By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 19, 2020) US Soccer Players - A quick litmus test. When you hear the phrase "rules changes" in the context of soccer, what's your first reaction? If your answer is suspicion, disgust, concern, or anything along those lines, you've generally got plenty of company in this sport, where tradition tends to hold sway.
Soccer was one of the last major professional sports to embrace replay technology, for example, in the form of Video Assistant Referees. Brutally physical play, what most modern viewers would consider dirty, was allowed, some would say even encouraged for decades and has only recently fallen out of fashion. Even the uniforms have changed relatively little over the past half-century or so. In the increasingly overpriced world of footwear, some of the most popular options on the market are essentially designs from your father or grandfather's era.
When to stick with what's known and when it's time to evolve. That's an old and knotty question, especially when it comes to the text and interpretation of the proudly minimalist laws of the game. The suspicion is that we'll be wrestling with it again over the next few months.
England's Premier League returned to play this week after its COVID-19 shutdown. Italy's Serie A will do the same over the weekend, following in the footsteps of La Liga, the German Bundesliga, and other competitions across the globe. As the number of games cranks up, the impact of the rule changes approved by FIFA and IFAB, the entity charged with defining and maintaining the laws of the game, seems to be coming into clearer focus.
Those two bodies have allowed the use of five substitutions per team in the short-term. The reason is obvious due to the pandemic compacting schedules over the summer. It's one of several concessions made to post-COVID realities. Authorities are also permitting larger gameday rosters. They're taking a more liberal approach to the transfer window and accompanying registration requirements, like how many clubs a player can play for in a given season. UEFA is even loosening its Financial Fair Play regulations to give cash-strapped clubs more leeway.
The current circumstances are unprecedented and temporary. At least that's what governing bodies are saying. Coaches are still limited to three "opportunities to make substitutions" plus halftime, in a bid to maintain match tempo and head off the abuse of subs for time-wasting. Still, some purists are unsettled. They fear a dilution of the beautiful game's timeless character. The insidious influence of television and the economic considerations it carries are common targets for suspicion.
The subs rule is probably the most foundational element here. Yes, American soccer audiences are accustomed to freer comings and goings thanks to our youth and college systems. Yet for most the limitations imposed at the professional and international levels are seen as classic features that elevate and protect rhythm, skill, and strategy. It's usually not a compliment to describe a game as a track meet.
Some underdogs have lamented that this will allow richer and more established clubs to cultivate roster depth and overwhelm the opponent with numbers and quality. On the brighter side, it opens up new opportunities for youngsters and fringe players to show their worth. It also adds a wrinkle to tactical and positional battles between coaches. In coldly capitalistic terms, soccer can afford to let its matches run a little longer as long as the overall product still fits into a two-hour TV window. It's not a bad time to question the dogma underneath the status quo.
Substitutions of any kind weren't sanctioned in soccer until the 1950s, and initially solely for injured players. They didn't make it to the World Cup until 1970, despite having been cleared for use in qualifying more than a decade prior. Back then, the old-school stance was that this newfangled subs business was a weakening of the fitness and ferocity required to keep the pace for 90-plus minutes.
Fast-forward to today, and the idea of 22 players going the distance in every single game sounds ludicrous. That's especially true given the relentless physical demands placed on their bodies and the high value applied to said bodies. A few years ago, the decision to open up a fourth substitute option in extra time of knockout matches seemed like a logical concession to this, with the added benefit of the potential for a little extra drama.
So are five subs really such a travesty? Does an overarching attitude of flexibility and pragmatism on the part of FIFA and IFAB need an expiration date? Guardrails are already in place by restricting the number of moments to make subs. Giving individual leagues and associations some choice in these matters leaves some room for traditionalists in seats of power.
IFAB's phrasing bears attention. "The temporary amendment comes into force with immediate effect, and has been made as matches may be played in a condensed period in different weather conditions, both of which could have impacts on player welfare," it reads.
So here's the question. If we accept that games "in a condensed period" and "in different weather conditions" demonstrably affect "player welfare," then why limit all this to the coronavirus context? Fixture congestion is a well-established issue around the world. MLS and USL are obvious examples of leagues that play regularly in the hot conditions alluded to here, and they're hardly the only ones. Why draw an arbitrary line when these challenges run deeper than one crisis?
The sport's elite power brokers might not be interested in this conversation. Questioning one law tends to lead to the reevaluation of others in short order. IFAB, in particular, looks vulnerable to reassessment. It's a throwback composed of FIFA representatives and the four federations of Great Britain in a nod to the game's ancestral roots. Current times may need more from soccer governance. The balancing act between soccer as entertainment product and soccer as cultural legacy will continue. So should the conversation about the rule allowances of 2020.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- "MLSificiation" in Mexico? Liga MX wrestles with problems old and new
- MLS’s new deal with its players union, and what it may truly cost
- Observations from the Bundesliga’s return to play
- Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT at the 18-month mark
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