The VAR/goalkeeper mess -- an IFAB production

The International Football Association Board -- the IFAB -- has presented us with an extraordinary document. A proclamation telling us that one of soccer’s rules -- that is to say, one of IFAB’s sacred "laws" -- is flawed.

So flawed, in fact, that IFAB has granted a “Temporary Dispensation” to the current Women’s World Cup allowing them to ignore it.

A first, I think -- at least I cannot recall anything like this happening before. The faulty rule concerns “kicks from the penalty mark” (KFPM), the shootout tiebreaker. The current Rule 10 demands that “if the goalkeeper commits an offense and, as a result, the kick is retaken, the goalkeeper must be cautioned.”

The offense in question is goalkeeper movement -- forward movement off the goal line before the kick is taken. This has been an irritating problem for referees for years now. It can be said, as the truth of the matter, that virtually all goalkeepers have been consistently moving -- cheating -- and they have been getting away with it.

How so? For two reasons. One of them a very good reason: the realization that human eyes and reflexes are not sharp enough to distinguish whether the movement is made exactly as the kick is taken, or slightly before or after. And another very bad reason: the widespread referee bias in favor of defensive play, in particular the leniency shown toward goalkeepers.

The fact that goalkeepers were cheating was, of course, widely known. So too was the fact that one of soccer’s most important trophies had twice been won by a team using flagrant goalkeeper cheating in shootouts. That was the Spanish club Sevilla, winning the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) in 2007 and 2014.

Eventually, the news that goalkeeper movement was a problem seeped through to the traditionally slow-moving IFAB. IFAB’s belated reaction came just a few months back, when the rules revisions for the 2019-2020 season were announced. They are posted on the IFAB website. Where Rule 14 used to stipulate that “the goalkeeper must remain on the goal line . . . until the ball has been kicked”, the new goalkeeper-friendly wording reads:

“When the ball is kicked, the defending goalkeeper must have at least part of one foot touching, or in line with, the goal line.”

And so we arrive at the villain of all this rule changing: VAR. It is so utterly typical of IFAB’s ineptitude that it should, at last, attempt to resolve the goalkeeper movement problem at the very moment when VAR -- which can infallibly detect goalkeeper movement -- is coming into use.

Yet IFAB -- forgetting for the moment that it has just relaxed its own rule in order to allow for human weakness -- now comes up with its Temporary Dispensation ... which, it turns out, is based entirely on the fact that VAR is so overwhelmingly efficient that it can replace IFAB rules.

The rule VAR is shoving aside is the one demanding a yellow card for goalkeeper movement during a KFPM sequence: “If the goalkeeper commits an offense and, as a result, the kick is retaken, the goalkeeper must be cautioned.”

IFAB, openly and unapologetically taking pity on the keepers, alleges that those yellow cards -- which, it explains (as though we didn’t know) are intended “to act as a deterrent to the goalkeeper to not infringe the Laws of the Game” are now unnecessary. Why? Because. “the presence of the VARs acts as an even greater deterrent to goalkeepers as they know that any encroachment will be detected by the VARs if it is not detected by the on-field match officials."

The IFAB reasoning here seems to be that goalkeepers are simply incorrigible and will go on cheating regardless of yellow cards. Given that the rules demand a yellow card for offenses during the shootout, the awful possibility arises of keepers being ejected. Something that referees always dodge if they can.

So the rules come to the rescue. A recent change to the DOGSO rule says that when a penalty kick is given, defenders (particularly goalkeepers, whom the rule changers no doubt had in mind) whose foul was “an attempt to play the ball,” should not be red-carded. A judgment call open to abuse -- witness a recent Copa America game in which the Chile keeper was allowed to stay on the field after his dive at the feet of an Ecuadoran -- so late that it never got within a yard or more of the ball -- was judged, by VAR, to be an attempt to play the ball.

And now comes further goalkeeper favoritism with IFAB’s “Temporary Dispensation” that suspends (just temporarily you understand) a rule that mandates yellow cards for keepers who encroach during shootouts. This too is designed to avoid goalkeepers getting ejected.

Lest we lose sight of what is at stake here: goalkeepers are being accused of cheating at an absolutely vital, win-or-lose moment of a game. Do they deserve any leniency?

They do not, but they continue to get it. The new 2019-2020 rule book now allows them to take one step forward. And IFAB is still not sure they can be trusted to obey the rules. Which could mean trouble now that VAR sees everything.

So IFAB changes its rules, masking its climb-down with a grandiose claim: “Both FIFA and The IFAB therefore believe that the requirement to caution an offending goalkeeper in KFPM in matches with VARs is not necessary and risks unfairly distorting the KFPM if a goalkeeper is sent off.”

Which is sheer claptrap. If goalkeeper-ejection is a problem, it is not caused by the rules, nor by VAR. It comes from the goalkeepers themselves. All they need to do to stay in the game is to obey the rules. It really is that simple.

