More subs means better soccer? Don't bet on it.

You will remember the famous Anatoliy Puzach  ... No? ... Ukrainian-born forward for Dynamo Kiev and the USSR? Still no?

Oh come on, it’s not that long ago. Just 52 years ago when Puzach was in all the soccer headlines for doing something that had never been done before in soccer. And will never be done again.

OK, I’ll admit that’s a little misleading. Because Puzach didn’t really do anything. He was one of those who, in the bard’s words, had fame “thrust upon him.” Shakespeare called it “greatness,” but that’s much too exalted a word for what happened to Puzach.

Which was this. In the opening game of the 1970 World Cup, Russia was playing the host team Mexico. At halftime the scoreline was 0-0. But immediately before the second half began, with the teams already on the field there was a slight delay as Puzach ran on to the field — was waved on, actually. In those few seconds Puzach had become the first-ever substitute in a World Cup game.

Which meant that FIFA after years of controversy about the topic, had made up its mind. Substitution was now an official part of the game. Just two subs per game.

This was a fundamental change in the rules. There was no mention of replacing an injured player. The substitutes could be used whenever the coach decided. One of them would probably be held back until late in the game, a safeguard against injury, but the other was obviously going to be a tactical sub.

I had been mulling the question of subs for years. I had never seen a game with subs — I don’t think there were any in Europe, certainly not in England, where substitution was regarded as a form of cheating. I had no idea that the South Americans had been using subs for decades — in exhibition games and in competitions organized by CONMEBOL. I was also unaware that in 1947 the FIFA Referees’ Committee had decided that “Replacement (substitution) of players in competition matches, even if they have been injured, is not permitted.”

I would have been shocked to learn that Pele (the one Brazilian we all knew about) had begun his international career in 1957 as a 16-year-old sub.

From that position of widespread ignorance I had more or less decided that subs were OK to replace injured players but not for any other reason. It’s quite probable that, even had I been much better informed, I would still have reached the same conclusion.

Because my objection to subs was based solely on my view that the tactical sub allowed the coach to interfere directly in the live action of the game. I was not convinced then — and I remain unconvinced — that this makes for a better game.

I strongly approved of what the Rulebook said: “... nor shall he [the referee] allow coaching from the boundary lines.”

But I could also see that coaches were blatantly ignoring this rule, and that referees were reluctant to punish them.

The coaches knew what they were doing, didn’t they ever. Quietly, subversively, the word leaked out. As the 1990 World Cup approached we learned that a FIFA Memorandum to the World Cup Referees included this: “Coaching of players during a game is permitted only from the team’s bench.”

A flat-out contradiction by FIFA of its own rule, which still banned all “boundary-line” coaching. The coaches had simply raised their voices, made a mockery of the current rules, and got their way. IFAB, the rule makers, had abjectly given in.

The Rulebook ban, increasingly ignored of course, was not finally removed from the Rulebook until the 1993-94 edition which read “The coach may convey tactical instructions to players during the match.”

The coaches now knew that they could get their way by bullying

And I feared — to the point of being sure — that things would not stop with just two subs, though even in my gloomier moods I don’t think I ever got around to imagining five subs.

But that’s where we are. That is what the English Premier League has decreed for its 2022-23 season and IFAB has approved worldwide. The rationale is not without merit, representing the change as necessary because of the physical challenges modern players face, from a faster game, and a greater number of games played.

There are other ways of countering the energy-drain caused by too heavy a schedule — shortening games to two 30-minute halves, for instance — or simply shortening the playing season.

That the game is faster cannot be doubted. Whether that makes it a better game is questionable. I doubt it. More likely is that it will become a sport in which physical fitness and stamina are all-important, hence the need for more substitutes. A less intelligent, more physical game with less time to think. Is that what we want?

It may be what a newcomer to the scene wants — what television wants. Television has brought massive amounts of money to the sport, and that money means change.

Money is a factor I never thought of back in the innocent days when I worried about the number of substitutes and the growing influence of coaches.

Now, here comes the EPL with its five subs. This was agreed upon by a vote from all 20 EPL clubs.

We now have a sport divided, at the pro level, into the super-rich clubs, the merely rich clubs, and the large minority of not-so-rich clubs.

