Nostradamus of soccer

In the early 2000s, Senes Erzik, then the chairman of the FIFA Referee Committee and my ex-boss, had asked me to write an informal report about the future of soccer refereeing. As a FIFA Referee Instructor and trying to play the role of “Nostradamus of soccer” refereeing and the Laws of the Game (LOTG), I compiled a short report on what I foresee as some of the changes in the near future.

At that time, I was in favor of increasing the number of officials on the field and suggested the use of line judges on the goal line to judge for goals and help the referee in some of the other decisions especially in the penalty area. Seeing the results of the Additional Assistant Referee experiment I now realize that increasing the number of “eyes” on the field does not always yield very positive results. So I have some concerns about the Video Assistant Referee implementation that FIFA is trying to implement. Unlike the other sports where video replay is used, the nature of soccer does not yield to seamless implementation of video replay. I believe the industrial soccer is expecting a lot from the VAR implementation, but I think they might be disillusioned once it starts.

I also suggested another colored card for infractions not serious enough for a sending off but for which the caution will be too lenient. I had suggested that for such infractions the player should sit in a sin bin for a number of minutes -- maybe 10 -- like in ice hockey or team handball. This naturally would result in the use of a timekeeper for the game. Very recently, I understand U.S. Soccer recommended the use of a timekeeper for the game and IFAB have refused it. I can say with great certainty that in 10 years’ time games will be played with a time judge and maybe with 30 minutes halves -- 30 minutes will be the actual time.

The rest of my suggestions in the report -- other than defining the minimal requirements for professional refereeing -- were focused on the use of technology. At that time, I did not think of the goal-line technology (GLT), instead relied on “line judges” for goal decisions. It seems that the GLT will soon be a standard for the top-level competitions. I had suggested the use of communication devices between the officials which is now also used extensively in the world. I had suggested a laser beamed technology to control encroachment and to judge 10 yards. But the Brazilians came out with a smarter, cheaper and effective tool: the spray. The spray is being used around the globe and it reduced the encroachment by a great margin. Still the spray is not listed as one of the Referee’s equipment in the LOTG, but I am confident it will be in the 2017-2018 edition of the LOTG.

So my “Nostradamus” predictions only partially materialized. Recently, Marco van Basten -- Technical Director of FIFA -- came out with a number of suggestions for the future of soccer. Van Basten was one of the greatest strikers in the world as well as a representative of Dutch soccer, which is analogous to “attacking soccer.” All of his a la Nostradamus suggestions are based on his discomfort from the philosophy of “let us not lose the game” instead of “let us win the game.” I call them a la Nostradamus suggestions, since IFAB is very difficult to convince to make radical changes in the LOTG.

Especially in the finals of the major competitions, the game is losing its beauty because teams go out on the pitch “not to lose”. Just compare the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the last one in 2014 and you will see the great difference.
His suggestionsare:

-- No offside rule;
-- Penalty box for carded players;
-- Increased number of substitutions;
-- Substitutions on the fly;
-- Maximum number of fouls allowed per player;
-- No stoppages for more than 10 seconds during the last 10 minutes of a game; and
-- Shootouts to decide the winner instead of kicks from the penalty mark

It is interesting to observe that the technical director of FIFA is now recommending some of the applications of the old NASL which the rest of the world had frowned upon.  The old NASL had a 35-yard line for the offside and a shoot out to decide the winner in tied games.

Actually the abolishment of the offside had been tested in various forms without too many positive observations for “attacking and exciting soccer”. IFAB had recently changed the interpretation of “active play” in favor of the attacking teams with some positive results. I do not expect that in the foreseeable future the offside rule will be abolished.

Penalty box for carded players, maximum number of fouls allowed per player and the use of time judges are potential changes in the LOTG for the foreseeable future. These changes will definitely be in favor of “attacking soccer.” In the future there might to be three different categories of disciplinary action: Cautions, temporary sending offs and sending offs.

I conjecture that in this system the second cautions might result in a 10-minute suspension as well as the denying an obvious goal-scoring chance (DOGSO) infractions. The third caution, serious foul play and violent conduct will still result in a permanent sending off namely a red card.

IFAB has already agreed to allow a fourth substitute during overtime. Hence there will not be too much objection from IFAB for the increase of the number of substitutions although I personally do not see how this will affect “the attacking soccer” positively.

I never liked the kicks from the penalty mark, but it was better than drawing lots or a coin toss to declare the winner in knockout competitions. Teams that did not risk losing played the extra time in a way so that result will be decided by kicks from the penalty spot. Games and championships won by kicks from the penalty mark in no way represent the teams who deserved to win. Bringing in shootouts -- which is actually an idea borrowed from ice hockey -- might bring more excitement to the game but in essence it will not completely be a fair tool to decide the winner. Maybe the teams should play until one team wins in overtime. Maybe for each extra time a player should be taken off from each team. I believe this a more radical but fairer solution to find the winner in knockout competitions than both the kicks from the penalty mark and the shootouts.

