As the famous saying goes, football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen, but whether or not you agree with such a sentiment, it is hard to argue that football is a sport now worthy of it’s tag as the ‘beautiful game’, especially when compared to its distant cousin rugby. As the Rugby World Cup takes place in New Zealand and, with the football season well under way, I have found myself watching both sports on a regular basis. If you are not a fan of Rugby Union (or League) then I will not waste my time extolling the virtues of the sport to you. Instead I will use this opportunity to suggest that, whether you appreciate the game of rugby or not, you take 80 minutes to watch just one of the games at the World Cup over the next few weeks and, whilst doing so you ask yourself this question; What can football learn from rugby?
It’s a question which I have asked myself before and recently I found myself asking it again when the World Cup in New Zealand kicked off earlier this month. I promise you that asking this question while watching a rugby match will have a detrimental effect on the pleasure you gain from watching football. Ruining your enjoyment of football is not my goal, rather I want you to become aware of the harsh reality that football is not beautiful. Not when one takes the time to compare it to rugby or many other major sports for that matter.
At first it is easy to dismiss the act of comparison as flawed, and of course I would have to concede that the two sports are very different in many ways. The shape of the ball, the number of players on a team, the basic rules, the scoring system etc. However, put their inherent differences aside and examine the conduct of players, the uses of technology and the overall officiating of each sport and, in each and every one of these categories rugby emerges superior.
Let us begin then with the conduct of players. In football we see players continuously attempting to deceive officials by diving. It has become so rife that the entire football community has come to accept it, whether we choose to admit it or not. We might be outraged when an opposition player does it, but when our team benefits from it, do we lose respect for the guilty player or do we back them? There is no glossing over the fact that the vast majority of professional football matches in the present day are effected by diving players. Every now and again a player gets booked for a dive, but in the grand scheme of things it has no effect on the willingness of players to dive. Quite simply the rewards outweigh the penalties and this is despite the fact that they are supposed to be equally balanced. A genuine and cynical foul is punishable with the award of a free-kick and a caution for the guilty party, and a genuine and cynical dive is punishable in exactly the same way. But, if next weekend the referees in the Premier League booked every player who dived then we would likely end up with record numbers of yellow and red cards. Fans, players, managers and pundits would be outraged and the referees responsible would be lucky to be given the chance to officiate another Premier League game again.
Rugby players don’t do this. On rare occasions it has happened, but it doesn’t occur in every minute of every game. One big reason for this is that rugby is a contact sport with very little to be gained from simulation. Tackling is a full-blooded and often brutal activity involving high speed collisions. Nevertheless, there are strict parameters on how a rugby player should tackle and these are stringently enforced, but for a rugby player to pretend that he is the victim of a high tackle in order to gain an advantage over his opponent is not only unheard of but ridiculous. I’m not suggesting that football should adopt a more physical rugby-style tackle, simply that players and officials in that sport obey by the rules rather than looking to manipulate them and that’s before even thinking of the negative reputation that a player would gain from such an act of cheating.
In the ‘beautiful game’ the officials are treated like an interfering subordinate class of verbal punch-bags. Football players hurl abuse at the officials at every opportunity, screaming, swearing, pushing and harassing them for every unfavourable decision which is made. Even the glorious F.C. Barcelona serve as one of the countless examples of such behaviour. Despite being probably the best team in the world at this moment, they cannot help but surround the referee at every opportunity in an attempt to persuade him that they should have a free-kick or that their opponent should be booked. Unfortunately Barcelona are not alone. Football is riddled with a disrespect for officials which stretches from the top of the professional game right down to the most amateur of junior leagues. In rugby however, players are taught from day one that they must address the referee as “Sir” and only when he speaks to them first. They accept his decisions and carry on with the game whether they believe them to be correct or not. Only the captain of each team is allowed to approach the referee to question a decision and woe betide any rugby player caught using foul and abusive language towards the referee. If the only team sport you’ve ever watched is football then you might think I’m misleading you here and this respect thing is a little far-fetched, but I promise you it’s the truth. Watch a Rugby World Cup game for fifteen minutes and I guarantee that you’ll hear the referee referred to as ‘Sir’. Surely this most simple of practices can be applied to football. I’m not a person who is easily offended, I don’t mind swearing at all, that’s simply not the issue here. The issue is respect, or the lack of it in football. It ruins the sport for me. It offers losing teams a plethora of excuses to absolve themselves of culpability in defeat. I get irritated watching players bullying referees and hurling abuse at them instead of just getting on with the game. It wastes time and the issue of time crops up more than once when making this comparison between football and rugby.