Are the super-rich clubs so powerful that they can influence how the game must be played? Of course they are. Their big move — to create their own European Super League — collapsed last year, but I have no doubt it will be back, better planned, better organized, and that the rich guys will get their way.

They have just done so in the EPL. The 5-sub rule was used in the EPL for the 2020-2021 season — as a temporary anti-Covid move. At the end of that season, the 20 EPL clubs voted on whether to continue with 5 subs for 2021-2022. When the 10-10 vote failed to produce the necessary majority, the 5-sub scheme was dropped. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp (super-rich-club coaches, both of them) let it be known that they disapproved of the vote.

In March of this year, another vote was taken, this time giving a 14 to 6 vote in favor of 5 subs for next season. This is not easy to fathom. Arsenal (super-rich club) coach Mikel Arteta tried to explain the vote in soccer terms, asserting that coaches would now have “options to refresh the game.” The usual coaches’ hogwash, ever certain of their own ability to do what is “good for the game.”

The use of five subs clearly favors the rich guys with their larger rosters, and benches full of top international stars. For the majority of the clubs, digging into their bench can only mean bringing on inferior players.

As there are no obvious advantages for the merely rich clubs, their support for the 5-sub rule (a reversal of their vote only one year earlier) needs an explanation.

I have none to offer. But I would point out that, not for the first time, a move to increase the number of subs comes with assurances (from coaches) that it will improve the game, and that it now has the support of the super-rich clubs. By no means the sort of backing guaranteed to produce a better game.

Strangely enough, the topic of substitutes always makes me feel ill at ease. I’ve carried out an amateurish analysis of my own discomfort, and this is what I’ve come up with. It goes back to my boyhood and that early belief that substitution was linked with cheating. Then came 1970 and the sudden interest in Anatoly Puzach, and the way he was being lauded (or so it seemed), when he had done nothing except to be in the right place at the right time.

But his momentary glimpse of fame, came at a price. It had a victim. Albert Shesternov, 28, a defender with CSKA Moscow. The player who was dumped to make room for Puzach. No one talked about him at the time, I recall no stories, even interviews. In fact, I had to cull the FIFA stats to get his name right.

He died in 1994. He is generally regarded as one of the Russian greats, a libero who played 90 times for Russia, 62 times as captain.

But that moment in 1970, the moment marking substitution’s triumphal recognition by FIFA, the moment of Puzach’s fleeting fame, must have been a very bitter pill for Shesternov. Maybe something of the unfairness that he suffered then has been with me ever since. Why, by which whim of fate, did Shesternov have to be a victim? It really does seem that I link substitution with whatever is the opposite of fair play.

That’s the best my dabbling in Freudian mysteries can come up with. I’m not dissatisfied. Life has enough unfairness without a contribution from soccer. I’ll not be seeking treatment for my failing: Being against unfairness. I can live with that.

But those whispering, persistent reminders that, in soccer, prolific substitution is not a good idea — I’m not so sure I’ve learned to live with them.

15 comments about "More subs means better soccer? Don't bet on it.".
  1. frank schoon, June 24, 2022 at 1:52 p.m.

    Right on! Paul.  In the past 10years too many efforts have created to change the rules in soccer...
    It's beginning to look like college soccer. VAR is not answer, changing goal size, off-side rule, substitution rule changes...I DON'T LIKE THE OVERAL BIG PICTURE HERE for that is how you should look at the game, but unfortunately everyone overlooks the bigger picture and just looks at the micro of only the one rule change at a time. Remember back in the 60's when you couldn't have long hair in school, which was later challenged, then it was wearing shorts to school which  were actually shorts but time has moved the envelop. In a sense things like discipline began to unravel along with the rule changes. Employing 5sub changes, including the VAR time, before you know it were looking at instituting hockey rules as suggested where players should sit out for few minutes. It is getting rediculous!!!!

    We don't need rule changes. I can understand Guardiola wanting 5subs for his teams will always be more games because teams tend to play a lot more game, and tournaments... Fifa needs to get serious about giving players more time off....Look at the world cup, I think it started with 16teams and now were up to 40....This is rediculous ,just like the tournaments being held right after the long season...