Instead of redefining the LOTG, maybe we should redefine the pointing system of our leagues and championships. Maybe we should bring in salary caps to all the leagues or enforce UEFA financial fair play effectively so that the wealthier teams do not dominate leagues, forcing the less affluent clubs to resort to a defensive game. When the three-points system was introduced in the 1980s, it made a lot of positive changes in the game.  Maybe we should reconsider how we split the three points in a tie game. Maybe the two points should go to a team which has statistics that show their attacking nature like  shots on goal and/or number of corner kicks but definitely not possession time. We must find ways in our competition rules to promote teams which “play to win” and penalize teams which “play not to lose.”

If I were Marco van Basten, the Technical Director of FIFA who is responsible for all aspects of soccer development in the world, instead of focusing on major changes in the game I would worry about an eminent danger to the game: the potential of a breakaway by the major clubs. The European Club Association’s (ECA) current deal with FIFA to release players for international matches will expire following the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The ECA could, at that point, decide to stop releasing players for international matches and ECA can leave FIFA completely.  If the leading clubs break away from UEFA/FIFA after the 2022 World Cup, then ECA can shape the LOTG in any way they want to.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

9 comments about "Nostradamus of soccer".
  1. John Gordon, January 30, 2017 at 6 p.m.

    Ahmet, you forgot the most important aspect of attacking soccer - the goal size. One hundred years ago 24 feet by 8 feet was a lot to cover by 5 foot 8 inch goalkeepers. Today you have mobile 6 foot 3 inch keepers with huge wing spans. The practical scoring zone has decreased greatly, maybe by 70 percent. It is a credit to the incredible skills of modern strikers that we get one or two goals a game.

    Expand that goal to 30 feet by 9 feet to adjust for super quick, modern-sized players. Put the penalty kicks at the penalty area line with the penalty arc at 10 yards. It would make the taking of kicks more interesting shooting from 18 yards at a 30 foot wide goal as opposed to shooting from 12 yards at a 24 foot wide goal.

    I watched Bayern Munich with a huge goalkeeper and a five man arc from post to post with a four man arc in front of that in the penalty area covering every foot of space defending a corner kick. It would take a near miracle to knock home a goal under the current size goal post against BM.

    But they could not pack it in like that with the larger goal.

    Defenses would have to come out more to defend against medium range shots. Attackers would have a substantially increased chance to rip one or fake a defender out of position to pass through more space behind the defenders.

    A change in goal size would do more to reintroduce attacking soccer than all the other proposals combined.

  2. John Toutkaldjian replied, January 31, 2017 at 9:41 a.m.

    I agree with John Gordon's recommendation of enlarging the goal, at least at the adult level of play. I don't think a penalty box would have a positive effect on the game, rather it would stall the game by the penalized team wasting time and playing defensively until the time limit expired. A better way to decide tie games is to play 2v2, two offensive players against a defender and a goalkeeper, all rules of the game to apply, except that the attacking team would have possession of the ball until a goal is scored or 5-8 seconds has elapsed. The time would start at the first movement of the ball from the center circle. Offensive players and the field defender would change for each cycle, each team having at least one opportunity on offense. I would also recommend allowing a red-carded player to be replaced so there would be even sides. Increase the penalty severely for the player sent. off

  3. charles davenport, January 30, 2017 at 8:46 p.m.

    First OT: 11v11; 2nd OT: 9v9; 3rd OT: 7v7?

  4. DonJuego Lee, January 31, 2017 at 12:01 a.m.

    John Gordon, 100 years ago the ball was a heavy lump of wet leather that could not be swerved 10 feet at 70 mph. Everything balances.

  5. Kent James, January 31, 2017 at 10:08 a.m.

    I agree with John about the larger goal, though I'd start with just 1' higher and 1 yd wider, and see how that went. Let a team replace an ejected player as long as they have subs, but award a PK for each red card. As for deciding tied games, either have kicks taken from farther back (18' line, top of the arc or 22 yds) so that it takes a good kick to score (rather than relying on the GK getting lucky by diving the right way, or a poor kick), or, move the goals to the top of the 18' box (or one goal to midfield) and make the game 7 v 7. Eliminate the penalty box (to avoid the problem of not having field markings) and let GKs only use their hands in their half of the field (not offensively). Should lead to more goals (to get a winner in a reasonable time) and it's regular soccer.

  6. Fire Paul Gardner Now, January 31, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.

    The game is fine. It does need the kind of radical change advocated by Van Basten and/or the author of this piece.

  7. John Soares, January 31, 2017 at 2 p.m.

    Agree! "The game is fine" If changes are needed it's in the referring. Not new rules but enforcing the existing rules.
    A playoff game is no different (rule wise) from any other game. A player that gets in the referee's face is carded. A fake injury, violent action not caught by the referee is later reviewed and appropriate action taken....... The game is fine!

  8. Mark Konty, January 31, 2017 at 5:24 p.m.

    My only change would be in knock-out phases of tournaments. PK's should have been buried in a time vault, perhaps one day we will. Instead of PK's, go back to Golden Goal and allow UNLIMITED substitution (in overtime only), and on the fly.

  9. beautiful game, February 1, 2017 at 11:16 a.m.

    Baloney...the game is fine. What is wrong is the delinquencies and inconsistencies of the refs and ARs to enforce LOTG...I would only change the off-side rule to "full daylight between players" and implement goal line technology. Tournament games should be decided by PK's only after each team is reduced by 2-players in OT and allow 2-substitutes.

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