IFAB: one step forward, one step backward

By Paul Gardner

I think it unlikely that there are many people around who would consider the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to be an up-to-date group. But, the IFAB is making an attempt, it seems. It has just approved a major rewriting of soccer’s rules and David Elleray, the man in charge of the overhaul, says one of its aims is to bring the rules up to date.

The intention, then is good. Whether it’s been achieved, I cannot tell you, as the IFAB appears reluctant to let anyone see the new rulebook. A bad sign, that — it strongly suggests that while the IFAB may be updating the rules, it is not modernizing its modus operandi. The traditional tendency to reveal as little as possible (one that the IFAB shares with referees) remains in place.

A press conference was held after last week’s IFAB meeting in Cardiff. A question was asked — When would the new rulebook be available? — which received the classically evasive “Soon” as an answer. An IFAB press release contains a link to “new wording” for Rule 12; press it and you get “We’re sorry, this page cannot be found.” When Elleray was asked where the new version of the rules could be found, he replied: “In May we will be launching the IFAB website (theifab.com) and the whole book and each individual Law will be available for download.”

Well, that’s just dandy. We’ll have to wait until May for a sight of the new rulebook that will come into use in June.

The one change that we do know at least something about is the one I’ve already mentioned, a change to Rule 12. It concerns the so-called “triple punishment” problem that can arise in cases of DOGSO — Denying an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity.

If the offense occurs within the penalty area — as many, probably most, of them do — the guilty player is red-carded, and is suspended for the next game, and the attacking team gets a penalty kick. Triple punishment, you see. The term is nonsense. Every red card involves, whether for DOGSO or not, involves triple punishment: ejection, suspension, and the award of a free kick — which, even if it is outside the penalty area, may well be within scoring range.

So why is the DOGSO case regarded differently? Why all the whining about it being too severe? And why is the IFAB listening to it? The same topic came before the IFAB last year and they very sensibly rejected it. Here it comes again, and the IFAB has agreed that trials be conducted with a modified rule that will allow referees to give a yellow card instead of a red.

I cannot quote the rule change (it’s the unavailable “new wording” mentioned above), but I do have something that ought to be almost as good. During the IFAB press conference, FIFA’s new president Gianni Infantino had his say on the matter. Thus: “Basically, if the goalkeeper or the defender in the penalty area tries to go to the ball — genuinely and honestly tries to challenge for the ball, then there will not be a red card any more, only a yellow card.

“For other instances, violent play or whatever, pulling or pushing, which have nothing to do with trying to get the ball, there will still be a red card and a penalty. But in the other instances, where there is an honest challenge for the ball … the goalkeeper, the typical incident where you have a goalkeeper jumping and the attacker just manages to touch the ball before him, and they hit each other, there will be a penalty and a yellow card.”

I’ll underline again: I don’t have the official wording. I do not know what will happens when a defender uses his hand to keep the ball out — that is, I’m afraid, a pretty “genuine and honest” attempt to play the ball, though not in the sense that the rule change requires. But what I’ve quoted above is from the FIFA president himself, so I’m assuming it is an accurate version of the change.

There are several cogent reasons why this is a particularly bad, ill-thought-out change.

1. It represents a surrender to those who want soccer to be a more physical game. Simply this: a weakening of an existing rule, a lighter punishment for a mistimed tackle. I can think of no compelling reason why that is needed. And how long will this new leniency be confined to late tackles in DOGSO situations only? It will inevitably (and logically) spread to be applied to tackles anywhere on the field.

2. It expands something that should be reduced — i.e. referees’ reluctance to call fouls against, and particularly to eject, goalkeepers. When looking for examples of how this “new wording” will work, Infantino twice singled out the goalkeeper as a beneficiary. Not, I think, by accident. Under this rule change, red cards for goalkeepers will rarely, if ever, be seen. The keeper stays on the field, now with the chance to become a hero if he saves the penalty kick. This looks like a goalkeepers’ charter.

3. An earlier rewrite of the rules (in 1994) brought in a major change: it threw out the idea of “intent.” Apart from hand ball, referees no longer had to read the players’ mind. A foul was a foul, whether it was intentional or not. But this “new wording” on DOGSO clearly calls on the referee to judge intent. He has to decide whether a player making a challenge is “genuinely and honestly” (Infantino’s words) trying to play the ball. A huge step backward.

4. The “new wording” will surely encourage goalkeepers to continue with their violent assaults on opponents, when it ought to be absolutely obvious that this aspect of a goalkeeper’s play will, sooner rather than later, have to be curtailed.

Finally, back to the IFAB — there is never a shortage of gaucheries from them. I — and plenty of others — have long found it unacceptable that the IFAB should be dominated by the Brits, who have four of its eight votes, given to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The countering argument is that FIFA has the other four votes, that six votes are needed for change, so things balance out.

According to that explanation, the Brits are not in charge. Yet, at the recent press conference quoted above, who was on the platform answering questions? Why, Jonathan Ford (Wales), Stewart Regan (Scotland), Martin Glenn (England) and Patrick Nelson (Northern Ireland). There was no sign of the four mysterious FIFA delegates. Only the new FIFA president, Gianni Infantino.

That blatant show of Brit-power, obviously not caring whom it might upset, or how inappropriate it might be, should not be allowed to happen again. Three of those permanent Brit members should be pensioned off, which would allow the IFAB to take on permanent delegates from important areas — Latin America and Europe in particular — which are currently without representation.


Thank you, Paul Gardner!