What Happened To The Beautiful Game?

By Howard Hockin | 30 September 2020
Howard wonders if technology and rule changes are ruining football.

During a global pandemic it is natural that you may see certain things differently, at least temporarily. You may reassess what is important in life and your views may be shaped and distorted by events outs of your control. So perhaps what I am about to say is only relevant to the here and now, or at least I hope so. Because there is no doubt about it – I am rapidly falling out of love with football.

OK, let’s be clear from the start, that some love will always be there. It can go up and down, but there is nothing that could happen that would extinguish completely my love for the sport I have followed since I was old enough to understand what was going on. I’ll think about it day-in, day-out, I’ll argue online about it, my mood will be determined by it much of the time. But what is also clear is that my current enthusiasm for both my football club’s results and what happens in the wider world of football is severely dented right now. Perhaps more than ever before. And despite all the terrible things going on in the world, there is only one direction I wish to target my ire. And that is at the sport’s law makers. Because slowly and surely, they are ripping apart the beautiful game.

There’s always been good things and bad things about football. You get on with it, even if not everything is to your liking. But recently, the feeling has crept up on me that a line has been crossed, one that I am not confident will be reversed. And it all boils down to the bizarre, unappetising game experience that is now served up to us. To write this now may seem like sour grapes, the actions of a jilted boyfriend. How convenient that I question my love for football just after a demoralising defeat coming off the back of an underwhelming season. Just like the United fans that mysteriously fell out of love with football and their Facebook accounts too after Alex Ferguson retired and they could no longer lord it over everyone else. It’s easier to love football when your team is doing well. But it’s a seemingly innocuous adjustment to the handball laws that has made me write this, it feels like a near-final straw. Not being able to go to matches for now has certainly amplified my feelings, which will no doubt calm down in time. But I’ve felt this way for a while, having whinged about handball rules for years now. And it’s not about City. I’m getting as frustrated watching other games as I am watching my own.

There’s always been debate over handballs in the penalty area of course. This is nothing new. But this is much, much worse. Personally, and I say it without any hyperbole on my part, it is destroying the game I love. Literally removing my enjoyment of a game that has been one of my few constants in life, along with family and crisps. Now this is hyperbole, but it seems It’s now easier to win and score a penalty than it is to score a normal goal. And if you miss the penalty, hopefully the keeper had his foot an inch in front of the line, so you can have another go. Or let one of your teammates have a turn, it’s up to you.

The new-ish laws set out by IFAB cannot be looked at until next March, but the pathetic interpretation of them by the Premier League certainly can, so let’s hope common sense prevails. I wonder if other leagues even see them as an issue though? I mean, unnatural arm position?! Really, what a pile of tripe. Just decide if they deliberately handled the ball, or deliberately made themselves bigger with their arms to block a route to goal. Otherwise, just play on, it’s not important. You expect Eric Dier to jump for a ball with his arms glued to his side? It’s all utter bull crap. Naturally, the same rules do not apply to attackers right now, as goals are king it seems. Just look at the Chelsea equaliser against West Brom. The handball by Havertz in the lead up to the goal is now allowed, according to the laws. But an offside wouldn’t be. Not would a handball by a defender instead of an attacker. What a staggering, odious mess the game has become. 

There have always been bad decisions. But we realised that they were made by a human in the heat of the moment. VAR though has single-handedly stripped the emotion out of the most pivotal moment of a football match, the essence of the sport, the ball hitting the back of the net. To accept a system that destroys that, we must insist that it at least eradicates inconsistency, mistakes and unfairness. It must bring something good to the table. It has done nothing of the sort, though I accept that the stats will show some mistakes eradicated. For offsides, it can work. A clear push by an attacker missed by the ref, likewise. But this new handball ruling? It is all down to VAR. These series of stupid new interpretations that then have to be modified once their disastrous consequences are unleashed on the beautiful game are all designed to make the decisions of a referee in a portacabin or a referee pitch-side staring at a screen easier to make, at the expense of fairness and logic. You wonder if many of those implementing such rule changes have ever stepped foot on a pitch, or even into a stadium.

Penalties are simply too easy to win now. This season will see all previous records for penalties awarded smashed with months to spare, and should we accept that? Do you think players have suddenly become much dirtier, hacking down opposition players in the penalty area with relish? Of course not. You only have to breathe within 5 yards of certain players for them to fall to the floor as if they had been gunned down in a Vietnamese jungle, whilst clutching their knee. Why was it acceptable to shift the game so much to the advantage of attackers? Were we all so bored that things needed to be spiced up?  Defenders have already been playing much of the time close to goal with their hands behind their back, and now they’ve been given new obstacles to overcome. Penalties should be hard earned, not handed out like inhalers in a Liverpool dressing room. What is this obsession with arms and hands? Why the sudden need to offer a team an 80% chance of a goal because a ball flicked off a certain part of a body accidentally?

