The opening paragraph of this series asserts that the presentation of football rules is incredibly dull if they are read as written. A quick glance at Law 12, entitled Fouls and Misconduct, reveals a dismal, joyless, picture of our sport, often described as the Beautiful Game. Superficially, the law is concerned solely with crime and punishment, listing physical actions committed against opponents which may be interpreted, by the Referee, to be "careless, reckless or using excessive force", "dangerous", "serious foul play", or "violent conduct."
No visions of beauty here, except for sadists! Recall what our group of young players want from the rules: "We want the chance to play well, without getting hurt and we want to enjoy ourselves."
How does Law 12 meet these simple needs? The charm of the game lies in healthy physical confrontation tempered by a moral code of sportsmanship and fair play. While the offside law has shaped the intelligence of tactical play, as explained in the previous article, Law 12 is the heart and soul of the game.
Football was chosen by 19th century higher educationalists as a manly sport to build healthy bodies and to develop character qualities of courage, self-discipline, responsibility and justice, all worthy attributes needed in students preparing for leadership in a nation's affairs. Later, the sport moved away from its rough beginnings to a team game which encourages individual skills.
The current Law 12 stems from a decision taken at the fifth meeting of The Football Association on 1 December 1863. A three-hour discussion centred on a proposal to delete Law10 of a preliminary set of laws intended to pro-duce a final interpretation of physical play. It read: 10. If any player shall run with the ball towards his adversaries goal, any player on the opposite side shall be at liberty to charge, hold, trip or hack him, or to wrest the ball from him, but no player shall be held and hacked at the same time.
Hacking, defined as, "kicking an adversary on the front of the leg, below the knee", was supported by those who considered it, and the other quoted actions, to be part of the struggle and courage of play. Opponents wanted brutal elements removed to avoid losing interest in the game among professional people who could not risk serious injuries, a telling argument which won the day. The accepted version read: 10. Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed and no player shall use his hands to hold or push an adversary.
The proponents of the rough style resigned from The Football Association and set up the Rugby Union. Ironically, it was the chief advocate of hacking, representing the Blackheath Club, who eventually had it banned from the handling game!
Law 12 - fouls and misconduct
The 1863 ruling banned four physical acts from play: tripping, kicking, holding and pushing an opponent. In addition to reducing the risk of injury, players found greater freedom to express individual skills within the team game. In effect, the new law helped them to play well, with more protection and potential for enjoyment - the three elements desired by young players today.
As stated in our first article, early laws were silent on moral behaviour in a sport invented for men of breeding. Lifestyles and ethics have changed, as reflected in Law 12 which includes sanctions of offences against an undefined code of moral conduct.
Today, crimes against the intended method of physical play, or infringing moral obligations, are regulated by four degrees of punishment: free kick - direct, for penal offences: free kick - indirect, for minor or technical offences; caution, a formal warning against further misconduct; dismissal; exclusion from the match.
To simplify explanation we look at the law in three parts, penal offences, technical offences and misconduct.
The first part of the law lists ten offences sanctioned by a direct free kick. Any of these becomes a penalty kick offence if committed by a defending player within his team's penalty area. Law 14 describes the procedures for penalty kicks. Six of the ten include the tripping, kicking and pushing actions banned 136 years ago.
How are they judged? In play any player has the right to challenge an opponent for possession of the ball. Opponents have the same right. Challenges often involve physical contact which is acceptable (fair) or unacceptable (unfair), all part of a virile sport.
Until 1996 referees were instructed to read the "intention" of a player to diffe-rentiate between fair an unfair actions. Today, interpretation depends more on what each referee understands as the intended method of play, a variable factor at the root of many differences of opinion.
The law requires the referee to penalise actions he considers to be "carelesss, reckless or using excessive force". Dictionary definitions are unhelpful to instant interpretation . In practice, the three terms fuse into one simple category of "unfair play". How do referees recognise unfair play?
