IFAB proposals: Rating penalty goals, 60-minute matches, quick free kicks
For as long as football remains ever-so-slightly broken, there will always be attempts to fix it. The International Football Association Board (IFAB, a gloriously old-fashioned body that allows Northern Ireland 12.5 percent of the voting power to change the global Laws of the Game) has published "Play Fair!," a strategy document with a snappy title.
The document's proposals are broadly aimed at two deep-lying bugbears of the modern game: time wasting (or, more specifically, the natural wastage of good playing time) and the behaviour of players and coaches towards officials. It has been produced by David Elleray, the former Premier League referee and Harrow schoolmaster, and now technical director of IFAB.
"It is a radical document," Elleray told The Times. "You could say that it is a quiet revolution aimed at getting football even better. "My starting point was to look at the laws and say 'what are they for?', and if there is no particular reason then would changing them make the game better?"
In the spirit of the eternal law of "it's a game of opinions," then, let's take a hugely subjective view of the proposed new law tweaks.
Short goal kicks
This is evidence of IFAB's fingers on the modern pulse. The last few seasons, thanks in part to Pep Guardiola's possessive philosophy, has witnessed some curious standoffs during the most mundane moment of a football match: the humble goal kick.
The scene is becoming familiar now; the defending team don't wish to boot the ball aimlessly upfield, while the attacking side station themselves on the edge of the box ready to pounce for the short pass. The current law states that a goal kick has to pass beyond the penalty area before it is touched again, a ruling that gegenpressing is stretching to the very limit, to the point where the gegenpressers frantically appeal to the referee... only to discover that the result is simply a retaken goal kick.
The solution to this unnecessary minor pantomime? Elleray believes that allowing goal kicks to be received within the penalty area would speed up the game -- it has already been successfully trialled in some youth games in Europe -- while the likes of John Stones would welcome not having to tip-toe on the perimeter of their own box while an impatient Diego Costa hurtles towards him.
Verdict: Sure, why not?
Extremely quick free kicks
This sounds potentially fraught with minor technicalities, but Elleray insists that quick free kicks and corners could be made even quicker. "Historically, in the ancient game of Harrow Football," Elleray says, referring to his former employers, "the fouled player could carry on dribbling and this was allowed in the original 1863 Laws of the Game."
In short, the proposal is to allow set-piece takers the chance to immediately dribble the ball away. While opening up new attacking possibilities, it would also eliminate the brief sacrificial glory of "taking one for the team," that most unapologetic of yellow cards given to spoiling defensive midfielders when the opposition launch a lightning counter-attack. Some might miss that moment of pure gamesmanship, but it seems that officialdom could do without it.
Precisely what the defending team would be allowed to do when a free kick is instantly dribbled hasn't been made clear in the IFAB document but, at first glance, it would be another effective way of keeping the game flowing.
Verdict: Careful now.
Getting tougher on handballs
The ultimate act of footballing impertinence -- scoring with a handball - could well be about to become a red-card offence. At the other end, the document suggests that referees could award a goal if the ball is handled by a defender to stop it going in.
While these would place huge pressure on the referee's judgement (where perhaps the video officials could step in), it would avoid the sort of spectacle we saw at the 2010 World Cup, where Luis Suarez prevented a late Ghana winner, was sent off, and then celebrated in the tunnel as the resultant penalty was missed. On the other hand, do we really want goals counted when they simply didn't happen?
Verdict: Leave it be.
Whistling for half-time and full-time when the ball is out of play
It's a striker's biggest irritation: the half-time whistle being blown as he's striding towards goal. The referee has no obligation to keep the game going for attacking play, of course, but it's surely not coincidental that most half-time and full-time whistles sound when the ball is safely in mid-air from a goal kick.
Alternatively, referees could be directed to bring the game to a close only when the ball is out of play. This perhaps would be borrowing the best part of both codes of the game of rugby: namely, being able to gleefully hoof the ball aimlessly into oblivion, just to induce the full-time whistle and start the celebrations.
Verdict: Go for it.
Reducing games to 60 minutes
No, wait -- come back, it's fine. Studies have frequently found that the ball is in play for far less than the 90 minutes -- on average, just shy of an hour in total. The tentative IFAB proposal is to reduce the duration of a football match to 60 minutes, but to stop the clock as soon as play does: be it a foul, a throw-in, a goal, a penalty or a naked pitch invader.
Elleray notes that the standard amount of injury time (usually a single minute before half-time and three minutes at the end of the second half) is clearly not representative of the time lost to stoppages. He cites the example of a player, conveniently the one furthest from the bench, trudging off at a pace slower than the average garden snail as they are substituted, while being gently nudged towards his dugout by increasingly annoyed opponents.
A further suggestion is that the referee's watch could be linked directly to the stadium clock, to show the crowd just how long is left in the match, to the very second. Prepare yourselves for some delighted mass counting-down when a team is about to win a cup final (and cross your fingers for an equaliser when it happens). I'm not sure we're ready for the concept of a last-gasp, 59th-minute winner, though.
Verdict: Entirely logical, but terrifyingly anti-traditional.
Points docked for surrounding the referee
This particular talking point has first had to establish its accepted terminology. The IFAB document decides to use the word "mobbing," while most have settled on the all-encompassing term of "surrounding," but the genre does have its subsets: "haranguing," "remonstrating" or "berating," for example. "Lambasting" and "blasting," meanwhile, are strictly exclusive to postmatch interviews.
Surrounding referees has become an issue of note ever since no fewer than five United players, plus the bulging veins of Roy Keane's forehead chased down terrified referee Andy D'Urso at Old Trafford back in January 2000.
But just how many protesting players are required to make it a certifiable surrounding? The FA's official guidelines state that three or more players of one club approaching an official in a confrontational manner constitutes the threshold. Elleray -- again, borrowing from rugby -- suggests that only the captains should be allowed to approach the referee for a discussion. In extreme cases, though, a club could be deducted league points for extended harassment of the official.
No penalty rebounds
Another curious proposed tweak is that penalties during a game become as self-contained as they are in a shootout. That is, no rebounds would be allowed -- if a penalty is saved or hits the woodwork, the game is immediately stopped and restarted with a goal kick.
The rationale is that it would prevent the crowd scene on the edge of the box where players jostle for position in case of a loose ball from the rebound. While there is a slight sense of anti-climax when a penalty is heroically saved, only to be slotted in at the second attempt, it feels like there are bigger disciplinary fish for IFAB to fry.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.