FOOTBALL THE ARCHAIC GAME : ROOTED IN TIME
(By Ajit Nair : Strictly Personal Views)
Most games evolve with time – to keep in sync with the changing circumstances of modernity – and the last 20 years have seen the greatest changes that humanity has ever seen. Sports too have changed immeasurably – changes in equipment, in stadia, in surfaces, in the efficiency and reach of TV coverage, in commercialization, in the fitness and resolve of sportsmen and the high stakes involved, with the consequent competitiveness. But the greatest change has been in the modern generation’s attitude to life – and to sports. The last generation was used to an easy-paced, but skillful and aesthetic way of playing a game. The younger generation wants an instant fix to everything – they want speed, strength and a quick result. Some games re-invented themselves to remain relevant, others merely changed their format or rules.
Cricket was about to die of old age, but a blood transfusion of One Dayers to Tests saved the day, and pandered to the impatience of modernity. 20-20 came in even before the One Dayers reached adulthood and proved to be an instant success. In Billiards, old-timers made thousand point breaks – today each game finishes at 150 – to counter the challenge of colourful and fast-paced Snooker – and Snooker itself has introduced a 6 ball variant. Hockey changed umpteen rules, some to break the hegemony of India/Pakistan and to suit the Europeans/Australians and some to speed up the game – but all for the better. Squash, Badminton and Table Tennis changed their scoring formats and rode the crest of the wave. Some games were free flowing and fast-paced to start with, and had to make minimal changes – Basketball (3 pointers, triple free throws etc) and Tennis (line call challenges, tie-breaks) amongst others. And most Games enthusiastically embraced Technology.
But the most popular game of them all – Football – remains rooted in obstinate and arrogant anachronism. Footer is such an entertaining and exciting global obsession, that its popularity has survived its archaic resistance to change. Everybody can and does play it and everybody loves to watch it. As Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly famously said “Football is not a matter of life and death – it is far more serious than that….” The Footballing mania may well survive its restrictive and out-dated rules and regulations – but who knows when the modern youth just switches off. FIFA and King Sepp must think proactively – the writing is not yet on the wall, but it doesn’t take much time to fetch the chalk. The youth of today are demanding, but not too forgiving. Changes are required not just to entertain, but also to remove arbitrary and patently unfair decisions, to reward the better, more skillful and hard-working team, the more talented player – on the day, and to remove cynical gamesmanship. And finally, to use the benefits of technology to improve the quality of refereeing. In this World Cup, goal-line technology is being used, but video referrals and the full gamut of available technology is not. They must be used, without slowing the game down too much.
My take on what is wrong and what needs to be done, if Football is to remain the King of Sports.
Red cards/Yellow cards. The biggest Anachronism. Both Cards have completely unintended consequences. Invariably, Yellow Cards are too mild and Red Cards are too harsh. And the worst thing is that the time at which they are given has a huge impact on the game. A Yellow Card early in the game has no immediate effect, but puts the player on tenterhooks for the rest of the game, while a Yellow Card near the end has almost no immediate effect (only long-term). A Red Card at the beginning kills the game and a Red Card for the same offence near the end has very little effect. Two Yellow Cards for two ‘not too serious’ fouls – equals the Draconian Red Card !!! And both illogically carry their effect onto the next game as well. A Red Card – and you miss the next game. A Yellow in two successive games and you miss the third.
Both Yellow and Red Cards must have an immediate effect and it should be even at any stage of the game and always commensurate to the gravity of the offence. Today, there are many different fouls of differing gravity, but only three types of penalties – Free Kicks, a Penalty and the two Cards.
My solution – an immediate three or five minute send-off for a Yellow Card and a 10 minute (or 15/20/30 – at the discretion of the Referee) send-off for a Red Card. And NO carry-forward at all.
Off-sides. Off-sides have their origin in the late 18th Century in English Public Schools. They’re archaic in the 21st. They’re completely incomprehensionable to the average watcher and barely comprehensionable to the informed laymen (like me). Many an off-side decision in this WC has been patently wrong, denying what looked like a sure-shot goal. On 30 June 2014, I was astounded to hear a Legend of the Game, Robbie Fowler say “I’m not sure about the off-side Rule, but I think that should have been a Goal” (France –Nigeria). Laying the off-side trap is fraught with danger – suppose the linesman gets it wrong ? And beating the off-side trap has become a artificial and technical expertise, unnatural to the beautiful game. Absolutely no reason for them.
