In 25 years time I will be 80 years old (if I’m lucky) and hopefully, I will be sitting in my ‘man-cave’ somewhere with a beer watching football, probably via some form of virtual reality. The question is; will the game be recognisable compared to the one we watch today?
Since the extant Laws of Association Football were codified in 1863 they haven’t actually changed that much. The International Football Association Board (IFAB), established by the four UK ‘home country’ associations, assumed responsibility for maintaining the laws in 1886 and they were joined in doing so by FIFA in 1913. Many people are surprised to find out that there are only 17 Laws of the game and since the original codification, only minor amendments have been made. So for example, astonishingly yellow and red cards were only introduced in 1970! The ‘back pass’ law has only been part of the game since 1992. These were controversial amendments at the time but are now simply accepted.
The IFAB credits itself with a ‘major revision’ in 2016/17 describing the amendments as ‘far-reaching and comprehensive’. Really? How many changes can you name? ‘Minor tweaks’ would perhaps be a more accurate description.
It’s amazing really that so little has changed in over 150 years. More amazing when you consider how much else has evolved during that period of time in virtually every other aspect of our lives.
However, I sense that the pace of change is set to increase. The ‘new’ FIFA seems more inclined to innovation and is more influential on the IFAB. The potential introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is a good example. Incidentally, I was staggered to see Maradona quoted on the FIFA website as ‘laughing and smiling’ about how his infamous ‘hand of God’ goal would have been disallowed if VAR had been around in 1986. FIFA, answer me this, since when has blatant cheating been a laughing matter? Condoning this sort of behaviour is not helpful (even if the incident was 31 years ago and yes, I am still bitter about it).
A few years ago I was a luddite (traditionalist) and didn’t want to see VAR, fearing that it would disrupt the flow of the game. I believed we had to accept that referees were human and would make mistakes but ultimately fairness would balance out over the course of 90 minutes. I have changed my mind now partly because we have seen it used to good effect in most major sports and goal-line technology has been used successfully. Furthermore there have been many incidents that have changed the course of a match such as Thierry Henri’s deliberate handball against Northern Ireland, Luis Suarez’ ‘save’ on the line against Ghana and Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany. All of these were World Cup related matches, and with so much at stake now it is difficult to argue against VAR. Limited use of VAR for major issues such as goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identities is being trialed which so far has been a success. I am sure it will be implemented into the Laws come the World Cup in Russia.
IFAB has said that individual Football Associations can use their discretion to introduce other changes at the ‘grassroots’ level such as yellow card ‘sin bins’, extra substitutes, rolling (return) substitutes (especially for injury assessment) etc. I think this is a good direction and wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some of these progressions brought into the Laws governing top flight football.
Regular readers of my blog will know that one of my biggest bugbears in football is time wasting. It is so irritating. It is only a matter of time until the ‘stopwatch’ system is introduced. It works perfectly well in futsal, rugby, basketball etc and I can see no reason why it should not be adopted in football. If the clock stops every time the ball is not in play then it would immediately eradicate all of the time-wasting antics. I have heard that, based on current research, this may be two x 30 minute halves! That just shows how much fans (who pay for 90 minutes) are being short-changed at the moment. In my opinion 40 minutes per half (as in rugby) would be better.
Let me just throw out a few more ideas.
The pace of the game has increased dramatically and it is now much more difficult for referees to keep up with play, to spot all infringements and to make decisions whilst under fatigue. Why not have two referees, one in each half? There are three referees in basketball and goodness knows how many in American Football.
Another thing that works well in rugby is the fact that only the captain is allowed to speak to the referee. That, coupled to the ‘sin-bin’ would stop the petulant dissent.
Another more radical idea would be to reduce the number of players on the pitch to 10 or increase the size of the goals. Why do I say that? Here are some interesting statistics for you. The average number of goals per game at the world cups held between 1930 and 1958 was 4.27. The average since 1958 is 2.6 goals per game. Between 2010 and 2014 the average number of goals per game in the top divisions in England, Spain, Germany and Italy never exceeded 3 across the whole season. No-one wants to watch a boring nil-nil match. When I was growing up the playing formation was 2-3-5. Now it’s 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 and usually ends up as 5-4-1 or even 6-4-0. The average size and athleticism of players, and goalkeepers in particular, continues to increase and yet the goals remain a quirky 8ft x 8 yards or 2.44m x 7.32m. A 3m x 8m goal or fewer players (meaning more space) would make things a lot more exciting.
Our sport has to evolve and move with the times. I don’t advocate wholesale change but rather regular, iterative ways to make the game more entertaining and exciting whilst removing the less appealing aspects such as time-wasting, simulation, diving, dissent etc.
If I get to be an octogenarian I hope I will be able to watch a game of football that has retained its core principles and inherent ‘beauty’ but also one that has used Law changes to good effect. Time will tell.
Mark Sutcliffe - CEO