Saving The Beautiful Game: A Radical Revision of the Rules of Football

Nearly 25 years have passed since Diego Maradona scored the infamous “hand of God” goal that took England out of the World Cup in1986. A few months before the World Cup in South Africa, Thierry Henry, the French striker, flagrantly used his hand in a play that led to a goal against Ireland disqualifying the Irish from participation in that tournament. In between these two incidences referees have presided over a myriad of questionable calls and missed opportunities.

Football has changed significantly over the last decades as evidenced in the physiological characteristics of the players. Today’s players are taller, faster, stronger and more powerful than their predecessors. They have an overall higher physiological capacity and thus the ability to cover more ground in less time. The dimensions of the pitch have not changed to compensate for the physiological changes. Consequently, the field became congested. It offers less space for stars like Diego Maradona or Zinedine Zidane to leave their mark as they did in years past.

The rules of the game have not evolved alongside these physiological changes. The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the laws of the game, comprised of representatives from each of the United Kingdom’s pioneering football associations, and from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football’s powerful international governing body, have been slow to adapt. Teams play a very physical, regimented, defense-oriented game, relying heavily on tactical schemes and formations. At times it can be hard to watch the excessive defensive nature of games in a pitch that has become increasingly congested.

No rules have been passed to create more space or open up the pitch and make the game more offensive in nature. When a player is sent off with a red card, the game completely changes. Suddenly, space is brought back to the game. Players are able to use their innate talent and ability to really demonstrate their skills.

Every sport evolves with time: technically, tactically and physically. There are many ideas that FIFA could look into in order to redress some of the problems the game is confronted with presently. Simultaneously, the rules of any sport should be revised to accommodate these changes.

Take for example, the case with the National Football League, the governing body of American football, which has a much more progressive approach as evidenced by the constant revisement of its rules in order to make the sport safer, fairer and more entertaining. In contrast, FIFA has not made a major alteration to the laws of the game in years. The fact that FIFA has done so little so far to reverse such situation or at least promote a thorough examination of the rules of the game is simply inexcusable.

The game requires a major revolutionary facelift in the core of its rules in order to address issues related to the new physiological characteristics of the players, missed calls, excessive stoppage time, incessant fouling, low scoring and violence. Below you will find a series of straight forward suggestions in various domains of the game that may revitalize the sport in a way that would allow us to call this Godsend sport, the beautiful game once again.

The Clock/Timing Device Problem

Statistical and data analysis from the last World Cup show that the average playing time during the first and second round of competition was only 54 minutes. All viewers of international football these days know that excessive faking of injury and fouling is killing the game.

Winning teams have all the incentives to stop play, waste time and consequently run the clock out. Some players are so gifted in the art of faking injury that they may potentially be better off on a Broadway stage or with a major acting career in Hollywood. How many times does one see players faking the most horrible injury then only a few seconds later storm back in the field at full speed as if nothing happened? The ridiculous and pernicious theatrics of these actions should be curbed and punished.

Currently the clock does not stop and a few minutes of injury time is given at the end of the match. In the proposed new system of rules, the countdown timing device would be visible for all to see and the game time would stop every instance there is a foul, an injured player on the pitch, a corner kick or a free throw. Therefore, the game time should be adjusted to account for the stoppage. Rather than two 45 minute halves, the game would have two 35 minute halves with no extra injury time. During the last World Cup, fans were only watching about 27 minutes of actual playing time in each half. With the new system, total playing time would be extended. Readjusting the time of each half would be necessary since stoppage within the construct of two 45 minute -halves would be too onerous.

An official time keeper outside the field would start and stop the clock based upon the command of the main referee inside the pitch. The new timing rules would be a major incentive in resuscitating and preserving the fluid nature of the game since there would be no benefit for players to waste time.

Extra Referees

Modern football play takes place at an unprecedented pace. A single referee inside the pitch has a challenging task of covering a sizeable area and therefore is required to maintain a respectable fitness level. Sports such as basketball have three officials circulating a court that is significantly smaller in area than a football pitch.

Referees are human and obviously make mistakes and cannot see all that is happening on the field. Research shows for example, that referees call more fouls against the visiting team, and against bigger players.

Currently, the main referee inside the pitch is supported by only two linesmen. Placing additional referees on the field – one on each half of the pitch and behind each goal watching the activity inside the penalty box – would address many of the issues related to missed calls. There have been reports that FIFA currently is deliberating possibilities into adding extra referees.


Players diving in theater-like fashion inside the penalty box attempting to confuse referees into awarding them a penalty kick should be immediately red carded and suspended for two matches.