City’s trio of defenders were utterly stupid to concede those 3 penalties on Sunday, as Jamie Vardy and colleagues played them like a kipper. And according to the laws of the game as they currently stand, they were all penalties, though Mendy’s was almost identical to the Paul Pogba penalty awarded correctly overturned the previous day. But when did we blindly accept that this is just part of football? When was contact deemed a foul? When was sticking a leg out to “initiate” contact considered clever rather than the blatant cheating that it clearly is? Did I miss a memo? This isn’t the sport I fell in love with as a child, and I fell in love with football in the 1980s, and if you could love football in that decade, then anything is possible. Thus we see one week Crystal Palace benefit from a ridiculous penalty decision. The next week they lose a match to an equally stupid call. There is no football god, so these things do not even themselves out, unless by pure chance. So many results will now hang on a decision of a referee. A decision that a VAR system is then reluctant to overturn, keen not to undermine the precious referees. We’ve been here before, once more involving VAR. The ridiculous situation of the game being effectively run on the whims of a weasel ex-referee whose catastrophic interpretation of VAR regulations and interpretations for the Premier League have made a mockery of the game. 

Penalties will decide league titles, relegations, will change clubs’ histories. At a time when many clubs wonder if they will still exist by the end of the season, many fans will be shaking their heads at my whining, understandably. But I cannot emphasise enough how much damage I think the sport has taken and may still take by the direction it has taken in recent years to utilise video technology and the rule changes brought in to accommodate it. It feels like a game changer. One of football’s great plus factors, like many sports, is its unpredictability. Sport would be boring if the favourite always won. But that unpredictability comes from an amazing goal out of nowhere, a terrible mistake that turns a game, the underdog fighting for its life and pulling off a momentous victory. It’s not quite as joyous when games are decided on whether a ball heading harmlessly towards a goalkeeper grazed the elbow of an unsuspecting defender or not. I’d get more entertainment from Mrs Browns Boys than a game decided this way. And I don’t say that lightly.

I was a supporter of VAR when it was introduced. Now I am reduced to agreeing with Richard Keys, which is quite the fall from grace. VAR can still work, it’s just a piece of technology after all. It is its implementation and selective use leading to wild inconsistencies and unfairness that has proved its undoing, plus the need to fiddle with the laws of the game in a desperate attempt to make it function better. And the unforeseen (by me, at least) consequence of it stripping away many of the basic emotions of a football match.

With no access to stadiums for a year or so, and a global pandemic that has changed all our lives, many have reassessed their own situation, and their priorities. I know for a fact that many long-term match goers will not return to grounds even when it is safe to do so. They have seen another life, away from weekends and some midweeks revolving around going to the match. They were faltering before a man ate a bat thousands of miles away. The sanitisation of the game and the “matchday experience” did not sit well with them. The TV companies won’t mind, as this is a great opportunity for them to develop the TV experience. The Premier League may get twitchy at the thoughts of empty seats, but if the money keeps rolling in and the brand survives, and it will, they’ll get over it. Now for me, video technology and the recent insane rule changes that lead to endless replays, penalties and crazy score lines, is simply one more step towards a TV sport. A sport that was epitomised by the noise of the crowd, the thrill of the ground, the raucous away end, the bad language, singing, chants, raw emotion, the ups and downs. So as we all watch the sport at home with piped in fan noise, goal music and video assistance, we are now witnessing little more than a simulation. All now coming direct to your couch – and it’s live.
How depressing is that?

That is not to say football should be shaped entirely for the benefit of match-goers. No one goes to all games, and many of us can’t go to any games, due to money or logistics. The sport should be for all. But when the last people to know what is going on during a VAR review are those in the stadium, then something is seriously wrong.

Thankfully it seems the Premier League have realised the stupidity of the situation and have tweaked the advice to referees for interpreting the IFAB directives. But we’ve been here before. How many times is this going to happen? A stupid new rule is implemented before panicked meetings and hasty backtracking. Rinse and repeat. An endless Groundhog Day of taking a step backwards then hoping to take one forward to undo the damage. And these backtracks are of little consolation for those that have already suffered – there’s no backdating any updated rules.

Look, it’s easy to be down right now. The world is a mess, there’s a white supremacist in charge of the world’s most powerful country, and as for Boris – well you can decide that for yourself, this is a football blog. And the football seems less important than ever because there is no one there to cheer on the sides, apart from squad players, staff and the odd chairman. And the thought of Liverpool dominating the league again is not helping, admittedly. But it’s not just that. One day, stadiums will be full again. One day, City will be the best team in the land and all the world. And it still won’t be the same if games are not won by flowing moves and who plays best. Because this circus cannot continue. It’s not football. It’s not the most important thing right now – not even close. Premier League clubs should be focusing on helping lower league teams exist, rather than turning a blind eye, or scouting for a new left-back. Or they could do both. But while it is not the most important issue right now, it feels it to me. It feels, honestly, like the game is changing, and to something I barely recognise. So I hope that when I finally leave a football stadium again, the talk is about football, about wonderful pieces of skill, drama and all the things that made us fall in love with football. And not a slo-mo replay of a ball hitting an armpit. We deserve better than this.