Monday, October 20 th, 2014
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Rules and innovations: did the World Cup improve football?
The goal-line technology and vanishing foam on set-pieces were the major innovations of Brazil 2014. There were more in the past, and they always penalized defenders
by Anthony Pepe
Has the World Cup been a catalyst for rule changes in football, or is it merely an adopter of already existing ideas?

Every World Cup over the last quarter century seems to have brought either a change to the rules or has implemented an idea that has already been proven successful and FIFA’s endorsement becomes the rubber stamp to promulgate the rule change.

The World Cup has always been innovative, its mere conception was a novel idea: an organised international football competition on a global scale before the age of air travel. This is an era of global tensions sandwiched between two world wars, but Jules Rimet never claimed a political end for his tournament, he just wanted to see the best possible football competition. This role has been overseen by FIFA since 1930 and the rules are determined by the International Football Association Board, then implemented by FIFA.

Despite this, it has frequently been individuals who have shaped the changes in football. It wasn’t a FIFA committee that decided to introduce yellow and red cards, it was a referee’s wife. Ken Aston, the most famous English referee in football history and arbiter of the notorious Battle of Santiago, thought up a warning system consisting of red and yellow. He was sitting at traffic lights pondering how to solve a case of miscommunication that had occurred during a World Cup ’66 match between England and Argentina. The German referee, Rudolf Kreitlein, had dismissed Argentina captain Antonio Rattín in the 35th minute for “violence of the tongue”, despite neither man speaking the others’ language. During the same game, Kreitlein also cautioned England defender Jack Charlton, who only discovered this fact upon reading the next day’s newspaper report. Aston believed a system was needed to overcome these difficulties and allow the player to unequivocally understand what the referee’s decision was. The traffic lights in front of the waiting Ken Aston provided the idea and when he explained this to his wife she immediately cut out a red and a yellow card and the rest is history. The game now seems unimaginable without them; will we be saying the same thing in fifty years about the spray used at World Cup 2014 to ensure defenders do not encroach during set pieces?

Probably not, likely because it isn’t as major a part of the game as exclusions, but it is certainly an effective and necessary tool to help attacking teams and to prevent fouling teams from escaping punishment. However, like many other rule changes implemented during a World Cup, it is hardly new, it has been used in various South American competitions since 2000. A much more game-changing novelty at this World Cup is goal-line technology, however it has been less under the microscope as the ubiquitous Premier League has used it for the 2013-2014 season without controversy. FIFA is a reactive organisation and can never be accused of being hasty; these two introductions are arguably a decade late.

Whether changes made to football are for better or for worse, there is one certainty: FIFA will introduce it late. World Cup ’94 in the USA was the first to use the three points for a win system, yet it had existed in the English league since 1981, the brainchild of Jimmy Hill, a football man never short of ideas, but not necessarily good ones. This change in points for a win has apparently made startlingly little change to the game, but a reactionary FIFA thought it might encourage more wins and therefore implemented it before an American World Cup, apparently worried about whether a US audience would tolerate draws.

The 1994 edition also introduced a massive change to the laws of the game: the back-pass rule. The fact that goalkeepers used to be able to pick up the ball with his hands after a deliberate pass from a foot of a teammate was seen to be a major contributing factor to what was an indisputably boring World Cup in 1990 in terms of attacking play. The back-pass used to be the quintessential tactic for teams looking to either run down the clock, relieve pressure or break the rhythm of the opponent. Some teams used it more than others; it has been said in England in jest that it is no coincidence that Liverpool have not won the league since the change. The most flagrant back-pass for the global audience was the sight of Klaus Augenthaler, an enterprising left winger for Germany, during the final of World Cup 1990 passing back to Bodo Illgner from the halfway line through a sea of players.

Before the French World Cup in 1998, FIFA announced a ban on ‘tackles from behind’, to protect attacking players from being injured and to promote attacking play, but it was clear that such a game-changing rule would have negative repercussions for defenders, and World Cup 1998 duly became the tournament with the most red cards to date (22). This was surpassed in Germany 2006, a year after FIFA had revoked the ban on tackles from behind, changing the wording in the Laws of the Game to “Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play”. This essentially sanctions any tackle that the referee deems to be excessive or dangerous, from any direction.

Whether FIFA’s rule changes have had any effect on the game is something that needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis; it is clear that red and yellow cards revolutionised the game at the time, allowing referees to genuinely sanction a player and the benefits of goal-line technology are evident. However, the vanishing foam seems to be merely an indictment on referee behaviour, the rule already existed stating the distance that walls must be from the ball, the problem was referees not enforcing the rule and the vanishing foam is useless when the ref allows encroachment anyway, as the Spanish referee allowed for Brazil against Colombia.

There is, however, coherence to FIFA’s rule changes, they always have the intention of giving more power to the officials and are supposed to encourage attacking football. If we are only to use World Cup 2014 as an example, it could be argued that FIFA has been successful; we have seen a World Cup played within a general atmosphere of fair play with very few red cards (8) and record numbers of goals and great attacking play.

Is there any downside to FIFA’s changes? I would argue that these changes have hindered the centre back, who now seems to have to be able to play the ball out of defence and be technically proficient, rather than being tough and solid. The attributes that made Claudio Gentile a world talent are almost all illegal now and while this definitely benefits the forwards, how many genuinely talented defenders exist in the game anymore? In World Cup 1998 every team featured a brilliant centre-back, Italy had Bergomi, Cannavaro, Costacurta, Nesta, even Maldini and Torricelli, France had Desailly, Blanc and Thuram, even minnows such as Scotland, Morocco and Norway had Hendry, Naybet and Berg. I would argue that any of these players would have improved any defence in this World Cup, barring Germany, as true defending centre backs seem to have died out. In 1998 the argument over who is the best centre back could take all day with every country having a candidate; the same argument today, now lasts five minutes.

Saturday, July 19 th, 2014
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