Part 1): Much improved but still a way to go ".
  1. Ric Fonseca, May 14, 2016 at 8:49 p.m.

    Okidokes, looking forward to reading PG's Part 2, and then until I get a copy of the "new" LOG manual, will I comment, and I just knoooow y'all are waiting to read what I've got to say, (yeah, right, eh???)

  2. Peter Grove, May 15, 2016 at 3:40 a.m.

    This article is full of factual errors, misconceptions and faulty logic.

    The most obvious factual error is to do with the IFAB press conference in March. As the video of it, still available on the FIFA website shows, there were 6 people on the dais. These were the chief representatives of the 5 members of the IFAB (the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh FA's plus FIFA) and one extra member of the Welsh FA who were hosting the meeting. If it makes any difference, the FIFA representative, president Gianni Infantino probably did as much talking as anyone.

    For someone who seems so bothered about the exact words being used (objecting to the use of the word sanction as opposed to punishment and quibbling over the difference between a scissors kick and a bicycle kick) I'm surprised that the writer makes constant reference to "rules" when the correct term in relation to Association Football is "laws."

    As for the IFAB being a "hangover from Victorian days" that's hardly surprising since the game itself was a Victorian invention. Was the game supposed to just trundle along with nobody in charge of the Laws until the 21st century? It's also unfair at sneer at their claim to have transformed the game. If you saw a game played under the original Laws from 1863, you would think that you were watching a weird form of rugby played with a round ball. Virtually all of the features of the modern game that make it so distinctive are due to changes made by the IFAB.

    I think the writer also doesn't quite understand the form or function of the IFAB. Until 2015 it was not a standing body, it was just an ad hoc group that met once or twice a year to consider laws amendments submitted to it.

    Yet the way this article and others from the same author read, you would think it is the world governing body of Association Football. It's not, FIFA is.

  3. Charles Stamos, May 16, 2016 at 11:50 a.m.

    Ric - Looking forward to your comments - Didn't you once play on a team made up of mostly referees - that would be one MF game to call/catch the violators!

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