20 comments about "The VAR/goalkeeper mess -- an IFAB production".
  1. Clive Toye, June 26, 2019 at 11:31 a.m.

    The game is becoming a VARce.

  2. Tom Byer, June 26, 2019 at 11:33 a.m.

    Brilliantly written Mr. Gardner! 

  3. John Soares, June 26, 2019 at 12:08 p.m.

    "VARce".... I like that.
    and agree!!!

  4. Alan Rubin, June 26, 2019 at 12:35 p.m.

    Goalkeepers should be allowed some leeway as the kicker can build up momentum for the shot. If the keeper is kept to s tight standard, then the shooter should be allowed one step before shooting. 

  5. Robert Seavers, June 26, 2019 at 12:41 p.m.

    Apparently you think being a Goalkeeper and trying to stop Penalty Kicks is some kind of joke.  Just like any player on the field a Goalkeeper has a job to do!  Let’s start replaying every hand check and shoulder bump during the game and see just what a VARce of a game we have.  Facing PKs is not easy and you want to not-pick a man or woman doing the best to read and react to another player kicking a ball at incredible speeds.  I call BS on VAR review of GK foot on line infraction. If it wasn’t called by Referee then play on.  I’m not giving GKs a pass on following the rules.  VAR just goes too far.

  6. Kent James, June 26, 2019 at 1:24 p.m.

    Well, I guess I'm in the minority here, but I agree with FIFA on this one.  VAR can certainly determine if the GK came off the line early, but that should only be an issue if the kick is missed (so not every kick would be reviewed).  It should be done in pretty much real time.  I also think a yellow card is too harsh for the GK who violates it.  It's a tense situation, the keeper is trying to react as quickly as possible, so I don't think coming off the line a fraction of a second early should be punished.  And imagine the farce it would be if the GK comes off a fraction of a second early 2x (and is ejected), and a field player has to go in goal for the match determining kicks.  

    Of course, the best thing FIFA could do is to get rid of kicks from the mark in the first place.  I determine the winner by kicks taken from anywhere outside the  penalty area (presumably, most people would take the kick from the top of the box), have the keeper start on the line and when ref whistles for the kick to be taken, the keeper could do whatever they wanted.  This would do two important things; first, it would change the dynamic from one in which the game is won because someone screwed up (and missed a PK they should have made) so you'd have genuine heroes instead of goats.  And second, it would eliminate the issue of GK movement.  The only potential downside is how long it might take for someone to score (I'm guessing the pros would score on 20% of the shots? Not sure, but I think it would be worth trying...). 

  7. beautiful game replied, June 27, 2019 at 8:29 a.m.

    Mr. KJ thinks that converting a PK is automatic when in fact it takes nerve and and ability to execute. Just wondering, how many PKs did KJ convert in his career? Moving the PK distance out any further would make conversions a scarce commodity. Not restricting keepers movements would be a better solution. As for VAR and its current implementation, it's a disaster and we'll soon see TV commercials during the reviews.

  8. Kent James replied, June 28, 2019 at 10:18 p.m.

    BG, the problem is at the professional level, most kickers do score.  I didn't say it's easy, but they are quite good at it.  I didn't take many in my career, but I scored the ones I took (so know need to throw any shade in my direction...) That means the expectation is that they will score.  Maybe 4 out of 5, and the one who misses, essentially loses the game (the 5 on the other team who scored are not heroes, they just did what they're supposed to do; for most, the relief is palpable after they score).  And half the time whether they score or not is complete luck (whether the goalkeeper guesses correctly).  I would rather them do something where they score 1 out of 5, so the guy who scores is a hero.  Additionally, instead of the GK looking stupid (diving out of the way of a kick that's righ to him) my guess is that you'd see a lot of nice shots and great saves, so it would be much more interesting to watch (rather than merely tense).  You could also get rid of worrying about the keeper coming off is line that everyone is so upset about.  I think kicks from the mark are a horrible way to decide the outcome of the game.  

  9. John Soares, June 26, 2019 at 2:34 p.m.

    Alan agree, plus the "fake kick" step, can throw the goalie off.
    Not saying the kick should not be a retaken. But card is harsh...even unfair.

  10. beautiful game, June 26, 2019 at 3:17 p.m.