Consequently, the team committing such an offense inside the penalty box would be required to play with a man down for the rest of the match and would also be subject to a penalty kick. Furthermore, diving in other sections of the field would result in immediate expulsion from the match.

Such flagrant and farcical acting makes a mockery of the rules of the game. Therefore, rigorous penalties should be enforced. These rules would convince players to think twice before engaging in such unsportsmanlike behavior.

The Offside Rule

The offside rule in football is probably the most difficult to enforce with precision and one that is greatly under-appreciated. The rule needs to be reformed, yet not completely abolished as some suggest. Without the rule the whole tactical element of the game would be turned upside down and the game would be played in a completely different fashion. Moreover, goal hangers, positioning themselves deep down field in close proximity to the opposition’s goal, would be potentially commonplace in a completely stretched-out pitch.

Reforms to the rule would include the creation of a newly demarcated attacking zone at both ends of the field.  A dotted line would be drawn in between the midfield line and the top of the penalty box.  The offside region (attacking zone) would be the space in between the goal line and the newly created dotted line.  Limiting the offside area would create more open space in the field of play and potentially lead to more goals being scored.

Rethinking Fouls

The yellow/red card booking system of the game requires adjustment. There are three categories of fouls in soccer depending partly on whether the offense is careless, reckless or the result of using excessive force.

Ambiguity reigns in the way different referees make use of the yellow card and interpret a play involving a foul. The application and use of the yellow card should be abolished.

A different system in which a certain number of accumulated team fouls would lead to a given player being sent off for an extended amount of time is worth consideration. For example, every time a team commits five fouls they would be punished by the removal of one player off the field for ten minutes and have to defend a penalty kick against them.

All match play fouls and other offenses meriting a yellow card would just count toward the accumulated collective team foul number. The current criteria in place for red card offenses would just continue to be applied in the new system.

Forcing teams to play a man down for 10 minutes every time they commit five fouls collectively would go along way in addressing the issue of excessive stop of play due to fouling and the problem of lack of space that characterizes modern football. No matter what rule you have in place fouls will always be committed. With the new rule teams more than likely would always play parts of the match with a man down since the lower threshold of five collective fouls would always be met. The proposed change would open up space in the pitch more frequently over the course of a game and the brilliance of individual play would once again reign.

The rule is a win-win situation since hypothetically even if a team did not commit any fouls the game would still benefit since there would be less stoppage time and brilliance of individual play would be less targeted physically. Committing fouls would surely turn out to be a huge liability if some of these changes were implemented.

Technology/Instant Replay: A Philosophical Issue

The use of instant replay has been debated over the last several years. It is one that has to be approached with much caution and deliberation since making use of it would fundamentally destroy the philosophical essence of the beautiful game.

Daily living and football play are characterized by a continuous stream of potentially fateful events that cannot be turned back and where there is no reversal of fortunes. To disrupt this essential philosophical dynamic of the game is unnatural, nonhuman and defies the omnipotence of God. It’s a recourse that we do not have in life and we should not have in match play.

A football match – just as life – draws on competing themes such as justice, injustice, victory, defeat, happiness, sadness, tragedy and exhilaration. The complexity and drama surrounding such powerful emotional concepts gives the game a mystical and magical aura. The lure and mystery of the unknown is a central element at the core of daily living and of play in football. The outcome of a game is uncertain and that constant state of unpredictability is what makes football so dramatic, captivating and the passion of the masses.

The excessive use of instant replay, as in other sports such as American football, would be a shot to the heart of soccer, disruptive to the fluid nature of the game and lead to a monotonous character that is prevalent in every other sport that abuses such recourse. American football is characterized by multiple set plays interspersed with a series of stoppage intervals and is not played in a fluid continuous fashion. The concept of instant replay is surely more transferable and less disruptive to the nature of American football than to the fluid nature of soccer.

Bill Shankly, the legendary Scottish manager, once said, “Football is a much more serious matter than life and death.” It is about time that FIFA takes a closer look at the laws governing the beautiful game. The fact that football’s governing body has been extremely conservative and slow to act in pushing for significant changes is unacceptable and at times puts the game to shame. The archaic laws of the game now in place have not advanced concomitantly with the changing physiological capacity of the players and for that the beauty of the sport has taken a beating. Someone high up in the echelons of the football power structure should heed the call for change and usher the game to a new frontier.

The author Ricardo Guerra is an Exercise Physiologist. He has a Masters of Science in Sports Physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several clubs and teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams. The writer can be contacted at [email protected].

Arrow to top