New rules, same old story

in Features

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“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” Albert Einstein

We live by one set of them and we certainly die by another. Who among us has not cursed passionately and wholeheartedly at some seemingly incomprehensible sign we must adhere to, some direction we are forced to take, or some option we have no choice but to accept? Rules are rules and so we go along with them, for the most part, in order to try and maintain this veneer of civilisation that masks our inherent malevolence and provides some modicum of culture and cohesion that allows society to function, for the most part.

Obviously some rules work better than others. Queues, for example, are one of those necessary evils we must abide by so as to avoid savage visceral violence at otherwise enjoyable social events. I stood in the queue for the single ATM at a concert recently for almost two hours (and I know I’m a goddamn idiot for not bringing any cash). There were some attempts at queue-jumping, and although security did nothing the jumpers were quickly put back in their place by vigilant rule-followers.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle as I neared the front of the long line because some guy had walked to the front of the two-hundred metre queue and paid the person at the front twenty quid to take some money out for him. People were giving out to him, complaining he had broken the rules, things were getting heated. In the end the cute-hoor got his money, paid the schmuck for saving him two hours of his life, gave everyone in the line the finger, and then fucked-off laughing all the way to the bar. We felt cheated, wronged and a little jealous, a bit like Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe must have felt when Christian Benteke scored the winner for Liverpool last Monday night. When rules can be easily broken or manipulated, or even when they become obfuscated or unclear they lose their purpose and chaos reigns. So have the new rule changes brought in this season by FIFA, IFAB and the FA given the game more clarity, or merely muddied the already alluvial waters?

The powers-that-be have actually implemented a few minor rule changes this season that can only benefit the beautiful game, but only if they are accurately enforced. With only two games into the season, already a mockery has been made of the new and improved, or at least up-cycled-and-improved off-side rule. As Gary Neville says “they cock-around” with it every year but never make it any better. The new rule states that if a player in an off-side position makes a play for the ball – even if they do not touch it – they are deemed to be offside.

The old rules stated that Phillipe Coutinho was a mile offside on Monday night when Benteke scored; no goal. Last season, Coutinho would have been off-side but not interfering with play, (which I could never really fathom because what the fuck is he doing on the pitch if not interfering with play); result … goal. This season Coutinho, in an off-side position, and making an obvious attempt to kick the ball but misses it, should be flagged for off-side; No goal. However the goal was given, either because every official on the pitch missed the blatant off-side, which is worrying; or because the relevant officials did not understand the rule-changes, which is more worrying. New rule, but same old story for Bournemouth.

Off-side, as a rule has changed and developed over the years, but in essence remains the same. The original rule I grew up with was implemented in 1990 and adjudged an attacker as onside if level with the second-to-last opponent. It was pretty simple, some would say crude, and had to be meddled with by the game’s authorities to make the rules more conducive to attacking football and help the game to flow more freely. Leonardo daVinci once said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, and I’m sure Garry Neville would agree. Both men, almost equally esteemed in their relative fields of polymath-ery and punditry, would prefer a return to that 1990 golden standard of the rule, but I’m not so sure. The new rule is positive in that it goes some way in resolving the interfering with play confusion, while maintaining the advantage of the attacking team, allowing for more free-flowing and spectacular goals. If only the linesmen could get it right.

While the results of this latest technical-tinkering remain to be seen, the other rule changes in relation to player and management-team conduct have to be welcomed, applauded and earnestly enforced. Unless you’re a jaded cynic like many football fans. The new rules concerning diving; feigning injury in order to get players booked; and the conduct of management and staff on the side-line look very promising, but again, application is everything.

So what’s new? Firstly, a player who dives or fakes an injury can now face suspension. If a player goes down under a tackle, and rolls and cries and bawls and moans until the challenger is carded, but then proceeds to hop up and run along, he is now open to a charge of feigning injury and may receive a three match ban. The challenger will also have his card rescinded. This is good, although massive fines relative to earnings would also help stamp out this scourge.

Secondly, any staff present in the technical area must now subscribe to a code of conduct in relation to behaviour on the side-lines during matches. Uncouth behaviour and incidents classed as “irresponsible” or “unacceptable” may result in immediate banishment to the stand. So in theory we may have seen the last of the bottle-kicking, jacket-throwing, referee abusing, sarcastic-clapping imaginary yellow-card-waving manager on the edge of the pitch. No? I don’t think so either.

While the rule changes are generally positive one has to remain sceptical, especially in the light of the whole Mourinho-Hazard-SexyDoctor-Gate incident where all of the new rules seem to have been broken with little consequence. Mourinho goes ape-shit on the side-line (classy eh?), breaking the new code of conduct, because his Doctor was “naïve” in running onto the field to treat a player who was injured. This was because he wasn’t, like injured-injured, he was merely we’re down to ten men and I’m going to waste a bit of time kind of injured, breaking the feigning injury rule. According to the Special One, that stupid doctor should have known the difference between real and faux injuries, instead of blindly running onto the field to help the seemingly stricken player and momentarily reducing his team to nine men. There was probably a poor off-side decision in there somewhere too but I must’ve missed that; like the Chelsea players apparently, I too was distracted by dark, sultry features of Eva Carniero.

Einstein said, you learn the rules of the game and then play better than everyone else, however, in football, you must learn the rules and then learn to play the rules better than everyone else. They can refine, remodel and revise the rules of football all season every season until the end of history, however, in football as in life, somethings will never change.

by Paul Cahill

Paul Cahill