Tuesday, May 08, 2007
A Backward Move
Some time ago I made a couple of posts suggesting that scrapping goal-kicks might be good for the game, given the tedious play that tends to immediately follow them.
Sadly, the most significant rule change of the last twenty years has only produced more inane head clashes in and around the centre circle.
Following the 1990 World Cup, which had featured a great deal of time-wasting from certain teams (notably Egypt), FIFA decided to prevent goalkeepers from handling back-passes. It was assumed that this would speed the game up, and eliminate the desultory exchanges between the goalkeeper and the back four (or three) which were employed when a team was eager to hold on to a much-desired result.
It was an unnecessary change; there were regulations already in place dealing with time-wasting, but referees had typically been too craven to enforce them. Nevertheless, the alteration was generally commended at the time, and such initial confusion as there was bound to be didn’t last very long.
But has the change really been for the better? I don’t believe so.
The other day I watched a recording of the superb Brazil v. France quarter-final from the 1986 World Cup. This game featured drama, a superlative team goal from the Brazilians, and much thoughtful, elegant, purposeful play by both sides.
One thing that was particularly noticeable was that, on several occasions, a French attack was thwarted at the last moment by a smart back-pass. The Brazilian goalkeeper, Carlos, then calmly gathered the ball, bowled it out (usually to one of the full-backs), and Brazil quickly got back into their stride.
What would have happened if the game were being played according to today’s rules? Carlos would have been forced to boot the ball upfield (picking a pass to one of the full-backs would have been very risky), whereupon we could expect a clash of heads, perhaps a foul, and the game would lose its flow.
Is the rescinding of the “back-pass law” one day too much to hope for? Probably. But watching that fluent display of football in Mexico made me really regret that FIFA chose the quick and easy fix, rather than the firm but fair hand, when it came to time-wasting.
Usually I don't look forward to goalkeepers picking up a wayward ball but I have to say that in that 1986 quarter-final, it was indeed more of a start to a potentially constructive piece of play than the end of a move. That was something in particular that hit me. I've always tended to think that was a good move by FIFA to do the back-pass GK handling change but that game gave me second thoughts. I'm with you on this one now.
Another thing to remember is the effect it's had on goalkeepers who aren't too good with the ball at their feet but whose strengths lie in traditional goalkeeping aspects.
Yep, I have you to thank for directing me to it. ;-) Listening to Jimmy Hill is an absolute joy by comparison to the bonehead "expert" commentators you get these days (well, the British ones, anyway), who generally just describe the previous play in case you weren't watching.
...Another thing to remember is the effect it's had on goalkeepers who aren't too good with the ball at their feet but whose strengths lie in traditional goalkeeping aspects....
I don't mind that actually, I think that goalies should be able to operate with the ball at their feet, up to a point (for one thing, I like the way goalies sometimes operate as sweepers outside the box when their team is really pressing - the Dutch keepers (Jongbloed, Menzo, van der Sar etc.) are the experts at this).
Liverpool used to do the same in the late eighties, I seem to recall. But that was sort of my point in the original post: there were regulations dealing with that sort of time-wasting, but the refs were not enforcing them.
It may have gotten rid of that sort of thing, but the backpass law has, IMHO, had a small but significant influence on the increasing physicality of the game these days.
If referees upheld the spirit of the laws of the game, rather than the letter, more often, there would be no need to tinker with them. But history has shown that referees ritually bottle decisions on the fringes of the laws in big matches, and sooner or later FIFA has to step in to change the laws themselves so the referees cannot use cowardly interpetations to stay out of contentious situations. If referees actually upheld a 5-second law for holding the ball in the hands, there would be no need to have the backpass rule in place, many keepers would pick up only when absolutely necessary.