Whistle stop

A campaign against 'dangerous play' is ruining the game, believes Mike Ticher

As usual, the refs took the blame. And, as usual, they were only obeying orders. Of course there were blunders, but most of the grumbling about overuse of cards and fussy interpretations should have been directed not at the officials, but at FIFA – especially when it came from Sepp Blatter.

Since the dire spectacle of the 1990 World Cup, FIFA’s rule changes and directives have pursued two main aims: to protect players from serious injury and to penalise actions that slow the game beyond endurance. Mostly they have worked, but this tournament showed the balance has swung absurdly far towards the first concern, often at the expense of the second.

First, the good news – some nefarious practices were tackled effectively. Booking goalkeepers the first time they dawdle over restarts (instead of several warnings followed by a meaningless card in the 88th minute) was a brilliantly simple idea. A lot of diving went unpunished, but at least some referees showed themselves keen to give cards to the most flagrant flannellers (that’s you, Arjen Robben). And if a couple of games degenerated into card-fests, that was at least as much down to players committing mindless offences such as refusing to give the ball back (that’s you, Deco).

On the other hand, the inane clampdown on “foot-up” or “outstretched leg” incidents could not be applied consistently and predictably led to cautions for utterly tame challenges. Unlike the tackle from behind, first specifically targeted before the 1994 World Cup, that interpretation will not save anyone’s career or give skilful players more freedom.

Far worse, however, is the creeping cancer of the most lamentably misguided practice of recent years – kicking the ball out whenever a player goes down “injured”. Nothing has led to so much unnecessary rancour as this perversion of sportsmanship, as demonstrated (among many others) by Tottenham’s goal in their 1-1 draw at Highbury at the end of the season.

The principle should be simple. If a player is in serious distress or may have a head injury, the referee should blow his whistle and restart the game with a proper drop-ball. Otherwise, get on with it. Nothing is more likely to bring a player to his feet than the sight of the action continuing; conversely, nothing is more likely to make him stay down than the certainty that it will be halted.

Taking the onus off the players not only keeps the game flowing and reinforces one of its basic principles (“play to the whistle”), but also cuts out the nauseating displays of affronted morals from players and coaches, and prevents disputed cases fuelling bad-tempered games, such as Portugal’s masterclasses against Holland and England.

While they are stamping out that nonsense, FIFA could introduce a few more simple rules that would similarly encourage more action and less faffing about. For example: no substitutions after added time has been indicated; penalise players who take the ball to the corner flag to waste time; and allow free-kicks to be taken without the often interminable wait for the ref’s signal, which benefits only the offending side.

In other words, the rules committee should bin the fatuous motto “For the good of the game” and stick up a new one: “For Christ’s sake, get on with the game”.

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month