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