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 time 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.

Olympics 5-Point Plan: Point 5

So far I’ve suggested that the Olympics:

  • disregard nationalities
  • award more medals for each event, possibly 8.
  • reduce the chances of multiple medaling
  • favor objectively measured sport
  • include only the sports for which the Olympics is the pinnacle

The final point concerns team sports. With nationalities out of the picture then the composition of teams will also be on a non-national basis. Will that be so difficult?

Certainly where the team has just the two members, for example, doubles tennis and beach volleyball, these sports already have mixed nationalities competing together, for tennis it’s the norm, no-one cares. This is the way it should be. In fact for pairs skating we sometimes see the ridiculous situation of individuals changing nationality in order to skate with their chosen partner. Taking nationalities out of the equation would seem to be only natural.

In many other cases the team event is simply an amalgamation of individual scores, as in gymnastics. These are not true team events and should be scrapped.

But this leaves a number of team sports with a history of national teams, like hockey, handball, basketball, football. As mentioned in Point 4 I feel that sports for which the Olympics is not the pinnacle, and is merely another event clogging up the calendar, should not be in the Olympics. This is obviously true of basketball and football. I can see an argument for women’s football, where the Olympics is a very high priority, but the women’s World Cup is getting massive.

For the few remaining team sports I concede there will need to be different solutions for different sports. Perhaps the sport has well-established clubs, so that would be an obvious answer, or perhaps the existing associations could send representative teams, but nationality would not be the deciding factor.

The question arises of whether the Olympics needs change. There is no doubt that it has changed considerably since 1896, and it will either change or stagnate. No change is not an option. The debate must be how much change.

I have suggested some radical proposals which I believe would slim down the Olympics (making it more affordable for a wider range of host cities), would make the Olympics fairer, would have the effect of reducing the incidence of doping and would also make the Olympics even more of a spectacle in which the spectators will better appreciate the wonder of sport. Looks like progress to me.

Olympics 5-Point Plan: Point 4, part two

Point 4 deals with the sports that are included in the Olympics.

The previous article was concerned with the problems of subjectively judged sports, and their non-comformance with the Olympic ideals.

Now to look at the spread of sports in more detail.

The Olympics should be the pinnacle of the sport. Is this such a wild thought? Doesn’t everyone want to win an Olympic gold above all else? Well, no, not really. There are some sports, all of them professional I believe, which already have their own traditional world cup, or world championship, that is so traditional and ingrained into the sport’s history that any Olympic participation would be no more than another event on the calendar. Football, tennis, basketball, and even baseball would come into this category. For this reason I feel the Olympics is not suitable for these sports.

However for most of the existing sports the Olympic title remains the one that everyone wants. It has even got to the point with some sports, like handball, fencing and archery where the sports would drastically fade in popularity if they were not an Olympic sport.

To summarise I believe that only sports where the Olympics is considered the crowning glory should be included, and this should be a priority criterion when considering adding extra sports, along with the consideration from the previous article that objectively measured sports should be preferred over sports with subjectively judged performances.

Olympics 5-point Plan: Point 4, part one

Citius, Altius, Fortius, the Olympic motto, faster, higher, braver. Nice catchy motto, which largely captures what is understood to be the Olympic spirit. There is no mention of beauty, elegance, artistic impression, and the motto also leads us into a world of sport that is objectively measurable; faster time, higher distance, no room for any human failings, no disagreement.

Athletics, swimming, skiing, cycling, rowing, and many other sports are measured and the competitors are judged by a measurement, with no (or negligible) human input. It doesn’t matter how elegantly you run, if you beat everyone else then you win. Other sports are contests between individuals or teams won by points, goals, etc, other sports are races, the winner wins irrespectively of how beautifully they may have performed.

Sport vs Performance. Figure skating even has its own set of marks for artistic impression, which is indicative of a performance, and we all know that beauty counts, that the costume counts, the make-up too, and that’s not confined to skating. Synchronised swimming is probably an even more extreme example, gymnastics, diving, dressage, and anything that is subjectively scored by humans has inherent failings. Even such sports as mogul skiing, the half-pipe snowboarding, ski-jumping, and to top it all off, judo, wrestling and boxing are incredibly objective.

So what is wrong with human scoring? Humans make mistakes, humans are swayed by beauty, humans are sometimes bad.

The Olympics have survived these few human errors. A few? Each Olympics is replete with human mistakes, some unintentional, some deliberate.

Probably the biggest scandal involved figure skating, when it was discovered that judges from different nations were helping each other boost their nation’s stars. I’ll score your skater high, if you score our pair high.

But it went deeper than that. Soviet bloc countries had always scored higher for their own, and had often manipulated the judging line up to ensure their judges outnumbered all others. Even to the TV viewer at home the judging stank. Not just at one Olympics, but for years and decades, in all skating competions. In addition the maximum score that any judge could award was 6. So once a judge had awarded the maximum score they had nowhere to go for a subsequent competitor who was better (objectively rating performance rears its ugly head again).

A mention here for skating which eventually got its act together when the whole murky world of ice-skating judging was revealed, but they never went back into past misdemeanors, and decades of injustice remain untouched. Skating worked out a much more rigorous marking system, did away with a maximum limit, and, even though it is still all about performance, the judges scores are much fairer.

So where does that leave us? Unfortunately many of the performance sports are now so ingrained into the fabric of the Olympics that it would seem wrong to omit them. But should any new sports be considered then a measurable sport must surely have precedence. At present there are sports like baseball, squash, darts, even bouldering, in which human judgement is minimal. These sports are eminently worthy of consideration.

The balance should swing back to citius, altius, fortius, and not higher, faster, cuter.