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Opinion: Proposed Rule Changes Will Strike A Blow To Football's Underdogs

Opinion: Proposed Rule Changes Will Strike A Blow To Football's Underdogs
By Arthur James O'Dea
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In an attempt to combat the surprising regularity with which a ball remains unemployed during a match, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) have proposed some changes to the football rules that are in certain respects intriguing, potentially beneficial, but perhaps misguided from the outset.

Reported initially in The Telegraph, the IFAB, shape-givers to football as we know it today, had a very clear mandate in mind for their proposals: "Looking at ways to cut down on time-wasting, speed up the game and increase playing time is one of our priorities."

To do this, the lawmakers are looking to discuss - among others - the following set of suggestions: no substitutions to take place after the 90-minute mark, players leaving the field of play must exit via the nearest touchline, and defending players will be allowed to gather kick-outs within their own box.

Although any change to the structure of the game is sure to bring about supporters and detractors alike, it is clear that the IFAB are at least attempting to engender a vision of the game that will be more pleasing for those viewing it, and, ideally, those playing it also.

Evidenced throughout these proposals is an undeniable attempt to vanquish the lingering presence of the Machiavel, the fraudster, the deceiver, those who will dip outside of the rules if it allows for a greater chance of success, or, to put it more bluntly still, the cheat.

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Tho' these perfect the 'art' of Cricket, / Do they improve the best of games?

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Football was the furthest thing from Arthur Quiller-Couch's mind as he lamented an English Ashes win built upon the controversial tactic of body-line bowling. Targeting the ball at the batsman as much as the wicket he was protecting, what was good for the winning of a Test scarcely seemed to benefit the sport itself.

Almost a century on from that infamous incident, one may look to football and identify similar strokes of short-term opportunism that do little good for the game at large; time-wasting (in all its forms) clearly a matter of some concern for the governing body of football rules and regulations.

Perhaps lacking the kind of imminent personal danger England's bowlers were visiting upon Australia's Don Bradman, who wouldn't like to see an end to a 'tactical' substitute that stems the attacking flow of the chasing team, or the irritatingly slow jog of a player making his way across the pitch for a wholly inconsequential crossover with his chosen replacement?

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All this, and only 30-seconds added on to the time allotted by a referee - if even that. In principle, it would seem an unquestionably positive step; albeit one that will certainly have wrinkles to be ironed out.

Yet, in seeking to eradicate that grey area in which the fraudsters, deceivers and cheats function, one is left with two questions: Will these figures simply find another way to eke out an advantage? Perhaps, but how that manifests itself remains to be seen.

More importantly, will this attempt to theoretically create a greater spectacle ultimately solidify the stranglehold which caters to those who should win football matches, and act as a detriment to those teams that could, but rarely do? Unfortunately, it would seem so.

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In his seminal history of football, The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt posed (and answered fairly convincingly in the affirmative) another question; "Is there any cultural practice more global than football?"

Beyond its sporting standing, Goldblatt reckoned that even alongside the infinite diversity of "birth, death and marriage," football, "played by the same rules everywhere," is in possession of a worldwide importance that cannot be rivaled.

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Yet, irrespective of such significance, how far removed is football from the confines of partisanship? A game played by more people than anyone can reasonably hope to count, the extent of its reach does not weaken the sensation of me vs you, us vs them, that permeates the game at every level.

One need only share an opinion publicly about the merits of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to quickly understand that a series of corrective tweets - and they will come - from around the world will inform you why you are wrong, in no uncertain terms.

Presumably an explicable human response to favouring one player, manager or team over another, how often will even the most sensible of fans watch a football match entirely bereft of any preference for who should come out on top?

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Although the strength of one's conviction for the cause will determine the manner by which you deem such a result acceptably 'earned,' as much as football is about creating a "game for all" as FIFA lay out, it is also about spotting an advantage and exploiting it. However prestigious and lengthy football's history may be, in those short-term gains the most lasting of memories are so often created.

"Played by the same rules everywhere", as Goldblatt outlines, football offers a level playing field that nevertheless cannot guarantee similar parity between any two teams contesting a match. More often than not, we are presented with the favourite and the underdog, and it is the latter who may be most grievously impacted by these proposed rule changes.

Taking an example close to home, the Republic of Ireland's 1-0 defeat of Wales in Cardiff in 2017 makes for an interesting case-study. A game that Martin O'Neill's side needed to win, consider the details of game as the team closed in on a decisive win.

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72-minutes: Daryl Murphy booked.

78-minutes: Glenn Whelan subbed in for Harry Arter.

79-minutes: Ciaran Clark booked.

83-minutes: Shane Duffy fouls.

90-minutes: Darren Randolph booked.

90+2-minutes: Kevin Long subbed in for Daryl Murphy.

90+2-minutes: James McClean booked.

90+5-minutes: James McClean fouls ... again.

90+6-minutes: David Meyler booked.

Five yellow cards in a little over 20 minutes, plenty of cynical fouling, and one substitute made during injury-time. Ireland's plan of action was clear once they had their goal - kill the game.

With anywhere up to all eleven of the Irish players in or around Darren Randolph's box as Wales desperately searched for an equaliser, it was a situation entirely at odds with the amendments the IFAB are setting out, and what they hope to achieve.

This was not a spectacle for the objective viewer, nor was it a demonstration of football being played in a skillful manner. Yet, assuming that the initial positivity surrounding the 0-0 draw in Copenhagen was rightly wrote off in light of what happened in Dublin shortly after, it is likely the last night in which an Irish fan enjoyed watching their team play.

For the majority of viewers, is football made memorable on the back of great games we see, or those where the team we support - however fervently - wins?

Under these proposed football rules changes, the best efforts of Martin O'Neill and his players to see out a priceless victory would have been compromised; carried out contrary to what we are to believe is the manner in which the game should be played.

Invert the viewpoint to that of a Wales fans on the night in question, and one will be undoubtedly familiar with what they had to go through also. How frustrating it must have been to watch this Irish side thwart their best efforts at qualifying for the World Cup with this honed sampling of anti-football.

Yet, as Irish fans memorably discovered during a 2-2 draw with Israel when they were introduced to Dudu Aouate, injustice is a sensation familiar to all football fans. Incidentally, seven Israel players were yellow-carded, and two substituted, after the away side grabbed their second goal in Dublin that evening.

Frustrating though it is to be on the receiving end, would any football fan really give up both extremes for the blandness on offer?

Principally, it would be nice of course to see more open, free-flowing games that like of which Chelsea and Liverpool contested in their Premier League clash earlier this season. Yet, it quite simply isn't feasible.

Two incredibly strong groups of players with acute, tactically savvy managers, not every team has such a luxury. In much the same way that a Greatest Hits collection gives you all you should seemingly want from an artist's back-catalogue, it is on the studio albums where the real interesting work resides; where the nitty-gritty of putting something special together cannot be erased.

Compounded by the eventual roll out of VAR across the entirety of football, these changes proposed by the IFAB strive to create a black and white canvas where the area given over to the grey aspects of the game become redundant.

It is not necessarily the case that these specific changes will radically alter the fabric of football, yet, they scream of a precedent inching ever closer to maintaining a lopsided status quo. In much the same way as UEFA strive to keep the Champions League safe for those teams that attract the biggest interest (and money, inevitably), these proposals hint at a widespread trend to punish those for whom winning is already a rarity; achieved, when it is, thanks to a willing dip into the grey.

See Also: Irish Internationals Match Jurgen Klopp's Generosity To Sean Cox Fund

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