    It is a general understanding that players who played in the WC usually have a poor follow up season because they aren't 100%  they need a rest...Without a rest ,it will have deliterious effects on the quality of the game.

    To me it is not about rule changes but changes in developing BETTER players. Most players have difficulty making a cross field pass to other the flank to a player on the run or trapping a ball dead or under control from a high kick. Look at the crosses,so many end up behind the goal instead of in front of it... How many players can actually cross the ball on the run with either or able to bend it away, head high or waist high.. How many players can actual play under real pressure and handle and control a ball. These are just some examples.. Were talking rule changes, lets first develop some decent ball players to improve the quality of game that has going downwards in the past 50years...

  2. George Miller, June 25, 2022 at 6:15 a.m.

    As we contemplate more law changes the reflexive reaction is soccer is fine the way it is. Or you're trying to Americanize it.... A recent discussion about free kicks and being able to dribble it was rejected by many for just that reason. A bit of reading and anyone can learn the laws have been changed more times than most realize. Not always for the better. Most agree outside determined by one defender was an improvement. More changes are coming. It's not fine just the way it is and never has been

  3. Beau Dure replied, June 25, 2022 at 7:07 a.m.

    I have to argue that the "Americanization" argument is outdated. It may have always been wrong. IFAB and FIFA have been perfectly happy to use the USA as a lab. More recently, changes such as this one are being driven outside the USA.  

  4. Kinsley Nyce, June 25, 2022 at 7:24 a.m.

    What is all this loose ramble of more subs without essentialy referencing the broader list of Firehouse, Subway, Jimmy-John's, Jersey Mike's, Primo Hoagies, Potbelly, Blimpie, Quizno, Schlotsky's, and 22,742 neighborhood family locations. What is the point?   Gardner could have garnished his insights, adding meat to his thoughts. Oiled his review along with some spices. Peppered it maybe with a range of cheesie details.  Instead he lettuce merely ponder fresh baked changes in FIFA, mere added numbers without toasting or validating our frequent visitor cards for added scoring and the extra bonus discounts.  All subs will be heavily toasted at Qatar 2022. 

  5. R2 Dad replied, June 28, 2022 at 12:19 p.m.

    PG's column has gone a rye. He should be toast by now. 

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, June 29, 2022 at 7:09 p.m.

    Now you got me Hungry.!!!  :)

  7. Bob Ashpole, June 25, 2022 at 8:07 a.m.

    Great opinion piece. I can't remember the last time I agreed so completely.

    We already are faced with delays to play lasting as long as 5 minutes caused by multiple substitutions. 

    Does anyone here actually like the college substitution rules? For most teams it results in a platoon system of play which I found from the point of view of a player on a team with only a couple of substitutes to be an obviously predictable style of play. The teams relied entirely on physical quickness and "vertical" play.

    To my way of thinking, this change is intended to make the sport more valuable as a TV broadcast program because it will entertain fans who don't understand the game (aka attract a broader range of viewers) and also provide broadcasters with more breaks for commercials. I think that was driving the EPL vote. All about making money, not about the game.

  8. Matthew Shaddock, June 25, 2022 at 12:56 p.m.

    Keep shaking that stick from your front porch chair hollaring "get off my lawn!" Paul.

    The rest of us will go on enjoying a game that is vastly technically, tactically, and visually superior to the foul-fest route 1 soccer that was played in the 1970s in the few parts of Europe you so fantasize about. 

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2022 at 12:54 a.m.

    You are wrong about the type of soccer Paul likes. You are also wrong to insult him.

    You certainly don't speak for me, and from where I am standing you sound like a lone voice in the wilderness rather than a spokesman for the world.

    If you have anything to say about the sport itself I would welcome it, but I don't take kindly to personal attacks or someone claiming to speak for me.

  10. Kent James, June 26, 2022 at 10:56 a.m.

    While I appreciate the history lesson on substitutions (PG never disappoints in that department) I think the increase in subs is a good thing. While I get the old school approach that football is a man's game and subs are for sissies, times have changed. Not being able to sub for an injured player is macho, but silly.  Now teams are unlikely to face that prospect. The idea that changing the personnel changes how the game is being played can certainly true, I don't see that as a bad thing.  Variety makes life interesting.  I've seen many games that have developed into a pattern that becomes boring to watch, and I've seen subs break that pattern and make the game interesting again.  

