Football: 4th substitute

For what it’s worth I think the 4th substitute which is being trialled in certain tournaments is a good addition to the rulebook.

Just to qualify the 4th sub usage, it is only allowed during extra-time in tournament knock-out games. If three subs can be used in 90 minutes, why not one more in 30 minutes, there is a certain symmetry here.

Personally I hope it doesn’t open the floodgates to having unlimited substitutions, rather like ice-hockey, but for once FIFA seems to be trying something proactively.

One point to be raised is that of two-leg knock-out games. If extra-time is needed at the end of the second leg, then the home team for the second leg will obviously be playing a significantly greater part of the two matches in front of their home supporters. I’m not sure if a 4th sub is appropriate here; be careful FIFA.

Video refs

Rugby has used video refs for years, and it has proved very successful. In fact it’s hard to imagine an important match without having the option of video referrals.

So why not football? The simple answer, which pervades the whole fabric of football, is time-wasting. Football has a long way to go to repair the fractured ethic of fairness that was broken long ago.

Penalty shoot-outs, an alternative

Has anyone ever said that penalty shoot-outs are by far the best and fairest way to settle drawn football matches?

No. The most common reaction I see is that it is a ‘lottery’, and it is clear there are a great number of players who do not want to go anywhere near that dreaded penalty spot.

It cannot be denied that pk shoot-outs have provided a host of dramatic moments over the years, and have made heroes of many a goalkeeper. It is also unarguable that deciding games through this method is so much better than tossing a coin, or drawing lots.

However when pk shoot-outs were first introduced they were viewed as ‘better then nothing’ and the general attitude was that they would be adopted until something better came along.

Other variations have been tried, often based on the theme of player v keeper. For example a player would start with the ball 25 yards for the goal and would have 5 seconds in which to try and score against the keeper. I don’t know why this never caught on, perhaps it lacked the instant thrill or despair of a penalty, but for some reason the pk shoot-out became established as the only way to resolve draws.

There were also golden goals and silver goals, whereby the first goal of extra-time would decide the game. This didn’t last long, it appears that it put too much pressure on the players, but doesn’t a penalty do much the same thing? And these golden goal still didn’t eliminate the pk shoot-out, just reduced their frequency.

As well as thousands of everyday games a great many tournament finals have come to pk shoot-outs, the ultimate being the World Cup Final which has been won and lost by the penalty lottery on two occasions.

Surely there is an alternative.

Personally I feel the outcome of the game should be resolved by the performance during the game, not by an instant, made for TV, apres-solution.

So let’s look at the measurements that are made through a game. Perhaps the winner could be decided through territorial superiority, or possession, or by corners, or by shots on goal. Or even by fouls committed, or red/yellow cards. But any football fan will tell you that none of these can consistently and fairly reflect which team deserves to win.

This leaves me with one alternative, and the more I think about it, the more I feel it would be better than pk shoot-outs.

The game should be decided on how many times the woodwork was hit.

If the ball hits the post and subsequently goes in the net to score a goal then obviously this situation should not count, but otherwise the number of woodwork hits could be totted up and the team with the highest number wins. Attacking football would be rewarded, and it might even encourage teams to shoot more often. And it is clear and fair.

Again, like the golden goal, it would not eliminate the pk shoot-out completely, since the teams may hit the woodwork an equal number of times, but it would greatly reduce them, and would almost certainly prevent teams from ‘playing for penalties’.

Surely it is better then the pk lottery.

Bring Back the Cup-Winners’ Cup

It was always the purest of the European football competitions, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup was a straight knock-out contest of all the cup winners from each country, who in turn had been victorious in straight knock-out cup competitions. In short it provided the best cup team in Europe.

And then it was deemed one European competition too many, and in 1999 the last final was won by Lazio. The Cup-Winners’ Cup was absorbed into the growing UEFA Champions League competition.

Admittedly the Cup-Winners’ Cup had become the little brother to the other two European competitions: the Champions League and the UEFA/Europa Cup. And it was widely thought that the standard of football was noticeably lower. On top of that the public interest appeared to be on the wane.

But did everyone forget the ‘glory of the cup’? Did everyone forget about minnows and the excitement of giantkilling exploits? Did everyone forget the intensity, the beauty, the thrill of knock-out games? It seems they did.

Now decades on, the popularity of football has never been higher. The almost insatiable appetite for more European games would surely have room for the return of the purest of European competitions.