I say – abolish the Off-side Rule, Hockey has already done that. Let the poacher wait in ambush !! It will add a delicious element of surprise….
Back passes, Back passes, especially to the goal-keeper, seriously detract from the flow and beauty of Football. To some extent, FIFA recognised that 20 odd years ago and banned Goalies from handling a ball that was back-passed by the foot (as opposed to the head or body). But the bane of back-passes continue. It slows down the game and leads to audience fatigue.
Back passes to the Penalty area must be banned. In addition, back-passes from ahead of the Centre-line to behind it must also be banned (like in Basketball).
Throw-ins/Free Kicks. A throw-in is an unnecessary and artificial expertise, which slows down the game. Instead of throw-ins, have a kick in, to be quickly taken by the closest player (instead of waiting for the ‘so-called’ expert to arrive – and his speed of arrival depends on whether his Team is ahead or behind !!). And both for Free Kicks and for the Kick-in the player must be allowed to carry the ball, instead of looking for a pass (again, like in Hockey).
Time of play/Injury time. The clock keeps ticking when the Referee calls a foul. Why? Then extra time is given to compensate the delays. Then players delay during extra time and the Referee has to re-calculate.
Why not stop the clock every time the play is held up and blare a bugle, when time ends – at exactly 45/90 minutes (like in Basketball)………….Time to be kept by the Time-keeper, and not by the Referee.
Replacements/Substitutions. The Replacements/substitutions rule has remained unchanged for Decades. Three substitutions per match. We see slow Football and tired legs near the end of every match, especially during extra-time. And if a player is injured after the substitutions are made ? What then ? Play a man short ? Patently unfair. Hockey has a rolling substitution rule, which is so wonderful (also Basketball). Fast paced action till the very end.
My take on it - Substitute all you want – to keep each player fresh. And to give every player a chance. And to cater for minor injuries, which necessitate a rest or treatment for a few minutes. It will also give great strategic legroom to the Coach (Imagine : Van Persie starts; the Dutch two goals up in 20 minutes – withdrawn for a defensive player. The enemy equalizes, Van Persie back…..and so on). Games will oscillate between all-out attack and balanced defence.
Challenges. Any challenge, especially from the rear where the ball is not targeted, only the man, must invite immediate retribution – in the form of a send-off (for a limited duration). It will act as a huge deterrent and prevent unnecessary injuries. Any callous, professional foul must come to the attention of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee (like the Suarez ‘bite’). Remember Andoni Goikoetxea, "The Butcher from Bilbao", whose vicious tackling nearly ended the career of the sublime Maradona ?
Video Referrals. The reluctance to use available technology is just not understood by a lot of us. Similar to the Goal-line technology being used for the first time, back-line and sideline technology can be used. In addition, each Team can be given two (or three) referrals per Half, to challenge the Referee’s call. And the dialogue between the on-field Referee and the video Referee can be telecast, along with the video footage being seen by the latter. In Hockey, this has generated great interest, with the audience virtually participating ! Wrong decisions are the bane of modern Football and leads to huge on-field animosity. Hard to blame the Referee – he gets a split-second to make a game changing decision.
Penalty. The Penalty kick is too serious a matter to be left to the on–the–spot discretion and judgement of the on-field Referee. In this World Cup, the mistakes in awarding (or in NOT awarding) a Penalty have been numerous, and the fate of a Country has been wrongly decided, leading to National despondency. (Even Robben’s last minute Penalty award against Mexico has been contested by many experts – like Robbie Fowler, after watching many replays). Before awarding a Penalty, a video referral must be made compulsory (and irrespective of a Team’s decision to challenge it). This could be applied to Red Cards also.
Number of Referees. The referee is the only one who has to run from one goal–line to the other continuously, for the full 90 minutes (no substitutions allowed !). The Football field is large – 100 yards and this must put a huge strain on him. Even to the point of affecting rational decisions.
Why not have two Referees (like Hockey – where the Field is smaller) – one for each Half.
Brigadier (Retired) Ajit Nair