More urgent than Van Basten's rule changes: soccer needs a total reversal of referees' negative mindset

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?

19 comments about "More urgent than Van Basten's rule changes: soccer needs a total reversal of referees' negative mindset".
  1. Bob Ashpole, January 24, 2017 at 3:15 p.m.

    I thought he was merely offering a list of possible changes for testing. Testing mistaken rules I don't have a problem with, because the errors will be demonstrated. I don't think referees see themselves as favoring the defense. I think they see it as not making a game changing call unless they are confident in the call. I agree that making a call or non-call that favors the defense changes the game too, but I am just stating what I think is their rationale. The pressure for referees to be perfect instead of human is the root cause.

  2. Kent James replied, January 24, 2017 at 5:17 p.m.

    I agree; I don't like most of van Basten's suggestions, but I like the idea that someone is willing to suggest changes, and agree that testing them out , even if they don't work, is useful. Two that I think would make a positive difference are making the goals slightly bigger (not only to allow more goals, but to force defenses out to cover longer shots that would now be more effective), and allow players to be replaced after a red card (as long as they have subs left). More goals means a single ref's decision is less important (PK in a 1-0 game, e.g.), not making a team play short (until late in the game) means an ejection won't completely change a game (while still punishing the player; perhaps a PK could be awarded for an ejection, to avoid players trying to deny goal scoring opportunities).

  3. Ed M, January 24, 2017 at 3:15 p.m.

    More hogwash is written here again. Total myth that Referees are being told or instructed to favor the defender in anything. The only "instruction" that has ever been given was to favor the attacking side when offside was doubtful. The rest is myth and current instruction is to know and use the considerations for most actions on the field of play to make more accurate decisions.
    It may be helpful for this author to sign up for a course or two to help his thought process more current and accurate. The articles that may be written afterward may not be as crowd pleasing but they would show an educated view point for sure.

  4. Kent James replied, January 24, 2017 at 5:04 p.m.

    While referees are not told to favor the defense, referees are told not to take over the game (do less rather than more), not call too many fouls, not give too many cards, etc, which inherently favors the defense (since letting things go makes it easier to destroy attacks). I don't agree with it, but it's hard to stop. The foul in the box not called is more quickly forgotten than the dive that was awarded a PK.

  5. Bob Ashpole, January 24, 2017 at 3:20 p.m.

    On adding substitutes, I don't think any other rule impacts the game as much as the substitution rules. It not only changes how the game is played, but also changes what types of athletes will be the most effective in the last 15 minutes of a half. Specifically it reduces the importance of endurance and mental toughness.

  6. Allan Lindh, January 24, 2017 at 3:35 p.m.

    At least the conversation is underway, so I'll throw in my two-bits worth
    1. Make the penalty are smaller.
    2. Don't let goalies dribble back into the box, treat it like a back pass from a team mate.
    and most important
    3. Absolutely require that jumping for a header you get to the spot first, and then jump straight up. Would put an end to felonious assaults like Cahill's.

    Smaller penalty box would lead to fewer joke penalties, like those called on far edge of box. Less opportunities for goalies to smother play, and make back passes to goalie more dangerous. And if this just leads to packing into the box, ban more defenders being in box than attackers.

  7. Kent James replied, January 24, 2017 at 5:25 p.m.

    A smaller penalty area would be interesting; I don't think it would restrict goalkeepers so much (other than on break-aways), but it would eliminate PKs for meaningless fouls at the edge of the box. I've thought it actually might be worth eliminating PKs and simply letting the kick be taken from the spot of the foul (like it is everywhere else), but maybe letting the kicking team move the ball back (away from goal) if they prefer (to avoid the problem of a close free kick being easily blocked by a wall). I think refs would be less hesitant to call fouls, which should make it a cleaner game (and since such calls would not be automatic goals, refs would have less impact on the result).

  8. Allan Lindh replied, January 24, 2017 at 7:26 p.m.

    I agree Kent, wouldn't have much impact on Keepers. But it might enhance the tendency toward small, more athletic sweeper/keepers, and thereby enhance the flow of the game. I'd shrink the box 2 meters, on all three sides.

  9. Tyler Wells replied, January 26, 2017 at 6:21 a.m.

    I think that all of these, along with a larger goal, are sensible suggestions or merit consideration. One of the biggest drags in soccer is just how much time the keeper has to play around with the ball.
    I rarely agree with Gardner but I think that he has a very good point in that many fouls go uncalled and many are underpunished. Whether they are told to or not, referees do have a defensive bias. Take corner kicks, they are always calling fouls on offensive players but rarely on defensive players. Those of you who have played know those defenders are pulling shirts, pushing, etc. just as much or more than the offensive players.

  10. A. Torres, January 24, 2017 at 4:19 p.m.

    One thing the author failed to mention and which I thought he surely would, is the fact of all the pulling, pushing, and holding that defenders do in the box during corner kicks and even free kicks.
    These are clearly fouls and should be called accordingly more often.