So here’s a suggestion: bring back the Cup-Winners’ Cup. The winners of each country’s cup competitions would compete in a knock-out competition, with each match being home and away, over two legs.

No seeding, no favoritism, just draw the names from a hat (or balls from a bag) and let the games begin.

Should the cup winner already be qualified for the Champions League or the Europa Cup then of course they couldn’t enter two European competitions, so they would have the choice of which to enter. If they chose not to enter the Cup-Winners’ Cup then the losing cup finalist would be invited to enter, then the best semi-finalist etc. This may well give the chance for an unfashionable team to have the rare experience of competitive European football, even perhaps a club from the second tier. What a fillip it could be for some long-suffering fans.

Since we could be delving quite deep into the league hierarchy for some countries, it would seem fair not to award coefficient points for this competition, and for the coefficient system to retain its status quo.

We could see the return of real cup glory, the magic of the cup, cupsets, and a trophy well worth winning.

Football: the Inequality of Sendings-Off

In football, and many other team sports, for certain types of foul play the penalty is the sending-off of the offender, thus reducing the team’s playing strength by one member. This can have a huge effect upon the team. And there is usually a subsequent ban for the player involved, which can also affect the team.

Here, we are not going to be concerned with refereeing inconsistency, where one referee adjudges a transgression to warrant a sending-off, when another referee might adjudge what appears to be a virtually equivalent transgression unworthy of even a free-kick. And we are not going to be concerned with whether a certain transgression should or should not be punished by a sending-off. These arguments will be dealt with on another day.

Instead the focus here is on the inequality of the effect of the sending-off.

As mentioned above the effect of a sending-off on the team is great. Playing the rest of the match with 10 players against 11 is a big difference. And it is meant to be. After all it is designed to be a disincentive to commit transgressions. I have no problem with that. But what I do have a problem with is the length of time of the penalty.

Let’s look at two extreme examples to highlight my point.

Example A: a player is sent off in the 1st minute of a game, and the rest of the team must play for 89 minutes with one player short, an enormous burden, not to mention a much greater risk of injury.

Example B: a player is sent off in the last minute of a game for handling on the line, preventing a certain equalising goal. The resulting pk, with the last kick of the game, is missed. The team play zero minutes minus one member, and wins the game courtesy of foul play.

This is inequality

In many countries and tournaments there is further punishment for a player who is sent off, usually a 3 game ban. The team can play with a full complement of players but of course the banned player is ineligible, so there may well be a disadvantage to the team, especially if it is one of their best players. But who benefits? The opposition. And who is the opposition? Almost certainly not the team that the original sending-off was against. So an advantage accrues for teams lucky enough to be the three subsequent opponents, who may well be rivals of the team that the original sending-off was against, thus punishing an innocent team.

This also is inequality.

So there is an inequality insofar as a player sent of early in a game ends up missing nearly 4 matches (sent of for most of one, and banned for three), whereas a player sent off in the dying moments of a game misses only the 3 subsequent matches.

How can this inequality be addressed? Not an easy problem to solve, but one possible option would be for the player involved to be banned for 3 matches plus the amount of playing time he had when he was sent off. So someone who is sent off in the 15th minute (and who therefore missed 75 minutes of that game) receives a 3 match ban plus 15 minutes.

In effect, having missed the first 3 matches, he could be placed on the bench for the next match, and could enter the game as a substitute any time after the 15th minute.

For someone sent off in the 85th minute the ban would be for 3 matches plus 85 minutes. After serving a 3 match ban he could be placed on the bench for the next game (as in the previous example), but he would not be able to enter the game until after the 85th minute. In a real situation the manager may well decide not to select the player for this game, for the sake of only 5 or so minutes of playing time, but nevertheless the option remains.

So in both of the above examples the player who is sent off is forced to miss exactly the same amount of possible playing time, 4 matches worth. And this would be true of all situations. This is equality.

But there is the additional problem: a team who has a player sent off against them gains no direct advantage from that player’s subsequent ban. Finding a suitable solution here is even more tricky. However simple is best, so the 3 game ban should apply to that player’s next three games against the same opposition. And if one of those games happens to be a cup-final, or whilst playing for a different team, then so be it. For tournament football, like the World Cup, then the current rule is obviously better, since some countries don’t play each other for decades, but for regular club football it would surely be fairer. This again is equality.

