FIFA : the guardian organisation protecting the interests of the most cherished sport on the planet, or a morally bankrupt gravy train riddled with institutionalised vested interests ?
Whatever you may think of football’s governing body, one of FIFA’s most important mandates is to act as the official law-makers for the game. This touchstone tenet has been actually been enshrined to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) since 1886, but FIFA has a 50% share of the voting power alongside the four UK bodies, The FA (representing England), FAW (Wales), SFA (Scotland) and IFA (Northern Ireland).
The laws of the game are fairly simple – there are only 17 after all – and while major changes are back-page news globally, every summer sees the rolling out of minor modifications to every level of the sport in the world, ending up with Saturday and Sunday league players tutting and grumbling when they read them typically two minutes before the first kick-off in August.
In my lifetime the most significant major changes have been the introduction of three points for a win and the banning of the backpass to the goalkeeper, both helping to promote attacking football. Other minor changes have come in with little fanfare and a negligible effect on the game itself – most recently, being able to shoot from the kick-off and the ref’s vanishing spray for freekicks – and are generally seen as mere tweaks to an already finely tuned game.
Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve known that FIFA’s overarching raison d’être is to safeguard the fact that the game is played to exactly the same set of rules the world over. So, no matter if it’s an inter-schools match on a Wednesday afternoon or the World Cup Final, held on a Sunday every four years : both sets of players and officials follow the same set of rules.
That admirable cornerstone of truth has recently been showing signs of erosion though .. or is it actively being chipped away by somebody seeking to change all that ?
Since the advent of Sky money and the financial explosion of the sport, games have become ever more important, ever more valuable. What’s the Championship Play-Off Final now ? The £290m match ? That’s how much the winners stand to earn merely by staying in the EPL for a solitary season ..
Throw in the sponsors’ love-ins known as The World Cup, European Championship and The Champions League and suddenly we’re on a whole new level, financially, compared to just ten years ago. The expansion of these tournaments to include more teams more regularly has meant the top tables of the game have become ever more bloated, with the same fat faces stuffing themselves greedily year after year, trophy after trophy ..
And that’s where the doubts creep in.
Having already gerrymandered the structure of the various different competitions so that the rich get ever richer, what of the game itself ?
There’s a lot of prize money riding on whether that goal was offside, that penalty was given or that inspirational player was sent off.
Already, goal-line technology in the top divisions has meant the game is categorically no longer the same the world over. Referees and their assistants being linked via technology is another step away from the idealised vision of the sport preached by FIFA for generation after generation.
Now we’re in the age of the instant video review for game-changing incidents. Admittedly, they’re experimental as I write this, but there’s no way that can be carried down to even non-league level, let alone the amateur game. With grassroots funding being threatened the world over and a limit on the amount of money drip-fed from TV deals down the national pyramids, any funding that does come a club’s way is always more likely to be spent on new talent than it is in technology. Unless there’s an official ring-fencing of specific funds to pay for these “enhancements”, they simply won’t be instigated at lower league or local level.
The latest suggestions include two halves of thirty minutes, with a stadium clock linked to the referee’s watch. Whenever the ball is dead or goes out of play, the timer is paused with everyone in the ground knowing how long is left, the idea being to stop time-wasting by players dawdling on the ball and by managers making unnecessary substitutions to disrupt the flow of the game. At present, it’s estimated that the ball is only in play an average of 25 minutes per half, so while the idea may be positive – to actually generate more game time – the practicalities of making it work anywhere other than the top divisions of the major leagues means it’s just another step that the elite game is taking away from its grassroots origins.
I think that’s sad and wrong.
I know I’m probably in the minority given the success of technology in other sports, but we’re talking about football here : the great leveller. The sport you can play without even having a football. The sport played on streets all over the world. The sport of kicking a can across a bombsite, a stone across a dusty veld, a tennis ball against a wall on your own.
It’s the purest of games, with the simplest of aims. The least amount of kit. The fewest number of rules. The most basic tactical framework. The noblest of intentions : just outscore the opposition by one goal and you win. Attack. Defend. That’s it.
In some cases, technology is perfectly logical : goal-line camera systems, for example, where the issue is black and white.
But the purist in me still baulks at the fact they can’t be employed at every level of the game, so maybe it’s time we changed all that and made two sets of rules : one for the elite and one for the amateur and semi-professionals ?
If FIFA were to take such a step, I would get behind them and applaud any positive innovations that were introduced, but until that day comes I wince every time I read of a new idea to make the game better.
This summer, penalties are being discussed, specifically the banning of the rebound goal. I actually like this proposal – that a goal-kick be awarded should the keeper stop the initial penalty shot itself. It makes sense to me and evens things up for the defending team, especially given that they may be down to ten men following the award of the kick in the first place.
Another innovation FIFA are mulling over is making corners and free-kicks “dribbleable”, ie the taker can effectively pass to himself or just start running with the ball straight from the corner flag or position of the free-kick. Personally, I dislike the idea on the grounds that it’s detracting from the teamwork ethos of the game. There’s nothing funnier than someone on a Sunday morning inadvertently touching a free-kick with his toe knowing he can’t kick it again before screaming at his team-mates to come and get the ball while the wall of five opposition defenders is stampeding towards him from ten yards away. Let’s not lose that from the game. Besides, the one-man set-piece is the footballing equivalent of the selfie and nobody likes a show-off.
One thing that the English authorities are introducing for the 2017-18 season is the video review panel for diving. The three individuals will convene on a Monday to review the weekend’s incidents and decide whether to retrospectively award a suspension for simulation and will consist of a referee, a player and a coach, so that all interests are covered. I think this is a great idea and should’ve been done years ago. Hopefully this single act will drastically reduce the level of writhing around on the ground done by players and the waving of imaginary cards by their managers on the touchline. If successful, it could be rolled out around the world and finally help rid us of this scourge of the sport.
But I also have three suggestions of my own that I think could benefit the beautiful game :
1. Introduce an offside line
Mark a line across the pitch, thirty yards from goal, beyond which a player can be deemed offside. Inside the two lines in the area either side of the centre-circle, anything goes.
It would help eliminate the nonsensical debate about whether or not a player is interfering with play given the proximity to goal in the newly created offside zone. As Brian Clough famously said, “If any one of my players isn’t interfering with play, they’re not getting paid.”
2. Drop the penalty shoot-out and use the old NASL method
Dropped by the MLS in 1999, their version of the shoot-out involved five players starting anywhere on the 35-yard line (which in our new version, would be replaced by the offside line) and then dribbling towards goal with five seconds to score, with the keeper free to move off his line. A much better test of skill and nerve than the penalty, this would enliven a knock-out tournament and be a truer reflection of the game itself.
3. Make goals bigger
The argument against this is also governed by lower league and amateur leagues’ lack of funding, but given that most clubs and municipal grounds replace goals every few years anyway this could be a rolling change across, say, a five year period, allowing time for fund-raising. Since 1865, the goal has measured 24 feet wide by eight feet high and yet during that same time period the height of the average British male has increased by 11cm/4.5 inches. While this varies around the world, the human race is undeniably taller, stronger, fitter and faster now than it was 150 years ago so isn’t it time we reflected that ?
Dismissed by FIFA in 1996 when the suggestion had been to increase the width by 18 inches and the height by nine inches, it’s high time we revisited the idea.