11 January ~ Should football become more like rugby union or more like Australian rules football? It is probably not a question that has occupied too many minds at FIFA, but the referees’ committee needs to watch a few games of both and realise there is a clear decision to be made. It might help to follow up with a screening of the first half of last week’s Premier League game between Manchester City and Liverpool. Observers should count how many times the referee, Mike Jones, makes the exaggerated pointing-to-whistle gesture to ensure free-kicks just outside the box can’t be taken until he is good and ready. In fact they don’t need to, as I’ve done it for them: three.

After 22 minutes and 21 seconds, Jones rules that David Silva has fouled Stewart Downing ten metres outside the City area. He ostentatiously shows the whistle to Charlie Adam, who has to wait for Jones to arrange the wall to his satisfaction before he can test Joe Hart with a low effort. Time elapsed: 50 seconds. Defenders behind the ball when Adam shoots: ten.

Five minutes later, Kolo Toure brings down Adam as he bursts into the box with only Micah Richards covering. Jones has to shoo away protesting players before Jordan Henderson sidefoots feebly into the wall. Time elapsed: 78 seconds. Defenders behind the ball: ten.

Just after 40 minutes, Adam barges into Edin Dzeko at the other end. Again with the whistle performance. Once Dzeko is back on his feet, Silva lifts the free-kick tamely over the bar. Time: 68 seconds. Defenders behind the ball: ten.

In other words, three minutes and 16 seconds, or seven per cent of the half, was spent just waiting for three set pieces. That time was used primarily to take the advantage away from the attacking team and give it to the defending – and offending – team. Clearly the point of awarding a free-kick in a dangerous position should be the opposite.

Anyone who endured last year’s Rugby World Cup will be familiar with the numbing effect of giving referees too prominent a role. The bewildering number of technical rules and strict choreography of scrums, rucks, mauls and line-outs have made rugby a desperately over-structured game in which players struggle for the freedom to create uncertainty.

By contrast, Australian rules tackles the basic problem of all handling games – how to exchange possession – with various rules that encourage the free flow of play and discourage time-wasting and stoppages. As a result it is ragged and unpredictable, where rugby is so often stilted and constipated.

For football’s purposes, the most relevant rule is that a player awarded a free-kick has an absolute right to take it immediately, while the offending team must retreat a certain distance or risk being marched 50 metres closer to their goal.

The happy effect of this simple rule is that almost no time is lost to deal with players feigning injury, surrounding the umpires to complain about decisions or organising themselves into rigid formations such as walls or scrums. Anyone who stops running or concentrating on the game is a liability to their team. So the potential advantage of a free-kick is entirely in the hands of the team that receives it, as it should be, not the officials or the team that concedes it.

Football has tried advancing play as a double penalty without much success – because field position is so much less important than in the handling codes. But there is no reason it can’t change habits through conventional penalties, just as kicking the ball away after the whistle has been made taboo. Of course, obstructing a quick-free kick already attracts a yellow card. It is just that the main people who do it are referees. Mike Ticher

Comments (17)
Comment by geobra 2012-01-11 11:02:28

An excellent piece that I am sure resonates with all fans. I started watching football more than 55 years ago, so my memory is a bit hazy. However, I don't recall the ritual of forming 'the wall' in those days, and I have no idea when it first made its appearance. In the cynical 60s, perhaps? Can anybody help?

We should remember, though, that as with nearly everything in football, 'they all do it'.

Surely all that is required is a small change in the laws. When a free kick is awarded, the team that receives it can either take it immediately with no further whistle from the referee, or ask that all opposition players are 10 yards away and wait for the whistle. In each case they must accept the consequences of their decision.

I think that there should also be a law change for the kick-off after a goal is scored. 30 seconds should be allowed for celebrations and then if the team that has conceded the goal is ready, they can restart the game irrespective of where their opponents are. Sometimes 90 seconds elapse between a goal being scored and the game restarting, and I don't think it's being over-cynical to suggest that some of the 'celebrating' is just a ploy to waste time. Furthermore, referees virtually never add on those 90 seconds at the end of the half.

