My position being that goalscoring has, for decades now, been slowly -- but perceptibly -- withering away. Without any action from FIFA or IFAB to stem the trend.
American sports, I insisted, did much better with rule tweaking designed to maintain that balance. Maintaining the offense-defense balance is not merely a statistical matter. Its real life effect is to stop exactly what has been happening in soccer: a goal famine, and all the ugly negativity that inevitably comes with a low-scoring game. The shootout tiebreaker being a stupendously obnoxious part of that baggage.
That was my theme -- which I’m sticking with -- but I was not paying attention to developments within the English Premier League. At the beginning of August, the EPL announced some tweakings, and let us know how they were arrived at, and what they are supposed to accomplish.
Mike Riley is the boss at the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) the organization that manages EPL referees. It is from PGMOL that the tweakings come. Firstly, with the news that PGMOL has been seeking the views of the sport’s “stakeholders” (clubs, players, coaches and fans). On VAR for instance. Where, not surprisingly, they found a lot of fan frustration with the millimetric offside calls.
No need for me to plunge into the technicalities, but “thicker lines” will be used by VAR to assess offside calls -- with the result that, according to Riley, “the toe nails and noses that were offside last year won’t be this season.”
Obviously, a sensible move -- and doubly commendable because it came after consultation with players and fans. If either FIFA or IFAB has ever done that, they have kept very quiet about it.
The second important tweaking gets no applause from this quarter. Simply because I believe it to be a damaging step backward for the sport. A tweak that is utterly wrong, and ill thought out. PGMOL has instructed EPL referees to ignore “minimal contact” fouls. Which, we are told, will reduce the number of penalty kicks. No doubt it will, but no explanation is given as to why that is seen as a good thing.
A brief sidetrack is necessary here to delve into the British attitude to contact in soccer. According to Riley, the PGMOL’s survey showed that “all the players” agreed that “football is about contact.”
Which seems questionable. Soccer certainly involves contact -- but that is a long way from claiming that soccer is about contact. The sport’s own attitude to contact is revealed in the rule book. The all-important Rule 12 begins with a list of seven offenses. All of them involve contact. And the rules, by penalizing any contact that is careless or worse are aimed at keeping that contact to a minimum.
OK, the Brits wrote the rules, but they prefer to ignore them, to over ride them with a favorite phrase: hard but fair. Which sounds pretty admirable, until you realize that it is actually a bowdlerization of the much less admirable “getting stuck in.”
It can really apply only to defensive players and ball-winning midfielders. The idea of a creative midfielder getting stuck in is ludicrous. But when has English soccer ever been about midfield creativity?
Getting stuck in involves plenty of contact. It encourages the sort of player who enjoys and seeks contact. The sort of player who should be playing rugby.
PGMOL’s ruling that referees must be nice to defenders is pretty obviously an extension of the hard-but-fair mentality. Only in Britain could this deception/distortion be accepted. And it will be accepted.
TV commentator Andy Townsend had his say after only one week of the new ruling: “Our sport is a contact sport ... this league is, and has been for many years, about handling the physical side and the physical nature of it, and I think it’s a welcome return to see players, yes, taking a tumble now and again and, yes, getting hurt now and then, but getting back up on their feet and getting on with it.”
The muddled thinking involved in that nicely sums up the muddled British attitude to physical play. Apparently they like it. Townsend, when it was pointed out to him that two top (non-English) coaches in the EPL -- Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer -- opposed the new measure, had this to say: “They think their players are going to get fouled more -- well, they’ll have to live with that, they’ll have to deal with that, I’m afraid.” Very nice, Andy -- but to be expected from a Brit ex-player described by Wikipedia as a “hard-tackling, hard-working midfielder.” One of the “getting stuck in” warriors, I’d say.
Also nicely hidden in the new ruling is the British belief that foreign players fall down too easily. They dive, in other words. Under the new approach, if there is contact, a referee must make three decisions: on the degree of contact, and what was the consequence of the contact. In fact, he needn’t bother with those, because the third requirement is to measure the “motivation of the attacker.”
A wonderful get-out-of-jail call, that allows the referee to heap all the blame on the attacker and yellow-card him for diving. You can surely expect an increase in diving calls in the EPL. That’s an area in which EPL referees, during the great diving witch hunt of a year or two back, must have set plenty of world records for atrociously bad calls.
The sport does not need a revival of the diving scare -- but above all it does not need yet another pro-defense ruling for referees to exploit.
Mike Riley’s vision is of a game in which defenders continue to commit minimal-contact fouls but the fouls are not called. “Let’s create a free-flowing game,” he says. But the threat to his free-flowing game does not come from too many referee calls. It originates with too many fouls. The PGMOL solution, to simply ignore the fouls, cannot be any sort of answer. Not least because, yet again, the defensive part of the sport is being given a huge break.
One of the more puzzling of Riley’s enthusiastic comments is this: “We want the approach to be one that best allows players to express themselves ...” Defenders, yes, I suppose it’s good for them, for whom the free-flowing game is actually a free-fouling game. But it offers nothing to attacking players other than being fouled more frequently, or possibly being on the end of a dubious diving call. And of not having to worry about their noses or toenails straying offside.
At the top of this column, I had words of praise for Mike Riley and the EPL because they had made tweaks to rule interpretation with the clearly stated intention of making the game more attractive to fans.
I still see that as a major development in the sport. But I’m left wondering whether Mike Riley sees it in quite that way. Because he makes it clear that the changes the EPL is introducing are designed, not for soccer in general, but for “the Premier League game.” The much-needed changes to the way VAR judges offside calls, for instance, are being made in a way that “is conducive to Premier League football.”
The PGMOL is a part of the EPL. But it ought to be an independent body. Its game-changing ideas should be made for the benefit of the sport as a whole -- i.e. ideas that should be approved by IFAB. Which, for all its many and grievous faults, is still soccer’s official rule-making body.
For soccer to suddenly discover that it has two rule-making groups, acting independently, sounds like a sure-fire way of adding to the confusion that already surrounds so much of what IFAB does, or more usually, doesn’t do.