Most match officials have played football, some still do. Having been at the receiving end (or the originator) of unfair tripping, kicking, charging, pushing etc., they know instinctively when an action is careless, reckless or involves excessive force. No time to refer to a dictionary, the action is either acceptable (fair) or unacceptable (unfair): the referee must decide whether to play on or stop. This has the merit of judging actions which may not be within the three qualifications of the law. For example, a sly nudge to put an opponent off the ball could not be interpreted as a push committed carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force, but it is clearly unfair and deserves punishment.
Of the next four direct free kick offences, holding an opponent or spitting at him are clearly unacceptable but the offence of "tackling an opponent to obtain possession of the ball which involves contact with an opponent before touching the ball", needs a few words. It is intended to eliminate the challenge from behind which grew from a subtle touch, to warn a player in possession that an opponent was close behind, to horrendous collisions to destroy skilful play.
For nearly 30 years the International FA Board has appealed to players and referees to rid the game of this practice. It was officially outlawed in 1999 by an International Board decision requiring offenders to be dismissed.
Some progress is being made. Defenders are more cautious, skills of exciting players more evident, but the problem has not gone away. The full potential of talented players has yet to be liberated. When it is, football will really bloom with artistry and grace.
Nine of the ten penal offences concern actions against opponents. The tenth, handling the ball, offends the basic method of play decided in 1863 which put it on a different path to the rugby game.
Eight actions are named, less serious than penal offences, which incur an indirect free kick award. Five are aimed at goal-keepers, who have caused much head-shaking in recent years by abusing the almost total physical protection accorded since the days when they were the target of deadly assaults by onrushing opponents.
Effectively, the ball is unplayable once in the goalkeeper's hands. To keep the game flowing, the five offences encourage quick release by restricting possession and touching the ball with the hands. The latter excludes handling when the ball is deliberately kicked to the goalkeeper, or thrown from touch, by a team-mate (introduced in 1992 and 1997 respectively). Both restrictions have reduced boring defensive tactics and improved open play.
Playing in a dangerous manner, e.g. kicking at the ball close to an opponent's head and two actions of impeding opponents, complete this group.
In football, misconduct is unacceptable behaviour which offends an unwritten code of morals for the sport. As already observed, the early gentlemen players thought it unnecessary to remind their peers of moral responsibilities. Recognising changing times and attitudes, FIFA promotes a Code of Conduct comprising ten positive actions for the good of the game. It appeals for fair play, respect for participants and invites co-operation to safeguard the sport from evils of modern life.The code is not (yet) included in the rulebook.
In the misconduct section of Law 12, headed Disciplinary Sanctions, we have general and specific offences which breach the moral code. Seven incur a caution against further misconduct and another seven require offenders to be sent off. The first cautionable offence of unsporting behaviour really takes in the six which follow e.g., dissent against a referee's decision, persistently breaking the laws, delaying the restart of play, entering or leaving the field without the referee's permission. To combat a recent trend of cheating, Decision 6 of this law requires referees to treat any action to deceive them by simulating unfair play as unsporting behaviour. The term covers many other actions, too numerous to list, which offend the spirit and/or the letter of the laws according to the judgement of the referee.
The ultimate punishment of dismissal from a match is applied for acts of serious foul play, violent conduct, offensive or abusive language, spitting at an opponent or another person, and when a second cautionable offence is committed. Finally, two 1991 Decisions concerning denying the opposing team an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, either by physical means or deliberately handling the ball, are now included in the law.
One other rarely mentioned crime, which is not in the laws but can invoke serious punishment, is that of "bringing the game into disrepute". It usually applies to incidents off the field of play which damage or taint the honour and prestige of the whole sport. Examples include derogatory comments expressed in public by administrators, coaches, players, club or match officials; unseemly personal behaviour connected with foot-ball; drug abuse; fixing matches, etc. Punishments can be heavy fines, suspensions or permanent exclusion from the game.
Such is the nature of misconduct in football.
