Soccer is truly the world’s game. Yet, the rules for all organized soccer are set by an anachronistic body made up of 8 members. Have you seen a picture of them? They look more like the Royal and Ancient organization that administers the rules of golf rather than the guiding board for the world’s most dynamic and popular sport. Four members are from the so-called “Home Nations” of England, N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales; FIFA has 4 representatives. Six votes are required to make any changes to the laws.
Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, recognized that six votes – some from countries with tenuous soccer credentials – make a mockery of true representation for the 250 million active players in about 200 countries. At the FIFA congress last year, the composition of IFAB was discussed, particularly regarding the possible broadening of its membership — for example, including representatives from countries that managed to qualify for international tournaments.
Blatter’s attempts to add “greater democracy and transparency” to soccer’s rule making body were stymied by IFAB. Instead of facilitating greater representation of voting members, IFAB applied cosmetic changes that added a wider role for consultation, but essentially maintained the current undemocratic voting structure.
Like a snooty viceroy who stubbornly defends his imperialistic imperatives because he supposedly knows what’s best for his minions, IFAB refused to transition into the modern world of soccer. Instead, they resisted revisions that would have broadened voting rights and representation in soccer’s rule-making enclave lest the newly enfranchised colonists outside the Home Nations get a bit too uppity. They were quite sneaky, too, diverting attention from their self-preservation instincts by proposing the addition of two advisory panels: a Technical Panel and Football Panel. Crucially, the panels have no voting rights but serve only as consultative bodies with membership from far-flung dominions empowered to serve solely at the discretion of IFAB.
And this is where the process gets insidious: Faced with an uproar over the so-called “triple punishment” rule (where a player is red-carded, banned from participation in the next match, and, if the denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity occurred in the penalty box, concedes a penalty), IFAB — in effect — ran to the corner flag to dilly and dally. Perhaps in an effort to assert their hegemony over their eager new panels, IFAB ignominiously referred the most contentious rule in world soccer to them for further discussion. But rarely has a soccer rule been discussed by so many people until they’re blue in the face. Rarely has there been such empirically-based consensus to undo a rule that had dubious origins.
This may seem cynical, but it appears the operations of IFAB are founded in self-preservation rather than the good of the game — considering that attempts to add a “greater democracy and transparency” were stymied by diversionary tactics. Instead of greater representation of voting members, IFAB essentially maintained the current undemocratic voting structure. Then, they craftily reinforced the pretense at democratization by delegating consideration of the most invidious rule in competitive soccer to a bunch of neophyte consultants.
Cynicism is what apparently entangles the old IFAB fuddy-duddies in analysis paralysis. But how much discussion is needed to remedy the travesty of automatic red cards for players who deny so-called obvious goal scoring opportunities? We know what soccer was like before issuing red cards for such offenses – it is not unchartered territory.
Actually, soccer was very exciting before the imposition of this rule. Imposition is the right word, too, as it was controversial, and hardly met with universal approval when instituted. But, the Football League, despite much consternation from stakeholders, insisted on making professional fouls red card offenses and instructed referees to apply this rule in the 1982-83 season. In 1990, FIFA instructed referees to send players off for professional fouls in the 1990 World Cup. Then, in 1991, IFAB added the “denying obvious goal scoring opportunity” provisions as red-card offenses; provision was incorporated in the law in 1997.
So, undoing this arduous, potentially game-ruining rule would not be like entering a dark void of unintended consequence – been there, done that. This undermines IFAB’s contention that: “You don’t have to change things for change’s sake,” as their English FA General Secretary Alex Horne stated.
Another IFAB member, Stewart Regan, said “We don’t want to flip back to where we were before where some goalkeepers knew that if they could not be sent off, they would simply take out the attacker.”
Why not, especially when “where we were before” is better than where we are now, the latter being ushered in by what was contemporaneously considered an ill-conceived rule by many?
By the way, in a contact sport like soccer, what exactly is obvious is subjective, and that’s oxymoronic. Fouls are part of the game, and full-blooded vigor and gut-busting determination often rally a team, provoke players and rile up supporters in otherwise dull encounters. If a slow defender is still capable of producing a foul to thwart a breakaway, then perhaps the attacker is not fast enough, and the goal scoring opportunity is not so obvious.
Fouls, cynical or otherwise, are a part of the game. It’s not as if cynicism is going to be wiped out by this rule, and if cynical play is such a condemning feature of our game, why not automatically red card players for cynical simulation? If the defender is subject to a red-card for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity, why not red card the attacker for simulating it? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Of course, I’m being sarcastic only to point out that it would be ridiculously futile. Before long, games would degenerate into a caricature, and we’d be lucky to end with 9 vs. 9, let alone a full complement of players that we paid much money, and traveled many miles to see.
An even better argument against automatic red cards for denying obvious goal scoring opportunity is propounded by players and coaches of opposing teams who, despite disparate outcomes in a recent Champions League encounter, join in unison to criticize the game-changing, nay, game-ruining, rule.
In questioning why a player who commits a foul that denies obvious goal scoring opportunity should automatically be red-carded, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger suggested a penalty in itself is a good goal scoring opportunity. Wenger said: “Common sense says you should divide what is inside and outside the box, because denying a goal scoring opportunity inside the box is restored by the fact you get a penalty. A yellow card would have been enough, because it was not violent conduct by Wojciech [Arsenal’s goalie].” Ah, very well put — no wonder Wenger has a scholarly aura about him.
In a milieu where opposing managers and players are quick to needle and taunt, but rarely agree on the time of day, this was the exception. Even Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper was sympathetic. Here’s what Neuer said:
“One should reconsider the rule … from a keeper’s point of view you have to be critical of the red card … the team is already punished by the penalty call.”
Blimey, this agreement by football foes is so rare in soccer. But it gets better, even Bayern Munich’s former president Uli Hoeness maintains the rule is excessive, saying it “needs to be changed,” admittedly adding, “as long as the rule stands it has to be implemented with all consequences.”
FIFA and UEFA are often in discord, but even they agree that the rule should be changed; indeed, UEFA was instrumental in getting the issue on IFAB’s agenda, proposing that the law be modified to limit red cards to offenses outside the area.
To recap, there has been a long history of soccer before this rule, and it was a pretty darn good spectacle. Now, we have soccer rivals and governing bodies with frequent diverging opinions in agreement that the rule should be abolished. What is there for IFAB to do? Well, after ignoring outside voices for decades on lesser issues, let’s suddenly relegate this to new advisory panels for further study.
In the meantime, FIFA President Sepp Blatter believes “soccer-sensitive” refs can end the “triple punishment” debate. He said in FIFA’s weekly magazine recently: “By interpreting the laws depending on the situation, referees could put an end once and for all to the vexed discussion about triple punishments. Making these distinctions is the fine art of officiating.”
That’s exactly what we don’t need: more discretion to refs, more subjectivity, even a bit of “fine art;” perish the thought. The only artistry we want is by the players, not refs who are supposed to provide consistent judgment guided by standardized rules.
Sensitive, even flexible and, ahem, “artistic” refs, are not the solution to the “triple punishment” debate. IFAB will get back to us – don’t hold your breath – but in the meantime I wonder how many perfectly competitive and compelling soccer matches will be ripped asunder by a rule originally implemented under dubious support, and not that long ago. A rule that makes ridicule of intriguing match-ups, like Arsenal vs Bayern Munich or Manchester City vs Barcelona, should a goalie so much as brush a darting, already stumbling attacker in the penalty box.
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