  11. Scott Johnson, January 24, 2017 at 7:24 p.m.

    Again, the reason the refs favor the defense, especially in the box, is simple: If they call a foul on the defender, it's a PK--a potentially game-changing play, and a severe punishment even if the foul was incidental. If they call a foul on the attacker or swallow their whistle, the resulting consequence is minimal. Paul rightly is concerned with unintended consequences, but this is an unintended consequence of an old Law that continues to affect the game to this day. (As another example--many trucking companies have stated policies they will fire truck drivers who get too many--even one--traffic tickets while on duty. This is said to improve safety. In practice, though, it tends to mean that the police ignore minor infractions by truckers, as the consequence in that case is far more severe than merely a fine. Which causes some truck drivers to push the envelope on their driving habits, expecting that the police will ignore minor infractions. Which REDUCES truck safety, not improves it).

  12. R2 Dad, January 25, 2017 at 12:16 a.m.

    One of the primary reasons I don't center matches older than U15 anymore is that I don't think I can see everything on corners/free kicks into the box re wrestling. The younger kids don't grapple much so it's manageable, but the persistent back and forth between 5-7 pairs of U18s becomes too much to cover uniformly. I'd agree with Kent & Scott re: defender fouls inside the 18. I'd like to see a free kick from the point of infraction given instead of a PK when the foul occurs outside the goalposts out to the perimeter of the 18. In that way, the foul does not carry such a high punishment and referees would be more inclined to give it.

  13. Michael Canny, January 25, 2017 at 7:50 a.m.

    I have been refereeing for years and I think this notion that the referees favor the defense is nonsense. The referees enforce the rules of the game. Fouls in the box have a more severe penalty because they have a more severe effect on play. Very simple.
    I strongly oppose allowing the replacement of a player that has been issued a red card. Once again, the penalty is severe because the violation(s) are severe, The coaches need to take an active role in preventing serious fouls and the reduction in players on the field is a strong incentive for them to do so.

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, January 25, 2017 at 1:58 p.m.

    Thank you Michael for an insightful comment. I've not refereed for some time now, having retired after calling games at virtually all levels, and since memory serves me well re this topic, except for several comments here, I've always challenged those who claim to know everything, such as refs "favoring the defense," etc. I wonder just how many of these commentators - beside those claiming to have officiated - have actually donned a game official's uniform, held a flag as an RA, or been in the middle? Betcha not too many. One thing that was pounded into my head here in So Cal by the likes of Toros Kibritjian, John Best, Heinz Wolmerath, Dio Cordero, et. al. was that as soon as I the game official arrived on site, my authority started as I knew the history of the opposing teams, or schools or colleges, and I was NEVER-EVER INSTRUCTED to favor the defense, or MF, or whatever. I was instructed to favor the LOG and apply them as judiciously as possible. So, before folks, and even PG, and others begin to cast stones in the game official's glass houses, grab a whistle, a flag, and a uniform and volunteer to call a game, and then and only then after the final whistle goes, tell us how you favored the defense, or wished the PA was smaller, or remove the OS law. Be an interesting read! PLAY ON!!!

  15. Kent James replied, January 25, 2017 at 3:49 p.m.

    You're right that there are no directives to favor the defense, but there is pressure to do less rather than more (fewer cards, fewer penalty kicks) and such pressure favors the defense. As Scott said, two guys tussling in the box, foul on one it is a potentially game changing PK, on the other, a meaningless free kick. If you don't think that puts pressure on the ref to favor the defense, you've never refereed. I also think that's why there is so much grappling in the box; calling the foul on the defense is too severe (unless it truly prevents a goal) and calling it on the offense when both are doing is a bit unjust (but is usually the call).

  16. Peter Grove replied, January 27, 2017 at 10:32 p.m.

    I'm not sure where this idea is coming from that referees are pressured to favour the defense or to give less fouls and less cards. I've never come across anything remotely like that. If anything, it's the contrary. For example in the English Premier League this season there has been a highly-publicised instruction for referees to be stricter and (among other things) to award more fouls for holding, pushing etc at corners and free kicks, which has led to more penalties being awarded.

  17. Amos Annan, January 25, 2017 at 9:57 a.m.

    Authoris wrong on almost everything, but the suggestion others gave on smaller penalty area has merit.

  18. Wooden Ships, January 25, 2017 at 8:51 p.m.

    Goodness, are all the dissatisfied soccer people members of Soccer America. The dimensions are fine, ref's do a wonderful and thankless job. Without them there is no league, conference, tournament, cup, etc., etc. Like Michael and Ric, I too have reffed, besides playing at a high level, coached, General Manager and President. Leave the damn game alone and learn to support officials and the intergrity of the game.

  19. Peter Grove, January 27, 2017 at 11:17 p.m.

    "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."

    I think I've an idea where this comes from - and it's mostly within the mind of Paul Gardner. The only area in which any authority has ever talked about favoring one side or the other is in regards to offside where, although it is not stated in such bald language, the overall effect is that the attacker gains the benefit of the doubt.

    The only decisions where I've ever heard a suggestion of giving the benefit of the doubt to the defence is on throw-ins when you aren't sure who the ball came off last. Even then, it is just a personal point of view among some referees and one which I as a referee have never subscribed to. I would always make a decision based on my best judgement, even on something as relatively inconsequential as a throw-in.

    "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 ..."

    Again, while this may be true of a minority of more timid referees it is by no means true of all and it is certainly not the way for a referee to rise to the higher levels within the game. A referee who is afraid to give the tough decisions will not go very far, in my experience.

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