Those coloured cards
All football people are familiar with the sight of a referee showing a coloured card after an incident. Yellow for caution, red for off. Originally conceived by Ken Aston (when chairman of the FIFA Referees' Committee at the 1966 World Cup) to reduce language barriers between officials and players, they first appeared in the opening match of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. No red cards were seen during the 32 match tournament but the yellow came out for 45 offences to signify cautions.
The card system spread throughout football, becoming mandatory in a 1993 amendment to Law 12. How times have changed! In the 1950s a formal caution was considered disgraceful to the point where The Football Association selection committee for international matches refused to consider players having received just one caution. Today, cards are evident in practically every match. Over 2,300 were displayed in last season's FA Premier League!
To complete the tri-colour traffic signals code, a green card is sometimes displayed to permit medical officials to enter the field to examine seriously injured players. This is not yet applied universally.
Of referees and coaches
The dictionary definition of a referee, as "a person to whom a matter in dispute is referred for decision", was appropriate in football until 1973 when his duty, "to decide disputed points", was deleted from Law 5. It was finally recognised that the law enforcer's role and responsibilities had evolved to cover all aspects of an organised game. In effect, today's official is an operating agent of football authority with wide powers on and off the field of play.
More like a superintendent: one who is in charge of an activity, who manages, directs and controls with authority.
Volunteers all, referees are expected to be dedicated experts on the game and its rules, to be available, always at peak physical form, and prepared to withstand much abuse in their service for football. Our sport could not be so enjoyable without them. Hats off to all ladies and gentlemen of the whistle!
The coach also has a special role. For 130 years, coaching play from the touch-lines was banned because players were expected to make their own game, with skills and mistakes, free from outside interference. Since 1993, Decision 2 of Law 3 allows the coach to convey tactical instructions to the players during the match. Two conditions apply; coaches are confined to a specific location and must behave in a responsible manner.
Both constraints are not easy for emotionally involved coaches who stretch limits to influence a good result for their teams. TV cameras capture the perfor-mances of both players and coaches to add spice to armchair entertainment.
Laws or Rules?
The title to this series, and many comments in the text, refer to the rules of the game. Most sports are governed by rules but football has retained its traditionally styled "laws" from 1863. Why they were so labelled is unclear. It was probably to differentiate them from the rules of new-born Football Association being formulated at the same time.
Here, the choice of "rules" is deliberate, not to disrespect tradition but to accept common usage and aid comprehension.
From experience of teaching the game, the mention of laws is an immediate barrier to motivating interest. They are more associated with civil obligations than with the conduct of a popular sport.
It was not until 1997 that the out-moded offence of ungentlemanly conduct was replaced by the more appropriate unsporting behaviour. Taking football, The Game of the 20th Century, into the next millennium could be an appropriate occasion to update the Laws of the Game to The Rules of Football.
Theatres of dreams
Our analogy of football and the theatre shows that the game brings colour and passion into the workaday lives of millions, a chance to dream in theatres of dreams. Such theatres encircle the world, be they in the form of a farmer's humble cow-patch or the awesome tradition-soaked Wembley Stadium. They all stage a unique play, the match, performed to one script. No two performances are identical but all promise a heady cocktail of excitement, suspense, comedy, drama, even tragedy.
That a simple game can unite people of all ages, races, creeds, classes and political beliefs in a healthy pastime must relate to the rules which govern its conduct.
This series has analysed the 17 rules to expose content, purpose, intelligence and wisdom imbedded within their formal words. As a yardstick we asked young players what they want and were told, equality, safety and enjoyment.
Questioning each rule we have seen how these simple features are included from early principles, through evolution to meet changing circumstances to arrive at today's exposition. Hats off to the 1863 authors and subsequent generations of scriptwriters!
May future legislators be guided by the wishes of our young players, to help them play well, without getting hurt, so that we and our successors may continue to enjoy, in the words of the Brighton College song, "the most perfect game of the perfect sphere".
Yes, Football Rules really are brilliant!
End of the series "Laws of the Game"