The most significant rule change in the modern era of football has been the abolition of the back pass. It changed the game overnight. No longer could defenders being pressed by attackers use the goalkeeper as a get out of jail free card. A pass to the goalkeeper now meant the ball remained in play, at the feet of the goalkeeper, and the mercy of circling centre forwards. The game enhanced for the better.
The rule change evolved the role of the goalkeeper as well as of the defender. Goalkeepers had to develop skill with their feet and distribution. Whilst defenders have increased their ability to play the ball out from the back. The most modern of central defenders are now able to act as retreated playmakers and instigators of attacks and patterns of play.
In a recent dossier, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) has posed suggestions for rule changes to football. At first glance, fans have dismissed the proposals for various reasons. However, it should be noted that the suggestions have not been made by FIFA or UEFA bosses looking to commercialise the game further and increase global revenue.
Football has been ruled for decades by curmudgeonly Luddites who have refused to embrace technology in the way so many other sports have. Comparably, football is years behind sports like tennis, hockey and rugby. The IFAB proposals aim to bring football up to date.
The IFAB is headed by former Premier League referee, David Elleray. The potential rule changes have been suggested to speed up the game, eradicate timewasting and improve the overall aesthetic of football. Elleray and his team have worked in the game for a number of years, with many of them being ex-players, coaches and referees, so their proposals come from a thorough and working knowledge of the game at a professional level.
And for that reason, the latest dossier should be taken very seriously.
One of the stand out rule changes would be the introduction of penalty goals. Rugby and hockey both have this rule, where a goal can be awarded, rather than scored. A penalty goal can be awarded if a player deliberately stops a goal being scored, for example, by handling on the line.
Ghana were eliminated from the 2010 World Cup when Luis Suarez deliberately handled on the line to stop a goal being scored. Suarez received a red card, Asamoah Gyan missed the awarded penalty, and Ghana were eliminated. The award of a penalty goal would see the perpetrator sent off and the goal given – thus eliminating an obvious goal being denied by a missed spot kick.
Another excellent suggestion is the introduction of a self-pass from a free kick. Hockey has a variation of the rule when a free hit is awarded and rugby has the tap and go. The IFAB rule change would mean players would not need to pass to restart play. They could put the ball down and start dribbling immediately. It gives the advantage to the team of the fouled player and stops the defending team from slowing play down by tactically fouling opponents or standing over the ball whilst their team regroup.
Players would still have the option to shoot or pass directly – but play would restart without unneeded stoppages and waiting for players to retreat ten yards (provided they do not interrupt the flow of the game). In most cases, the self-pass rule would see players dribble a short distance before passing and moving on.
It could revolutionise the game overnight.
The media has focused more than anything on the introduction of 30-minute halves. First impressions suggest it is a terrible idea. But read deeper into the dossier’s proposal and the genius of the idea emerges.
Halves would be 30 minutes each, the clock would stop the moment the ball leaves the pitch and restart when play resumes. It has been badly understood by the masses as equating to shorter matches. The rule changes suggests 30 minutes of timed play – rather than 30 minutes where the ball goes in and out of play. Currently, with halves of 45 minutes, on average there is less than 30 minutes of ‘live’ play taking place in most matches. The rule change would lead to more play time in matches.
The dossier does not detail who is charged with responsibility of time keeping. But the sensible decision is it is recorded on a centralised clock, displayed in the stadium, operated by an official watching from the stand, and directly linked to the referee’s watch. The clock stops for goal kicks, free kicks, corners, throw-ins, substitutions, fouls and goals – then restarts simultaneously with play.
Then, like in rugby, the whistle for half time and full time could only be blown when the ball goes out of play. Overall, there is every chance that most halves would last a period close to 45 minutes, but contain exactly 30 minutes of footballing action.
Time wasting would effectively be eradicated altogether. No longer would advantage be gained from launching the ball out of play or taking an age to substitute players in the final minutes. The virus of misused time would die immediately.
Spectators would be getting a far better deal than what is currently offered.
The self-pass rule is already used effectively in other sports and there is no reason why it cannot transfer directly to football.
Another suggested rule change, designed to stop encroachment, is to make penalties standalone activities. If a goal is scored, play restarts from kick-off as usual, but if it is missed or saved, the game restarts from a goal kick. Encroachment is widely managed well by officials so a change to the rule seems unnecessary.
Altering how matches are timed has consequences for football at all levels down to grassroots. The timing system would need to be purchased and installed by either clubs or the league – causing problems with financial viability further down the football league pyramid, of not only England, but the entire world.
Proposed rule changes will always be met with resistance – but we must accept they are not conjured from the minds of those not in the know. They are measured and practical – designed by those with authority of understanding of football. Obviously, all the ideas need to be trialled, reviewed and monitored very closely. And their success can only be measured in time.
But their ultimate goal is to improve the game we all love. So surely that is not a bad thing.