This is a committee which is supposed to keep its eye on soccer’s rules -- to make sure they are kept up to date, that they are comprehensive, that they are clear and easily understood. That sort of thing.
It is composed of members, none of whom, to my knowledge, has any particular qualifications for the job. I know of no requirement that it must include a referee, for instance, or a player. Or a lawyer.
So, in a vital position in the increasingly complicated world of soccer, IFAB muddles along with but one outstanding talent: That of postponing, or completely avoiding, making important decisions.
Recent attempts to reorganize this mess, trying to pass IFAB off as a hive of activity, independent of FIFA, and completely modern in its outlook have fallen quickly to earth with a resounding dull thud.
IFAB is still IFAB, still a musty remnant of its formation years, back in stuffy Victorian England. All that need be said, really -- and it’s quite damning enough -- is that it is still required, as it was back in 1886, that four of IFAB’s eight votes must go to representatives of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (not, it must be pointed out, four countries, but four regions of the same country, the U.K.). FIFA has the other four votes, all of them wielded at the moment by general secretary Fatma Samoura.
Think about it: 1886 ... over one hundred and thirty years ago, and soccer still considers it OK for one of the sport’s most important areas to be entrusted to Northern Ireland and Wales - countries that cannot, by any highly elastic stretching of the imagination, be held to carry any weight whatsoever in the sport. Sadly, even the once-powerful Scotland, is also now a spent force.
To be that impervious to the very idea of change in a rapidly changing world is not an accident. You have to be devoted to inertia, satisfied with stagnation. That is IFAB. A gathering of complacent “just say no!” reactionaries.
Would it not make sense, as a very minimal acknowledgment of the arrival of the 21st century, to replace Northern Ireland and Wales with, let us say, representatives from Argentina and Brazil? Two countries with seven World Cup trophies between them, countries representing the vital Latin-American contribution to the sport. Two countries, responsible for so much of the development of the game on the field ... should they not be given automatic seats in the rule-making body?
All the above seems to me to be so blindingly obvious that I wonder why it is that soccer itself puts up with it. If you need any further evidence on that point, we need go no further back than four months ago, to October 2019.
On the sixteenth of that month Reuters delivered an article titled “IFAB Planning Working Group on Managing Concussions.” Which already tells you a lot. IFAB was not about to deal directly with the vital concussion injuries, already a widely discussed topic throughout sports. It was going to set up a working group. No, it was planning to set up a working group. The next IFAB meeting had concussions on the agenda -- not as a topic needing urgent action, but as a “discussion topic.”
Quoted throughout the article was Vincent Gouttebarge, identified as the medical head at FIFPro, the international body representing some 65,000 professional soccer players worldwide. Gouttebarge comes over as an amiable man, willing to agree with more or less anything that IFAB said. He told Reuters that any rule changes were still some way off, that changing the rules was complicated -- “We don’t have to be naive that such a huge agenda point will be resolved in a couple of weeks.” He then let slip, casually, that FIFPro had first brought up the question of concussions in 2013, so that it had “taken six years to get this far.”
Six years to get round to thinking about planning a working group to discuss career-threatening and quality-of-life-endangering injuries?
How can that possibly be acceptable? The rule changes mentioned by Gouttebarge involve permitting teams to use temporary subs while an injured player is off the field, being tested for concussion. IFAB was dithering on the issue (and still is), yet by the time of that press release, U.S. Soccer had already implemented (in 2015) limitations on heading for younger players, complete with the use of concussion subs. The changes, including subs, have not, I believe, caused any major disruption to games.
And concussion subs are not the whole story. Because, as far as concussions are concerned, IFAB -- typically, alas -- is getting it wrong. It is treating the injuries as a completely medical issue, and therefore concentrating on diagnosis and treatment. But concussions are also a sports issue, and that is where IFAB should make itself heard.
Not in treating concussions, but in preventing them. By looking at the rules (IFAB’s allotted responsibility) to see if any changes need to be made to reduce the incidence of concussions in soccer. If it does that, it will find plenty of work to do -- work that should then lead quickly (that does not mean six years) to rule changes making soccer a safer sport for all its millions of players.
But I do not believe that IFAB as currently set up can do that. It has had its chance, it has failed abysmally. A new organization, with new people and new attitudes is necessary.