    It is also true that allowing subs to replace tiring players will allow the game to be played at a higher pace (though it doesn't have to be).  As a spectator, I don't see keeping tiring players on the field as an advantage. Certainly with no subs, teams may spend more time on fitness training so they don't tire, and I'd rather see a game decided on skill than on the endurance of the starters.  

    Teams that want to slow the game down can still do so; no one is forcing them to sub, so they can keep their starters in for the whole game.  Using subs does reward the team with the deeper bench, but again, I think the benefits of developing more players who actively participate in the game outweighs downside of  giving the wealthier clubs the opportunity to use their more expensive benches. 

    I also don't think coaches being able to coach (and make adjustments) during a game is so bad.  Coaches can't control all player movements, but good coaches should be able to see how a game is playing out and identify potential opportunities to exploit weaknesses in the other team, as well as correct weaknesses in their own team.  Since coaches tend to be more experienced than players, and are looking at the big picture, it is not unrealistic to hope that would lead to a game being played at a higher level than if coaches have no input.  In my experience, good coaches help their players play better, which I think is good for the game.


  11. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2022 at 3:17 a.m.

    Kent, if that is what you believe the "old school" objections are, then you completely misunderstand the point.

    The first time I played a competitive match under NCAA rules I was shocked. In my opinion it was like playing an high school City All-Star team. They sprinted up and down the field trying to win by sprinting. After 10-15 minutes they were gassed and they had no other game. At the 22 minute mark they brought in 10 pairs of fresh legs and repeated the process. We have multiple generations of soccer people that played that way. That idea of how soccer is played I believe is responsible for the inferior style of conventional soccer in the USA.

    The "old school" objections I made are based on the elimination of player creativity and the almost complete removal of the control of pace as a tactical aspect of the match. With substitutions teams now can defend everywhere if they choose. Another tactical aspect removed from the game. Strangely these changes favor the defense, and allow broadcasters to run more commercials. Have you noticed that FIFA competitions that limit substitions to only scheduled in advance windows? Just a form of TV tiime outs.

  12. frank schoon replied, June 28, 2022 at 10:55 a.m.

    Bob, you are so right....A book should come out called, " Coaching for Dummies by increasing the number of subs".  The dumber the coach, the more the subs....

  13. Wayne Norris, June 28, 2022 at 6:52 a.m.

    More subs is another example of the "softness" in todays world. Three subs were added in part to handle the potential injury issue......then coaches used them strategically. If a player was injured after the 3 subs it was the risk you took.

    Now we have 5 subs which basically replaces an entire attacking unit. So much for the nuance of lasting 90...

    Add on to it TWO concussion subs AND the ability for opponent to sub at same time we are up to potentially 9 subs....

    I will admit I have not seen the concussion sub rule abused but we are so far off the rails with this...

  14. R2 Dad, June 28, 2022 at 12:47 p.m.

    I thought it was artless of FIFA/IFAB to give the clubs 5 substitutions without demanding something in return. To so heavily favor the biggest clubs seems unfair. How about the club gets to use 5 subs but then the coaching staff have to all sit in the stands with the rest of the fans starting at kickoff? That way the players have to determine who/when players get subbed, and the coaches don't get the credit for tactical substitutions. I don't like coaches interfering. Either you've trained your players, or you haven't. Whatever must be said in front of the cameras isn't important, but we can't have that appearance now, can we? No one is hanging on their every word--this is how TV has bastardized the game. Coaches get to address their players before, at the half and ar the end of the match. Why is that not enough? Drama queen coaches are ruining the game for me, Princess Mourinho being the worst.

  15. Wayne Norris, July 3, 2022 at 5:33 p.m.

    Somehow somebody decided that soccer players can't do what they have been doing for 100 years....

    *Playing 90 mins

    *getting tapped in head without a red

    *playing without hydration midway through a half

    *gutting it out without another sub in OT

    *TWO concussion subs?

    must I go on?...

    maybe some of this is progress but add it up and we are getting closer to that 1980s college soccer "sub them all at once" game!!

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