"Soccer's back at last!" My wife pasted that caption over a short clip of me on our sofa watching Bundesliga on Saturday afternoon, then posted it to her Instagram account. No doubt to the delight of her followers, there was more to it than just a middle-aged bloke staring dumbly at Bochum vs. Heidenheim. In fact, just half an hour into the restart, I was already fast asleep.
As I've pointed out often enough over the past few weeks, I'm no fan of soccer in empty stadiums. Once I'd emerged from my nap, though, I watched the German league games with an academic interest. FIFA, displaying a common sense that has increasingly become the norm from their rulemaking International Football Association Board (IFAB), introduced some tweaks and recommendations specially tailored to the game in the pandemic era. Let's take a look at how they shaped up this past weekend.
• Five substitutions instead of three. This was to compensate for players not having had the time to regain full fitness, and because they would be playing more games than usual over a short period of time. Most of the teams in the Bundesliga took advantage of the rule and used four or five subs, limited to three subbing-in windows to avoid time-wasting.
Soccer has gone from zero subs to three over the past six decades, and I can see no reason why we shouldn't make five subs the permanent norm. For the simple reason that nothing speaks against it. Coaches should be allowed the chance for more tactical flexibility in an age of large rosters and heavy scheduling. And what fan, with their team two or three goals down, would not love to see five lackluster players subbed out in one go by a furious coach?
• Suspension of VAR. FIFA gave leagues the option of ditching the Video Assistant Referee upon resumption. I'm not sure why, but I'm all for it. The Bundesliga, sadly, did not use the opportunity to return to the good old days of human error, and consequently the one moment of true drama on Saturday afternoon -- Freiburg's injury-time winner at high-flying Leipzig -- was canceled out due to one of those infuriating micro-offsides measured by computer, but invisible to the human eye.
I would broadly support VAR if it were not for this absurd hair-splitting that utterly defies the stated mandate of only correcting "clear and obvious errors."
Better to bin the whole project than subject us all to this sport-wrecking fiasco that squeezes the the soul and the spirit out of soccer.
• Scaling back goal celebrations to practice social distancing. This was only a recommendation, and perhaps more for PR purposes than health reasons given the actual physical contact happening out on the field. Hertha Berlin, astonished at scoring three goals in one game, couldn't help themselves and celebrated with hugs and kisses. Most other players were more restrained.
There seems little point in legislating against the extravagant, self-deifying choreographies that accompany goals in soccer's glamour age, much as I'd love to see a return to a curt handshake and a pat on the back. Instead, I'd propose the following law: the team conceding a goal has the right to re-start play within 15 seconds of a goal being awarded. Currently, up to a minute can be lost when the corner flag area's turned into an impromptu dance-floor, and that time is rarely added on by the fourth official. Any player not back in their own half after 15 seconds would receive a yellow card.
Also seldom discussed is the effect of these tiresome pantomimes on young players. The parents of my boys U-9 team recently expressed concern about the noise and scale of their sons' goal jubilation, and they were absolutely right. After a discussion with the players about sporting values and taking into account the feelings of their opponents, they scaled things down. (Somewhere, a reader is now exploding indignantly about political correctness gone haywire. What, can't we even let our kids celebrate goals now? Just a quick high-five and then running back for the re-start? It's rampant socialism, I tell you!)
• An end to crowding at corner kicks. This was not among IFAB's recommendations, but TSG Hoffenheim's team doctor, Thomas Frölich, has suggested keeping the six-yard box free of all players bar the goalkeeper at corner kicks. That makes sense not only for health reasons, but for sporting reasons too, in order to curtail the endless shoving, shirt-pulling and falling over that bedevils this particular set-piece, almost always resulting in a free kick for the defending side - despite the fact they commit at least 50% of the fouls in these situations.
One attacking team on Saturday (apologies for forgetting which one -- I was still groggy from my nap) actually tried this, with its forwards running in from the edge of the penalty area at corner-kicks. They weren't successful, but it was at least an interesting variation from the unseemly tussle of the teeming herd. Why professional teams don't use more imagination at serially wasted corner kicks is to me, as a coach, an ongoing mystery.
• Less dissent and touchline hysterics. Again, this was not an IFAB guideline, but the lack of a crowd -- and possibly the sense that they were being watched by the world amid a still unconquered pandemic -- did at least have this one positive side effect: the all-around conduct of the players and coaches underwent a significant improvement. Turns out that it is possible to keep your emotions in check and behave like a decent human being after all.
That did leave me wondering, though, if it's the emotions rather than the soccer that's been keeping me awake all these years.