Just a final caveat: these are tentative solutions which I have come up with all by myself. Surely a FIFA think tank could come up with something better? Or is that too much to ask?

Football: the Red Card and Yellow Card origin

Referees used to ‘book’ players who transgressed the rules by writing their name in a small, black book (so they wouldn’t forget) and if that player transgressed again, he would be sent off the field of play, reducing the team’s number of players by one for the remainder of the match.

After the 1966 World Cup when a few players were booked who later professed ignorance of the fact, and were subsequently sent off, a clearer system was needed.

While driving home from a referees’ meeting, the chief referee of the 1966 World Cup, Ken Aston, had a brainwave when he was waiting at a set of traffic lights. Yellow, or amber, is the halfway signal, warning the driver to slow and stop, and red is the stop signal. These highly visible colours would communicate to players and spectators alike exactly what was happening.

And so the red and yellow cards were born, lifted from traffic signals.

Football : Video Judge

It’s inevitable that video judging in football matches will eventually be mandatory. But it’s going to take something drastic to trigger any action from FIFA or UEFA.

Imagine this scenario. Fast forward to the last day of matches this season. The title is between Leicester City and Manchester City. They are both level on points but Man City have a better goal difference by a solitary goal.

But they are not playing each other. Leicester’s game has ended in a 1-0 victory for Leicester, but Man City’s game is still on, a goalless draw. It’s the final minute of added time, and a Man City player tumbles in the penalty area, a penalty is awarded. The opposition are livid. A draw would be enough for them to escape relegation, defeat would send them down.

TV replays show that it was a blatant dive by the Man City player. The replays are not shown at the ground but the management of both teams have seen the TV replays, and many of the spectators too, on their tablet computers. Twitter is buzzing. The ref has been told it’s a dive, but he is powerless. Man City score the penalty, the last kick of the game, win the championship, and Leicester, who have never won it, and who probably never will, are denied. And Man City’s opponents are relegated.

If this were to happen video judgements would be in place by the start of the following season.

Rugby and cricket have managed to incorporate video judgements, and football is still in the dark ages. Is not technology a tool for helping ensure a fair result?

The Kick-Off Simplified

At the kick-off for a football match there are a few quirky rules, and some which are entirely logical.

The logical rules are that the kick-off be taken from the centre spot, the ball must travel its circumference, the kicker may not touch the ball again before another player, each team start the game in their own half of the pitch, and that the receiving team be at least 10m from the centre spot (which is consistent with all free-kicks).

The quirky rules are firstly that three or fewer players from the team taking the kick-off are allowed in the centre circle when the kick is taken. And secondly that the kick-off must be kicked forward. To both of these rules my question is why?

Why not allow four or five or whatever number of players in the centre circle, who cares? And, equally, who cares if the ball is kicked backwards. In fact the second kick after the kick-off is almost always backwards anyway.

The kick-off has way too many rules apportioned to this relatively insignificant event (it’s not exactly the most skillful moment in a game), so surely any simplification is welcome.

Encroaching the penalty kick

Is there any legitimate penalty kick taken in a football match?

Every time I see a PK there is mass encroachment, and the goalkeeper invariably moves before the kick is taken.

Just to recap, the goalkeeper should plant his feet anywhere on the goal-line, and should not lift them before the kick is taken. And the other players should be outside the penalty area and the ‘D’ (the only time this line is used), and must be behind the penalty spot. And they cannot enter the penalty area until the kick is taken.

If the goalkeeper moves too soon, or encroachment occurs there is the possibility of the advantage rule being played. For example if the keeper moves too soon but a goal is scored, then the advantage is given to the kicker and the goal stands. And if the goal isn’t scored then the kick should be retaken. Similarly with encroachment

But when players from both sides encroach the kick should be retaken. In reality this level of encroachment is the norm. But kicks are very rarely retaken, only it would seem in cases of gross encroachment. Players know this. Currently there seems to be a kind of unofficial agreement between players and referees, whereby referees are happy to get on with the game so long as the encroachment isn’t too bad. If referees insisted on applying the letter of the law PKs would be retaken countless times, much to the annoyance of everyone playing and watching.

As always the referee is in an unenviable position. And as always FIFA couldn’t care less. It is much more concerned with keeping the gravy train on the rails, than improving the rules for all concerned.

For the solution is simple. When all the players are positioned correctly the referee whistles, and when the kicker starts his run then movement is allowed. The keeper can move (as he now does) and the players can rush into the penalty area (as they now do). Players will still try to anticipate but it is not so easy to guess when someone is to begin their run-up.