Comment by Red Adder 2012-01-11 11:16:25

I don't know why in this day and age we can't have a match clock - they do it in most other sports. Properly refereed it would negate time wasting and reduce whinging of SAF and the rest. They coudl even generate revenue by having timed advert breaks (Oh **** I wish I hadn't suggested that).

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2012-01-11 11:36:13

I completely agree, and have banged on about this myself in the past. What really gets my goat is when a referee allows the attacking side to take a freekick quickly, a goal is scored, and the defenders (and fans, commentators, managers) explode in a morass of horror and fury.

The advantage should always be with the attacking side, and provided no rule is being broken and the ball is in the right place, they should be able to take a freekick whenever they damn well feel like it. It's the defenders' fault for conceding the freekick after all.

Of course, the one problem I can see with this is that the referee may be concentrating on the position of the wall rather than following play. And for that, a simple solution - the referee only checks the wall is correctly placed IF he is asked to do so by a player on the attacking side. Otherwise, he lets play go on as soon as the attacking side are ready.

Comment by Paul Rowland 2012-01-11 12:55:50

The whole "added-on time" thing is becoming a living nightmare for me - particularly at evening games, where I would be quite happy for the ref to just blow his whistle after ninety minutes so that I can get home at a reasonable time. All you get with added-on time is one lot trying to waste even more time, and the other lot rushing around in a manic frenzy like their shorts are on fire. Plenty of hoofing, pushing, pulling, shoving, kicking, slapping, arguing and general nastiness... but nothing remotely related to football as we know it.

But what, I hear you say, if your team is chasing the game and might be able to salvage a point or two if they are granted an extra few minutes to grab a late goal? Good point. I hadn't thought of that. But on the balance of things, I think I'd rather just go home. I mean, winning isn't everything, is it? And anyway, I don't know if it's just my natural negative outlook on life, but I suspect my lot are more often the victims rather than the beneficiaries of late goals in added on time.

Comment by imp 2012-01-11 13:06:49

Yes, the law is that the team awarded the free kick can take it straightaway and don't have to wait for the ref's whistle, unless they specifically ask the ref for opponents to move back ten yards, in which case the ref will point at his whistle and tell them to wait. The only reason a ref should order an attacking team to wait is if he's carding a player.

The problem is that defending players always place themselves in front of the ball so they know the attacker will have to ask for ten yards, as there's no advantage in taking a free kick when they're blocking his path. And as Mr Ticher points out, right now there's no penalty for that, and so no incentive to stop doing it. But plenty of incentive to commit the foul in the first place.

Comment by ChrisBud 2012-01-11 13:11:39

Enough is done already to drive fans and players apart, and to stop players and fans celebrating goals without putting a time limit on it! I didn't think it possible to take any more of the passion out of English football, but I have been proven wrong! I have never heard anyone suggest that celebrating is time-wasting, nor have I ever counted down the seconds between a goal being scored and the kick-off.

Comment by Coral 2012-01-11 14:13:06

"The problem is that defending players always place themselves in front of the ball so they know the attacker will have to ask for ten yards, as there's no advantage in taking a free kick when they're blocking his path. And as Mr Ticher points out, right now there's no penalty for that, and so no incentive to stop doing it"

I might have this wrong then but I thought the player in the way got a yellow card because I have seen the attacker kick the free kick at the defender no more than a foot away and the defender gets a yellow card. All it would need was a suring up if this rule is there the same was a rugby where you can be in the way but must be moving away or make an effort to get out of the way, or be punished.

Comment by sbloxham 2012-01-11 14:51:29

"...Anyone who endured last year’s Rugby World Cup will be familiar with the numbing effect of giving referees too prominent a role. The bewildering number of technical rules and strict choreography of scrums, rucks, mauls and line-outs have made rugby a desperately over-structured game in which players struggle for the freedom to create uncertainty..."

Sorry Mike, but utter cobblers. The round-ball game has much it can take on from the oval-ball game such as: players' respect for refs (and managers' attitudes for refs), use of video in contentious decisions, how assistant referee's (touch judges) are utilised, the sin-bin and the use of a clear "advantage" signal/decision. The sin-bin would be particularly welocomed especially if its use in rugby for penalising the "killing or slowing down of play".