Speaking of time, let’s take some to examine the use of technology in the two sports. In rugby they’ve embraced the wondrous invention that is the stopwatch. Now if you’re familiar with this technology I apologise for patronising you, but I’m aware of an elderly Swiss man named Mr. Blatter who seems oblivious to its invention and widespread availability. Put simply, a stopwatch is much the same as a conventional watch, but in addition it allows the user to pause the clock at any point and resume time at the same point. So for example, if you wanted to time how long it took you to run a certain distance, then you would start the timer on the watch at the start line and when you crossed the finish line you would stop the timer with the watch displaying the amount of time it took you run the distance. In rugby they use the stopwatch to time the standard length of an 80 minute match, and stop the watch at any point when play is interrupted. This means that they avoid the complications of calculating how much time the game has stopped for and adding it on at the end of each half. Unlike football, in rugby they don’t have constant controversy over time-wasting and disputes over the amount of time added on at the end of games. There simply is no such thing as injury time. When the 80 minutes is up, the clock carries on ticking until the ball leaves the field of play and goes dead. This would be easily transferable to football. Play for 90 minutes and then the next time the ball goes out for a throw-in, corner or goal kick the game simply ends. One added benefit of this system is that in a tight game of rugby, when the 80 minute mark is reached, a team who is chasing a score to win or draw a match must keep possession of the ball and also keep the ball in play in order to have a chance of scoring. This adds excitement to the game and if the ball goes out and the game ends then everybody is aware that the game was played for exactly the allotted time. This means that the losing team cannot possibly complain that they didn’t have a fair opportunity.
Amazingly in the 21st century there is another, far more advanced form of technology called video. Rugby has used this technology to retrospectively punish players for offences that have not been spotted by officials during a game. For once, football is on the same wavelength with this one and partakes in a very similar process whereby suspensions are handed out based on video evidence. However, in rugby, video technology is used during the match itself, to determine whether or not a try has been scored. It’s simple in a game where, whether or not a try has been scored, the game comes to a natural break and there is time to assess the video evidence. However, in football there is not always a break in play when a goal may or may not have been scored. Sometimes the ball remains in play and there is no opportunity for the referee to consult another official. This is the strongest argument against the introduction of video technology in football and admittedly it carries some weight.
The flow of the game is one of the most attractive assets that football possesses and disrupting it would undoubtedly be an issue. However, the flow of football is constantly disrupted by players feigning injury in order to waste time or deceive the referee. It is also constantly disrupted by players surrounding the referee. All of these issues have been addressed in this analysis and workable solutions have been offered so, here is a suggestion for video technology. Along with implementing punishments for simulation, more respect for referees and the use of the stopwatch, why not allow the referee to stop the game and ask an official to review video evidence on the very rare occasion that he, nor his linesmen, can tell if the goal should stand? In the event of the ball being put in the back of the net and the officials querying an offside or foul in the build-up to the goal, the game would stop anyway before the defending team was awarded a free-kick. In the rare event that the officials cannot determine whether or not the ball crossed the line and play continues, just let him blow his whistle and stop play. How many times has such an incident occurred and from the same passage of play the defending team gone straight up the other end of the pitch and scored a goal? I can’t think of many. If disrupting the game is the issue then what about when the referee is forced to blow his whistle because a player is down holding his head only to get up and run off within a minute of the whistle being blown. Serious head injuries tend to hurt for more than twenty seconds, yet players seem to abuse this rule constantly.
It occurs to me then, that perhaps there is a reason why such glaringly obvious flaws are allowed to mar the beautiful game. If rugby, and many other sports, can avoid the constant controversy that erupts in football by developing the rules to keep pace with the technology available, then why is it that football’s governing body can not? The only logical answer which I can find is that FIFA are well aware of the value of controversy. There is after all no such thing as bad publicity, and in football there is a huge amount of negative press generated every weekend. Watch the post-match analysis of any football match and you will most likely see a discussion about penalties, bookings and refereeing decisions. In fact it would be hard to fill the airtime without such talking points. Similarly it would present a challenge for the newspapers and other media outlets covering the sport. Quite simply, controversy is the infinitely renewable resource that powers football journalism, and as a consequence the sport dominates the back pages. Combine this with the truly unique commercial aspect of customer loyalty that football enjoys and you have a perfect recipe for an ever expanding business. The more controversy there is the more column inches can be filled for fans to consume and debate. The reality is that the irritating levels of controversy, however avoidable it may be, are hugely profitable. The result is that the culture of football has become corrupt and dishonourable, but most importantly lucrative. Beauty of course is subjective and it can undoubtedly be found in imperfection, but I have never found the controversy and flaws in the game to be alluring. I for one would find a sport based on athleticism, passion, skill and teamwork much more attractive than one that has come to rely on it’s faults as a selling point.