There will perhaps be a few interesting side-effects. The kicker may choose to have very little run-up, or none at all, a difficult skill. And the kicker would be well-advised not to try any dummy run-up. The keeper may try to rush the kicker, but this would make any dive less effective.

It would have the general effect of hurrying the kicker, and would therefore probably make the kick less certain, resulting in a greater number of missed PKs. And it would make the acclaim that a successful kicker milks from the fans, that more deserved. In short it would be a well-earned goal.

It might be argued that defences would more readily concede PKs, if they felt the chances were that the PK might be missed, but it could also be argued that referees might also be more inclined to award PKs (for example the shoving and shirt-pulling at corner-kicks) rather than ducking the decision.

All in all this has got to be better than the present shambles.

Two-footed footballers

It’s a pet peeve of mine. Why on earth can’t professional football players kick the ball with both feet?

They can, you say? No they can’t. Just watch closely. Every footballer greatly favours one foot. They might occasionally use the weaker foot when all other options have gone, and the result is nearly always disappointing.

Some players from the past were truly two-footed: Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greaves, and another shining example was Glenn Hoddle, and George Best. The benefits they gained from being two-footed were immense. When asked whether he was left- or right-footed Bobby Charlton replied that he had no idea. Jimmy Greaves took penalties with either foot. None of these players spurned a chance to shoot or pass because they were not confident enough on their weaker foot. They used to dribble with both feet too.

Who is there now? If Lionel Messi had a right foot as magical as his left he would be far and away the greatest player ever. Cristiano Ronaldo has a decent left-foot strike when forced to use it, but even he takes almost every touch with his right foot. Commentators seem to forgive players for bad shots, “He’s screwed it wide, well it was his weaker foot.”

Being one-footed is so much easier to defend. And Chelsea have recently been taking things even further. There were a few games where their entire starting lineup consisted of right-footers. Nearly every touch was made with the right foot, no wonder the opposition could bottle them up.

Is it so difficult to kick well with both feet? No. At a young age my father advised me to try to kick with my left foot (I was born right-footed). So I did. I practised for hours just kicking a ball against a wall with my left foot. It took a year or two but come the age of 11 I was kicking well with both feet. I still slightly favoured the right foot, but by the time I was 14 I got the body shape worked out and I was truly two-footed. I wasn’t much of a player, but I was much more than I would otherwise have been.

It just took practise. Don’t professionals spend hours practising? Why don’t they double their options and improve the weaker foot? It really bugs me.

Mark my words, the next footballing superstar will be two-footed, and we will see how pathetic some of our current crop of stars really are.

Penalty Shoot-Outs

Variously described as a lottery, a casino, and a farce, the penalty shoot-out used to decide football matches has had its detractors since day one.

When replays are not possible, which is the norm these days, a drawn football match needs a winner. Extra-time, usually 30 minutes, is often played, but after 2 hours of football it would be unreasonable to ask exhausted players to keep on going. The risk of injury increases logarithmically, and especially in the case of evening kick-offs the supporters need to get home. So how to pick a winner? Penalty kicks are an obvious choice. But is there a better way?

No-one seems to like penalties, but no-one seems to be able to come up with any viable alternative, so we’re stuck with them.

But there is an alternative. Simply tot up the number of times each team has hit the woodwork. After all it’s very nearly a goal, and represents attacking intent, and is pretty clear. So if the game ends in a draw the number of times the woodwork has been struck would determine the winner. Of course this number may also be equal, in which case there is nothing to do but to revert to the dreaded lottery of penalties.

Take Paraguay, for example

The quest to find out which is the best football team takes on all kinds of guises. For international football the general method comprises a tournament, consisting of small groups of teams playing each other, the highest rated teams then entering a knock-out stage, culminating in a final to determine the ultimate champions.

The recent Copa America (American Cup) is such a tournament to determine which nation is the footballing champion of South America. It has recently highlighted something distinctly dodgy with tournament football.

Take Paraguay, for example. In the recently ended 2015 tournament Paraguay reached the semi-final (best 4), going though 4 matches to reach this stage. However Paraguay won only a single game, against guest team Jamaica, 1-0. For the record the other games were 1-1 against Uruguay, 2-2 against Argentina, and 1-1 against Brazil, which Paraguay eventually prevailed 4-3 in a penalty shoot-out.

