2020 has been a pretty miserable year for most. However, the resumption of professional sports has at least given some respite from the seemingly never-ending series of lockdowns and curfews caused by the Covid pandemic.
The Premier League matches taking place in front of empty stands certainly detracts from the spectacle, and many would like to see at least some fans allowed back into the stadiums. That seems like a faraway ambition right now, but for those of us watching at home the situation is compounded by use of the VAR system which has bordered on farcical at time.
Let’s take a look at the two main points of contention.
The Offside Rule
The offside rule – in one form or another – has been a part of the laws of football since the very beginning. Its purpose is to stop strikers from hanging around their opponents penalty area waiting for balls to be launched to them from all over the park. Without an offside rule, there is a very real danger that football would degenerate into an unseemly mess and where caveman tactics would become the order of the day.
Just in case you need a refresher, here is the rule, as quoted from the FA’s website:
A player is offside if:
- any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and
- any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent
For decades the offside rule had been accepted without (much) complaint. Sure, there have been numerous incorrect calls over the years, but in general people were pretty happy with the way the law was officiated.
However, the introduction of Video Assistant Referees has thrown a spanner in the works. Using VAR, the most infinitesimal of margins are enough for a player to be deemed offside. The example of Liverpool’s late winner being chalked off against Everton is one which is fresh in everybody’s mind, but there will be more as the season progresses.
One thing is certain: the original laws of the game were NEVER intended to punish teams for ‘offsides’ like this one.
The Dutch are widely regarded as a pragmatic people, and their football association has introduced a common-sense approach to the offside rule. They allow a margin of error of 10cm, which if it had been in operation in England would have awarded Henderson his goal for Liverpool. The Premier League are discussing whether to follow the example of their Dutch equivalents, but unfortunately that won’t happen until next season at the earliest.
Now we’ve dealt with the ridiculous interpretations of the offside rule, let’s look at the second VAR-related problem with the laws.
The Handball Rule
I’m guessing that even the most casual of football fans would have predicted that this one would make the hit-list. The interpretation of the handball rule this season has infuriated fans, pundits, players and managers alike. Palace manager Roy Hodgson has stated that the handball rule is ‘killing the game of football’, while Newcastle boss Steve Bruce has called it ‘total nonsense’.
Let’s go back and take a look at the rule which is causing so much controversy. From the 2020/21 season, when the ball hits a defensive player on the arm below the shoulder – regardless of whether it is accidental or not – a foul is caused. Attackers are treated differently, with accidental handballs not penalised unless a goal (or clear scoring opportunity) results immediately afterwards. Since a defensive player is punished for making his body ‘unnaturally bigger’, they must clamp their arms to their side to avoid an attacking player simply blasting the ball at their arm from close range.
Once again, the scrutiny of VAR’s all-seeing eye has resulted in a number of highly-contentious penalty decisions. And again, this interpretation of the handball rule was certainly not what the original lawmakers intended. Why should there be one rule for defenders and another for attackers? A penalty is a huge game-changer, and awarding them for the softest of offences is just not right.
As the BBC’s most prominent sports presenter tweeted:
The Premier League have at least recognised the issue, and have lobbied IFAB (the International Football Association Board) to allow referees to have more discretion in these decisions.
We can only hope that common sense will prevail and that both of these rules will be changed sooner rather than later, so that we can get back to properly enjoying the Beautiful Game.