    FIFA's rule interpretations is a con job. Referees are instructed to talk to players instead of properly and consistently enforcing ROFTG. Talk is cheap; players know it and for that reason they bend the rules to the nth dgree. The off-side rule is archaic and needs to be changed to "a clear daylight" between defensive and offensive player receiving the ball instead of an elbow or heal, etc being off-sides. Now, ball struck to the hand of a defender in a natural position is a penalty. FIFA needs to re-evaluate every rule and,make common sense changes sooner than later. In addition, televised soccer has become an accepted and untalked about exercise of constant close-ups of players whether it be their faces, back of heads, feet or other zoomed-in struicture that diminishes the games perspective and flow...the hand held sideline cameras are a waste and distraction. What is the purpose of watching the players back side and and apartial view of the players meant to receive the ball. Every ground level scenario robs the viewer of the natural optics of the game, being its overall perspective of player, passiing lanes and ball movement. Televised soccer has become an exercise of Hollywood drama focusing after the fact on close-up facials starting from the passer to the target, to the defender, to the referee, to the keeper, etc. Viewing such repetitive nonsense over 360 plus times every televised game denies the viewer the outdoor stadium experience of the wide angle of ebb and flow in which the game thrives with unlimited excitement and no interference from the itchy fingers/orders from the telecast ops manager. I should hope that most soccer supporters would prefer to watch the game on TV mostly in totallity than bits and pieces of orchestrated and meaningless charade.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2019 at 2:03 a.m.

    Well said. The problem I see is that broadcasters are using the same crews and producers as they use for American football and they produce the soccer broadcast exactly the way that they do American football, including shots of pretty young women in the stands, since there aren't cheerleaders.

  12. frank schoon, June 26, 2019 at 3:22 p.m.

    The VAR has opened up a whole new bag of worms. The game was just fine with warts and all before the VAR. Obviously the bean counters are happy but I do prefer the "unexpected' element of socccer which kept the game so excited but now we all can say goodbye to "reffing in the spirit of the gam" has now ended. Now a foul no matter how inconsequent as seen by  the penalties called must now be dealt with....

  13. Wooden Ships replied, June 26, 2019 at 4:26 p.m.

    My head hurts Frank. Im a wart fan too. I think we just need to do away with the physical game and move entirely to the AI-Gaming version. Let’s stop getting in the way of modernity and allow the non-soccer playing fan his or her time in the sun. Our generation of players are obviously stupid, for we knew how to play the game and appreciate all its imperfections in a free flowing, emotion draining experience that left you spent and happy. Then we’d have a beer or two and do it all over again the next day. Holy smokes universities are now offering Gaming scholarships, need I say more. Relics we are, with memories these young grasshoppers will never equal.

  14. frank schoon replied, June 26, 2019 at 5:27 p.m.

    Ships, I'm afraid we've lost those days and only have those sweet memories when soccer was truly soccer..

  15. uffe gustafsson, June 26, 2019 at 4:49 p.m.

    How about the studdar step that many penalty kickers use to draw the goalie off the line.
    that should be illegal as well.

  16. Wooden Ships replied, June 26, 2019 at 4:59 p.m.

    Agreed Uffe. I’m remembering when Socrates first used his approach. 

  17. frank schoon replied, June 26, 2019 at 5:28 p.m.

    Pele did too...

  18. John Soares, June 26, 2019 at 7:19 p.m.

    Yes commercials are being discussed.
    Voice only...for now.
    However with some calls taking more than 5 minutes!?
    Thats a lot of "unused" (wasted) air time.
    A couple of time outs anyone?

  19. Michael Saunders, June 28, 2019 at 10:37 a.m.

    Hey Paul:

    Nice article.   Cannot disagree with your commentary and most referees will applaud your analysis upon reading it.    

    My only criticism of this rule enactment is the methodology to implement it. I'll be blunt:  the story to date emanating out of the World Cup is the VAR!  It is not the culprit as you have cleary identified.   It becam a PR nightmare which is readily apparent when you have two Media Referee Press Conferences explaining what is going on.   

    In both of those conferences, Colina emphasized the point that the teams partcipating in the WC were  made aware of those changes on Dec 8th after the WC draw in Paris, and on March 2nd when the IFAB ratified those changes.   To hear him say, the teams had every opportunity to test those rules in "friendlies" leading up to the WC, but did not do so, is ludicrous.  Why?  Well the VAR is a disruptive technology as you clearly point out.    Yet how many countries had VAR capability, or were even allowed to use it had they asked?  Every team just considered the rule change itself, not the fact that the Eagle eyed VAR will catch the infraction.   

    Had FIFA focused on that in December and March as they explained in those two press conferences, we wouldn't be having this controversy.   Guarantee you will not see as many GK encroachment calls during the rest of WWC, the Gold Cup, etc.   

    Bottom line:   FIFA failed the litmus test of  technology implementation:  Communicating its impact.     

  20. Chris Madden, June 28, 2019 at 3:49 p.m.

    The best solution is S***can VAR; it is ruining the game. Soccer is going to go the way of American football which saw a 20% decline in viewrship, partly due to the protracted replays. Adding do-overs to referees is taking the human component out of the arbitration of the game.  Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes and so do referees. That is the beauty of the game. Undo this mistake and let VAR go the way of the 35 yard offside line. 

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