So Paraguay reached the semi-final having scored 5 goals and conceding 4, and wining only once against Jamaica, a nation which is not exactly considered a footballing powerhouse.

So this kind of thing sometimes happens, what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t a relatively lesser nation have its chance for glory once and a while. It’s boring if the same teams win all the time. I have a lot of sympathy with this view, but let’s also look at the previous tournament.

In the 2011 Copa America Paraguay advanced all the way to the final. This time it didn’t win any of its matches. It drew the lot. Again for the record, 0-0 against Ecuador, 2-2 against Brazil, 3-3 against Venezuela, 0-0 against Brazil (2-0 on penalties), and 0-0 against Venezuela (5-3 on penalties).

In the knock-out stage Paraguay played 4 hours of football without scoring, winning both games in penalty shoot-outs. In fact it would have been possible to win the final in the same way, thereby becoming champions without winning a single game.

Paraguay did what they had to do, and were totally within the laws of the game, but two consecutive tournaments reaching the final in one and the semi-final in the other, stellar achievements, through winning only one match does not seem right.

Just to end the Paraguay saga, it was beaten 1-6 by Argentina in the 2015 semi-final, and 0-3 by Uruguay in the 2011 final.

I have my own ideas for solutions, but my eternal frustration is with FIFA. This, and many other anomalies in football are simply being ignored. FIFA seems only concerned about keeping the status quo, the same people on the same gravy train.

Improvements for the Throw-In

Gaining illegal ground at the throw-in has become so endemic in modern football that no-one seems to notice it any more. Aren’t there others out there like me who are totally fed up with it? I suppose it will become an issue when either it is done to such extremes that it simply cannot be overlooked, or when a trophy-winning goal is scored when the ball has been thrown in from clearly the wrong place. My personal dislike for the throw-in shuffle is documented in the preceding article, but what can be done? Here is a list off the top of my head.

  • The referees can come down hard and strictly enforce the existing law (ie a throw in is to be taken at the same point at which the ball left the playing field). If it isn’t then it is deemed a foul throw and the throw is awarded to the other team.
  • The referee, or assistant referee makes a small mark in the turf at the point at which the throw is to be taken.
  • The referee or assistant referee uses vanishing spray to denote the point at which the throw is to be taken. This is my favourite idea. As an optional extra the assistant referee could have the vanishing spray stored in his flagstick, and he just shoots it out onto the turf.
  • The sidelines are divided into (say) 10 sectors with small permanent marks on the sidelines to identify the sectors. The throw is then taken on the mark behind where the ball left play.
  • The referee stands in line with the place at which the throw is to be taken.

One flaw to be overcome is that the assistant referee only covers half of the sideline, but the referee runs the diagonal between the unmanned sidelines so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. It must be stressed that these are merely my ideas which haven’t taken much time to figure out. Some may be more workable than others. A committee of experts should come up with a raft of workable ideas in no time. But that is exactly what FIFA doesn’t do. FIFA’s reforms centre around FIFA, not football’s on-field issues. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

The Most Annoying Thing in Football: the Throw-In

Without doubt the throw-in annoys me far more anything in the flawed, beautiful game of football.

No, it’s not the throw-in itself. It’s been in football from almost the beginning, and seems quite a fair way to restart a match from the sidelines. It is all to do with where the throw-in is taken. After picking up the ball a few yards up the pitch, and a few deliberately aborted attempts at releasing the ball (with a face suitably contorted in mock frustration, and an arm waving frantically at nothing in particular), the ball is finally thrown in from anywhere between 5 and 10 yards further up the pitch. And what’s more, no-one seems to care. Very rarely will the referee order the thrower back, and when he does the thrower only seems to step back a fraction of the illegally gained distance.

Everyone is at it. Even the crowd often helps its team by throwing the ball back to a place further up the pitch. It is just another case of the professional footballer jettisoning any thoughts of fairness, and referees so bogged down keeping a lid on the infringements, that the throw-in shuffle is largely ignored.

It would be so simple to rectify. And this is why FIFA is not fit for purpose. All its time is spent investigating itself, improving transparency, fighting institutionalized corruption etc etc, that it has no time for on-field problems. One only has to look at the instance of goal-line technology, already an accepted part of the game, which FIFA failed to promote for years, even dismissing it as unnecessary.

As I said it would be so simple to rectify, even I, sitting at home, have come up with a few simple, workable ideas.