Making sense of the law

A foul is a foul, especially if it prevents a probable goal, and in any case how is the referee to divine whether it was malicious or not? He can hardly be expected to double as a mind reader.

"The law is an ass," said Reading's shrewd and experienced manager, Steve Coppell, after his team had just beaten Fulham on a penalty kick at Craven Cottage, an incident which also resulted in the sending off of the offender, the Fulham centre-back Ian Pearce. What had happened was that Doyle, the lively Reading centre forward, had cut into the penalty area to be brought down from behind by Pearce. Under the laws of the game that constituted the denial of a goal scoring chance, which meant, in turn, that Pearce had automatically to be expelled. So Doyle himself converted the penalty kick, and Fulham were obliged to play the bulk of the game with 10 men.

Coppell then had every sympathy for Fulham though he, like his fellow manager Chris Coleman of Fulham, agreed that it should have been a penalty. Coleman was infuriated, declaring that the referee Dermot Gallagher should have used his discretion and allowed Pearce to stay on, since there was no malice behind his foul.

But had either manager a case? `Dura lex sed lex' was the ancient Roman expression; a hard law but the law. It was initially brought in by the Football Association, enacting that when the foul was committed by a defender who was the last man on an attacker with a clear chance of a goal, that is to say when a so called professional foul were committed, then it should be punished with expulsion. In the initial instance, FIFA in fact overruled the FA and the new rule was abolished, but in due course FIFA thought again and it was universally imposed.

A good thing too, in my opinion, since from time immemorial defenders had got away with cynical fouls of that kind. The point being that no mention of a penalty kick or the penalty area was made; these fouls could well take place outside the box and in fact so often did. The point being that a defender knew that were he to foul an opponent with a scoring chance outside the box rather than in it, he would get away with conceding merely a free kick and perhaps a yellow card. That a goal-denying foul be committed in the actual penalty box was in essence neither here nor there. Double jeopardy, you might say, but then that was surely something which the perpetrator should have taken into consideration.

What both Coppell and Coleman were implicitly demanding was that in the case of a penalty award, the rule be waived, and the offending player allowed to stay on the field. Special pleading, surely.

Coleman insisted that there was no malice in Pearce's foul and that if there had been a penalty would justly have been awarded and Pearce sent off into the bargain. Very special pleading. What pray does malice have to do with it? A foul is a foul, especially if it prevents a probable goal, and in any case how is the referee to divine whether it was malicious or not? He can hardly be expected to double as a mind reader.

A few days earlier Michel Platini, a famed star of the French and Juventus midfield in his day now hoping to dethrone Lennart Johansson as the President of UEFA, admitted that he was the man behind the major change in a rule which forbade goalkeepers to handle the ball when it had been passed back rather than headed back to them. He also sympathised with the hapless England goalkeeper Paul Robinson who had recently conceded a dreadful goal in Zagreb against Croatia when trying to kick a ball which spun past him off a divot.

This rule has always seemed to me quite redundant and I said as much when it was initially passed and discussed at a meeting of the law making International Board in Newport, Wales. I told Sepp Blatter, then on the Board and the main man seemingly behind the new dispensation, that there was absolutely no need for it at all since there was a perfectly decent law already to deal with such contingencies; which stipulated that a foul be given against players, goalkeepers included, for time wasting. A smiling Blatter responded that though the rule did indeed exist, it wasn't being applied, which made no kind of sense to me at all. The obvious answer was that it should be applied and that referees should be obliged and urged to apply it.

Gary Lineker at around that time made the relevant point that the game is being speeded up at the very time it needed to be slowed down. And how much time has it actually saved? Unless under challenge from an opponent, goalkeepers, once obliged to clear the ball within seconds when they had it in their hands, now tend to trundle it up to and beyond the penalty box before kicking it clear.

Strange now to think that the massively important change in the offside law in 1925, whereby it took only two rather than three opponents to put an attacker onside, was almost perfunctorily changed after just one experiment at Highbury with the old law used in one half, the new one in the other. FIFA meekly fell into step with the FA and soccer was dramatically altered forever.

Quite recently the unwritten and therefore utterly confusing law whereby when a team in possession of the ball put it out so an injured opponent could be treated — a grey area indeed and open to abuse when a team then failed to give the ball back to the team which had conceded the throw in — was rejected by the Board. In future, the practice should be stopped, to the extent that the ball did not have to be given back. But there is still some confusion.