The first issue is one which caused some controversy in the League Cup final last Sunday. Phil Dowd’s decision not to book, let alone send off Nemanja Vidic may now become the correct interpretation of the rules as opposed to the mistake which it surely was. Before explaining the flaws in the argument, it is worth spelling out the rational line of thinking which fuels it. Gabriel Agbonlahor had a goalscoring opportunity once he got free of the Serbian defender. So a penalty represents another goalscoring opportunity, in a controlled environment and without the pressure of other players around you. Thus, if the foul takes place inside the penalty area, then the penalty itself is sufficient punishment and the red card for a ‘professional foul’ is not necessary. It is not clear whether Dowd was unilaterally bringing forward an impending change in the law. Either that or he chose not to send Vidic off as “he took account of the occasion” as Graham Poll put it this week. Whatever the reasoning, the letter of the law meant United should have been down to ten men, and that law should not be changed.
The reasoning is simple. The automatic red card was brought in to stop deliberate and cynical foul play that was not violent or dangerous but was clearly a very well thought out form of cheating. Creating an area of the pitch where this is okay, especially if it is the penalty area, suddenly leaves both attackers and defenders asking questions other than how to get the better of their opponent. What is better for a defender – a red card and a free kick just outside the box, or a mere penalty, which might be saved anyway? Turn the question round to a forward – should I shoot now or take the ball in the box where I know to -the point of certainty- that I will be scythed down or wrestled to the floor by an opponent who knows a penalty is the worst that can happen? Again, the penalty is as likely to be saved as the original shot, meaning in the sporting sense of the word, crime does pay. Football is supposed to be a simple game and those who play it come from a multitude of intellectual strata. Some could handle this conundrum in a situation that is highly pressurised anyway. Others will have too many questions whizzing round their heads to function properly. One striker admitting he fluffed an opportunity because he didn’t know whether someone would foul him or not should be enough to facilitate changing the rules back. Give it a month and watch the chaos that it causes.
The second item of interest is the result of something which has a mixed record, namely sports borrowing ideas off each other. In 1987, Hockey’s offside rule was changed to only cover the last 25 yards of either half. It was then scrapped altogether a decade later. Those involved in the sport regard it as a rule change that has improved the sport, in much the same way as most football fans view the back-pass rule. Indeed, this is a relevant point as Blatter has met his equivalents in the world of hockey and is looking at something that would certainly represent the biggest change to the dynamics of the sport since 1992. In fact, you could go a lot further and suggest this would be a more profound alteration, with deeper and wider ramifications. Again, the case for change is worth exploring. The offside rule, originally intended to stop ‘goal-hanging’ is often used deliberately by defensive lines to catch people out by half a yard or half a second. The ‘offside trap’ makes full use of the letter of the law and goes against the grain of why offside is there in the first place. There is also an argument that debates about whether or not someone is interfering with play would be solved by scrapping the offside rule altogether.
Again a critique of the suggestion involves visualising the likely scenario if it were implemented. Intelligent coaches intent on winning matches use the letter of the law to their advantage. It is likely that coaches would keep their attacking players pushed further up the pitch to stop themselves from being boxed in and occupy the opposing defenders at all times. This would of course free up space in the middle of the pitch. However, a ‘dare not lose’ mentality seems to have overcome the majority of Coaches in an era where the stakes are high and the price for failure exorbitant. So the most likely outcome would be games played by two deep defences that launch repeated cruise missiles at each other, especially in the lower leagues. Would a few great matches between open footballing sides be a price worth paying for repeated re-runs of Wimbledon circa 1987? The number of goals would doubtless increase, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Too many goals dilute their significance and it is great goals that people remember. It is also worth remembering that while the back-pass effected two players on the pitch, any change in the offside rule could force as many as 14 (every defender and forward) to adapt.
Watching a back four push up simultaneously out of habit while a grateful ‘offside’ forward ran on and scored would be comical, and we all know there would be games and results decided in this fashion for at least a season. To be fair, a move to the original hockey change, where you are only offside within twenty five yards of goal, would alleviate some, though not all of these potential problems. If you want to remove the issue of whether a player is ‘interfering with play’ or not the answer is simple. If you stray into an offside position, you are offside – free kick and full stop. Sometimes the rules of the game can frustrate supporters, never more so when they are applied in an inconsistent manner by officials. However, when you look at the alternative should issues of contention be changed, it is obvious that football has a lot more right than it has wrong in this area.
Perhaps Mr Blatter and his friends need to understand what some referees get more easily than others. The sign that they are doing a good job is when we do not notice them.