The Laws of the Game have undergone a minor revolution. From 1 July, there will be a new text to govern how football is to be played throughout the world.
One thing is to be made clear right at the beginning : the Laws themselves have not been changed, apart from the modifications made by the International Football Association Board at its annual meeting this year in Belfast on 1 March.
What has happened is simply that the 17 Laws of the Game have been given a new suit of clothes, a snappier line of dressing more appropriate to the 20th (or 21st) century than that which they have worn for the past six decades.
Over the course of those many years, the Laws of the Game have retained such an aura of historic imperviousness that it had become almost sacrilegious to suggest changing them. But with time, the overhaul had become inevitable.
The task was not an easy one, not least because of the basic need to revert to the fundamental principles and uphold their total validity, while at the same time taking into account the many adaptations and elucidations that have been made since Sir Stanley Rous first dipped his quill pen into the inkwell some 60 years ago.
So many modifications have been made to the simple, solid edifice that Sir Stanley had succeeded in erecting at that time, that the moment had come to knock down the complex and to replace it, on the same spot as it were, by a simple new streamlined building in which everyone will find it easier to negotiate its inner passages.
The offside rule, the back-pass rule, the four-step rule, substitutions... there have been several major amendments over the years, not always smoothly integrated into the Laws in their original form. And the various Decisions of the International Board had been generally tacked on to the main Laws, at times confusing the issue as much as clarifying it.
30 per-cent shorter
To repeat : the new Laws themselves do not change the content of the old. They merely simplify and condense them : the new English version contains 7,484 words, compared with 10,532 in the old version, a reduction of almost 30%.
"We've also tried to make the language simpler," says Ken Ridden, Director of Refereeing for The Football Association in London. An ex-referee and ex-schoolmaster, Ken Ridden is well placed to form part of the team that has worked for over two years on the new text, coordinated by FIFA Deputy General Secretary and former international referee, Michel Zen-Ruffinen.
"We have to remember the international aspect of the Laws," says Ken Ridden. "When Sir Stanley wrote them originally in 1938, the game was still largely a European and South American phenomenon. Since then, of course, it has expanded enormously and it is tremendously important to ensure that the rules are easy to understand everywhere."
Take the notorious Law 11 (Offside) for example, and compare the two versions in the box below.
The new text having finally taken its definitive form as a result of the International Board meeting in March, and the schedule confirmed to introduce the new text on the customary date of 1 July, the race was on to meet the deadline - and not just in English, the language in which the basic text had been approved.
George Cumming, Development Director (Referees and Education) at the Scottish F.A., has been largely responsible for overseeing the production of the basic text before handing over responsibility to the FIFA production department.
"It has been very time-consuming to check and cross-check the details," says George Cumming. "On several occasions, there was a temptation to make major changes to the original, only to find that the alternatives did not really fit the bill. And the Board was always insistent that when in doubt, the status quo should continue to apply. We had to avoid making changes just for the sake of it. After all, the Laws have served us well for 60 years!"
FIFA is responsible for translating the Laws from the English base language into the other three official languages, French, Spanish and German. This important job has been completed by experienced translators, checked and re-checked in a special coordinating session involving members of the FIFA Referees' Committee, to eliminate the risk of inconsistency between languages. But while the official FIFA languages pose no problem, dangers may lie elsewhere, as General Secretary Joseph S.Blatter points out in his editorial on page 3.
FIFA President Dr. João Havelange has never failed to recognise the achievement of his predecessor in laying down the basis for football's global popularity. "Even if Sir Stanley's text is about to become to some extent obsolete, the spirit of his work will remain valid," says the FIFA President. "The greatest tribute to his achievement is precisely that it stood the test of time so long. But I am sure that as a man of vision, he would have agreed that the time had come for an update.