Comment by geobra 2012-01-11 14:56:20

@ ChrisBud

I don't want to stop players and fans celebrating goals, but I do want to see the game restarted as soon as possible after a goal. If you look at black-and-white film of old matches, you will see players celebrating after a goal, but almost invariably they are running back to their own half as they do so. Nowadays thay are just as likely to be running behind the goal or towards the bench. Why? Is scoring a goal more thrilling, more liberating today than it was then?

Then there's the question of players removing their shirts, with the inevitable loss of time while they put them back on again. Is it really necessary to do this to show how pleased you are? It never used to be. Why do they do it if they know they are going to be booked? And have you ever seen a player remove his shirt again after he has scored a second goal? I haven't, and I think that tells us something.

(I know of course that sometimes players who take their shirts of after scoring forget that they have already been booked for another offence).

My suggestion was not made with a view to stopping players and fans celebrating. Its intention was to strike a balance between what I consider as acceptable celebration and celebrations that are too often over-the-top. I'd even be prepared to increase the 30 seconds to 45 if it would make you happier!!

Comment by imp 2012-01-11 15:00:57

@ Coral - it's yet another grey area in the laws. So you're right, if a player stands right in front of the ball and blocks a free kick, they'll most likely get a yellow card for "failure to respect the required distance". But if they stand five or six yards back, it's close enough to delay the free kick (because the attacker will ask the ref for 10 yards), but far enough away that they can claim they thought they were the requisite ten yards back - only when the ref measures out the ten do they move. So players generally move close enough to delay the free kick, but far enough away that they won't get booked.

Comment by Coral 2012-01-11 15:54:03

Good call with that imp. Guess it would just have to be absolute, in rugby if you do tackle within 10 yards then it is a foul. It is up to you if you want to game it and think you have it right which is why most wait for 10 yards or more because not knowing how far is not a defence. If they stay within 6 yards then tough, yellow card it is whether you think it is far enough or not.

Comment by KEITHCCC 2012-01-11 16:09:01

Trouble is, once we start timing free kicks before you know it there'll be a stop watch put on throw in's on a minute...(stoke city) -

Comment by madmickyf 2012-01-12 03:20:27

Good article but I'm not entirely sure (and the article doesn't make it clear) how a 50 metre penalty rule would work in Football. Also the rule is not universally popular amongst Aussie Rules fans due to the arbitary and inconsistent way in which it is applied by the umpires - and there are 3 of them running around the pitch!

I think the best solution is re-educate the refs to keep the game flowing and let teams take quick free kicks if they want to.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2012-01-12 09:27:34

I'll be honest, the time taken over free kicks is not in my top ten of things that have to be changed in the game. Allow, encourage even, quick free kicks to be taken, but at the ground a lovely sense of anticipation builds up before John-Arne Riise and his ilk blast the ball straight at the wall.

Comment by Alex Walker 2012-01-13 12:49:11

I remember in the 9-0 win over Ipswich, Paul Ince scoring a free kick when Craig Forrest was a mile outside the area having handled the ball. He picked the ball up to try and delay things, but Ince wrestled it off him, and United took the kick whist Forrest was still complaining to the ref.

In that case, I have no sympathy. The advantage was United's to take, because he committed the offence. I'll be honest, I wouldn't even be averse to free kicks being taken whilst a player was being booked.

Comment by geoffholden 2012-01-13 17:08:42

Above comments about rugby ("Stilted and constipated")apply to Union not to Rugby League where the ball remains in play for twice as long. Likewise all the innovations (sin bin, video refs) were first used in the 13 a side code. As for free kicks delayed by feigned injury: this can make watching top level football unbearable when you have watched a rugby player just stand up after receiving a rally hard knock though interestingly there seems to be less acting the lower down the leagues you go.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2012-01-30 12:47:51

Alex - in fairness to Craig Forrest, he wasn't complaining to the referee - he was getting booked. Which kind of makes Ince's goal even harsher.

- 2 mins in

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