Changing the rules of the Beautiful Game

Two pieces of news have brought the issue of rule changes in football to the forefront once again. The first concerns FIFA’s proposal to introduce goal-line technology at the Club World Cup this December. The second is the news that the Norwegian football association plans to ban players from speaking to referees during matches.

The former has been in the pipeline forever, could be easily implemented and is seen as a ‘common sense’ rule change (just ask Mark Hughes). The latter, however, is an extremely interesting development. An attempt to tackle the issue of referee intimidation, it could dramatically change the sport in a positive way. It’s proposed implementation begs the question, what else should we change about the beautiful game?

Let’s start with the rules, which, like goal-line technology, are easily implemented and would improve the game without changing it radically. Recently, we saw the use of a vanishing foam spray in the Copa America. The spray allows referees to mark the ten-yard distance required of the defensive wall thus making encroaching a thing of the past. I’d love to see it in the Premier League, it’s a simple efficient solution and it makes the referee look like an uninspired graffiti artist. Win-win. Unfortunately, not all changes to the game are this straightforward.

In the recent Tyne-Wear derby, we witnessed a rare occurrence. Defending a free kick, Mike Williamson impeded Michael Turner’s run by grabbing his shirt and to everyone’s amazement Mike Dean awarded the penalty. Now a referee punishing a foul really shouldn’t be such a surprise but when it comes to shirt tugging in the box, referees tend to avoid making the difficult decision. We more commonly see the bizarre practice of referees blowing their whistle when a defender is manhandling his opponent only to warn him to stop. No punishment, just a helpful reminder of the rules.

Shirt pulling is endemic in professional football. There are many reasons why Andy Carroll has struggled this season, but it certainly hasn’t helped that defenders seem to treat his shirt like a bell tower rope. Everyone agrees that the only way to stamp it out is to start awarding penalties for every incident of shirt pulling in the box. As it stands, defenders view shirt pulling as a low risk, medium reward technique i.e. defenders achieve the medium gain of impeding the attackers run with a low risk of being penalised. If refs started consistently awarding penalties for shirt pulling, then defenders would soon realize that the medium gain wasn’t worth the high risk.

Footballers have a long way to go to match the exemplary attitude shown by rugby players to their officials. But the Norwegian FA’s attempt to stop players trying to influence refereeing decisions is a step in the right direction. In rugby, referees are ‘miked up’ allowing the public to hear the extremely polite interactions between the referee and the players. If the same was true in football, the language heard through the microphones may be a bit too blue for pre-watershed Sky Sports coverage, it’s bad enough just lip-reading Craig Bellamy’s outbursts. A good idea would be to mike up the officials without broadcasting it initially. The recordings could instead be used as evidence to apply retrospective bans to players and managers using abusive or threatening language. Once a few retrospective bans had been issued for ref intimidation, players would begin to self regulate their language (for fear of receiving bans) and the microphones worn by officials could then be broadcast to the world, adding to the TV viewing experience.

Speaking of retrospective bans, it’s become increasingly clear that they should be used as deterrent against the scourge of diving. Currently, referees can give a yellow card if they deem that a player has dived. But this is tough call for a ref because if it turns out the player actually was fouled they are getting the decision doubly wrong. Not only have they failed to award a free kick, they’ve also punished the victim. As such, referees rarely give a card for ‘simulation’. Again, we come back to the risk-reward ratio. At the moment, players can get high rewards for diving with a low risk of being penalised.

Although fans claim to have a staunch anti-diving stance, if it’s their own player using deceptive means to win a last minute penalty, delight tends to eclipse any moral objections they might have. Increasingly in football, winning takes precedence over integrity. So, by and large, fans don’t really mind having a dishonest player if his cheating gains an advantage for the team and he remains unpunished for doing so. However, if players started receiving 1 to 5 game retrospective bans for cheating, not only would the players realize that the risk reward ratio had shifted but fans would start to resent a player whose deceptive actions saw him sidelined for weeks on end.  In a sport where diving in the box is referred to as ‘earning a penalty’ and cheating to gain advantage is often seen as ‘experience’, it’s clear that the rules need to be changed.

The ‘interfering with play’ aspect of the offside rule is a mess. Defenders often get pulled out of position tracking an offside player who is deemed by the ref to be not interfering. An onside player can then take advantage of the space created by the offside player, highlighting the influence the supposedly non-interfering player still exerts. A possible solution would require offside players to hold both arms aloft until they return to an onside position. This would signal their intention not to interfere with play allowing defenders to ignore them and concentrate on the onside players.

Football fans are often strongly opposed to rule changes, believing that the game is sacred and should remain untouched. In truth, the game is constantly changing, usually for the better. For example, the ‘back-pass rule’, which we now see as crucial to avoiding defensive time wasting, was only introduced in 1992. Football must continuously adapt to the needs of the modern game to ensure talent and effort reaps more rewards than cynicism and cheating. So bring on Hawk-Eye, vanishing spray and miked up refs, because, in the ever-changing world of professional football, if you stand still, you go backwards.

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Jack Devlin
Jack Devlin

3 thoughts on “Changing the rules of the Beautiful Game

  1. This is definitely a debate worth having. Do you know in the Norwegian rule if captains will be allowed to speak to referees? Surely you need some sort of return communication from players to officials. I like the way you’ve brought shirt-pulling and diving into a cost-benefit analysis where the low risk is usually with the party seeking to gain advantage – a good, unemotional way at looking at ethics in football. And I agree that a lot of problems with cheating come down to semantics and the way we talk about the game. Euphemisms like ‘earn a penalty’ need to go, a point I made recently in a similar article (

    1. Yeah the plan is to only allow captains talk to the ref.

      re: diving, conning the ref etc. I really think something needs to be done, I find myself liking the sport less and less these days with all the ridiculous playacting that goes on.

      1. Football is sort of unique though in that the interpretation of the rules is far more subjective than other sports. E.g. a penalty is awarded if “there was contact” and player “earns” it by contacting the defender. Some would say that this is a legitimate penalty within the laws of the game unlike, say, tennis – where the ball was or was not in or out. The gradual move towards more ethical football starts with the language we use, I agree.

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