Commentary

Forty years in the LOTG: Grassroots vs. the professional game

The other day I have received my 40th Laws of the Game (LOTG) book in the mail since I am a U.S. Soccer Regional Referee Coach. The 2019-20 version of the LOTG is 222 pages long, excluding the empty notes pages. I also have a copy of it in my smart phone. The book itself has good paper quality and is colored. I dug into my collection of old LOTGs and found the first one I had “Laws of the Game and Universal Guide for Referees with USSF supplement” dated July 1979 published one year after I started refereeing.  Excluding the USSF supplement (13 pages long) it is 68 pages long. It is black and white with rather poor paper quality; needless to say there is no electronic version. So the current version of the LOTG is 3.26 times longer than the one 40 years ago.

The Preface of the 1979 version is signed by Dr. Joao Havelange, the then President of FIFA. It says, “According the tradition, the LOTG are not static or inflexible. Wisely, they follow the march of time and try to conform to the development of the game.” Dr. Havelange must have looked at the crystal ball of soccer. In 1979, there were no Law changes but for example in 1981 there was only one Law change in Law 12. In those years, changes to the LOTG were very few and far in between.

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That version (1979) of the LOTG still had 17 LOTG like today although the names of some of the Laws have changed. We then had “Law 6: Linesmen” whereas we now have “Law 6: The Other Match Officials” and we now call them Assistant Referees. According to the LOTG in 1979 “coaching was not allowed from the sidelines” and “the Law does not insist that boots or shoes must be worn” unless some players are wearing footwear. The LOTG of the game then was meant for both the grassroots and the professional game. There was very little distinction between the grassroots game and the professional one except when it mentioned international games.  It was simple and left a lot of room to the judgment and interpretation of the referee. The diagrams were out of scale and left too much to the imagination.

I will have to write a book to tell how the LOTG evolved along those 40 years, but one thing is certain -- the game evolved so did the LOTG. Now we have the technical area, the fourth official, the Additional Assistant Referees and VARs. We now use the technology extensively: Goal Line Technology, VAR, communication devices to name a few; all of them are mentioned in the current version of the LOTG.

The current version of the LOTG has 34 changes, so especially if you look at the changes of 2016-17 LOTG (94) the number of changes have reduced drastically. Most of those changes were well deserved and in most cases reflected the concept of “what football expects.” The key point is that most of the time “what football expects” is a reflection of what professional football expects. All players at all ages and classifications play the game to win and have fun. The consequences of losing a game change from the grassroots game to the professional one. In one, it is a loss of a game and possible three points, in the other the consequences of a loss are far-reaching.

Let us have a look at the recent change (2016-17) in Denying of a Goal Scoring Opportunity (DOGSO). IFAB has decided that the triple punishment (sending off a player plus a penalty kick plus at least one-game suspension) was unfair and rewritten the Law regarding DOGSO. IFAB restricted the red card in the case of DOGSO to a few types of fouls. It was “what professional football expected.” Needless to say at the grassroots level, the triple punishment was not an issue.

The use of technology is “what professional football expected.” The guardians of soccer did not want another goal scored by the hand of Thierry Henry or Diego Maradona or a goal in the final of the World Cup (1966) that is still disputable. Those were not serious concerns of grassroots soccer. 

The guardians of soccer did care for grassroots soccer also. The introduction of belated “return substitution” to the LOTG as well as the sin bin – which is primarily and scarcely used in grassroots soccer at this point and time – are rare examples for changes to the LOTG that grassroots soccer benefit from.

A percentage of the recent changes to the LOTG only involve professional soccer. Even the recent change of redefining handling is a result of the demand from professional soccer. Although now clearer the recent change for ‘handling the ball’s implementation and understanding is problematic at the grassroots level. Even talking to some regional referees, I realize that the new interpretation of handling the ball is confusing for them. For example, the recent change in substitution – allowing the player being substituted to leave the field of play from the closest boundary line – is explained as a measure to prevent time-wasting. It is true it will cut back on potential time wasting but when you come to grassroots soccer and return substitution (unlimited substitution) the management of substitution with multiple substitutes at the same time could be very problematic. The recent change in 2018-19 LOTG for Law 11 (Offside) defines touching the ball as “the first point of contact of the ‘play’ or ‘touch’ of the ball” is definitely a change that feeds into the VAR system. Such a difference cannot be detected by the naked eye of a referee in the grassroots game. With the implementation of VAR, the responsibilities and practical applications of the ARs have been changed. I could give more examples of how some of the changes to the LOTG were triggered by what professional football expects. 2019-20 version of the LOTG have eight pages dedicated to the VAR protocol which is has very little value for the grassroots referees.

It is clear that the current version of the LOTG is too complicated, too detailed and includes parts that are irrelevant for the game at the grassroots level. Instead of insisting on one set of LOTG for both professional and grassroots soccer, IFAB should start thinking of having two LOTG: one for the grassroots and one for the professional game. 

I hate writing about the same subject more than once, but I wrote about the same topic exactly two years ago. With every new LOTG, the need for two sets of LOTG becomes more evident. 

The grassroots LOTG should 

  1. Be simple – both in language and content.
  2. Have no reference to technology
  3. Cover all grassroots games including the small sided game

The separation of the LOTG between the grassroots and professional game will also give IFAB the opportunity to incorporate much needed changes to the professional LOTG like having a timekeeper which is difficult to implement in the grassroots game. 

I hope that I do not have to write another article with the same topic in September 2021.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer 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 Georgetown, TX.

4 comments about "Forty years in the LOTG: Grassroots vs. the professional game".
  1. Larry Light, September 13, 2019 at 2:56 p.m.

    As someone who I suppose will become known as a "grassroots" referee I could not agree with you more.  I would add that the very issues you discuss reflect the arrogance of those who control the sport of soccer.

  2. uffe gustafsson, September 13, 2019 at 4:55 p.m.

    The DOGSO change is a bit confusing.
    because it only talks about inside penalty box.
    I have seen goal keeper and field players taken down an attacker that was clear thru but they did it outside penalty box. So what do you do in that scenario?

  3. Wooden Ships, September 14, 2019 at 12:31 a.m.

    It would be an improvement to return to pre-1979 where coaches couldn’t coach during play. It was much better for players and would reduce the lunacy coming from touch and the stands. 

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, September 14, 2019 at 10:14 p.m.

    Yes.

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