Football’s laws: Dropped balls, added time and more…

Sarah Winterburn

We finished up last time by talking about the referee, but as we know, there’s more than just one. We’ve got linesmen (now called assistant referees, but I’m too old to change), the fourth official (also known as the DTA, Designated Target of Abuse), and the ‘additional assistant referees’ that in Europe stand close to the goal line and do something useful once a season. They’re all covered in Law 06 – The Other Match Officials.

The first thing we learn is that they have to know their place. The ref has the final word, and ‘in the event of undue interference or improper conduct, the referee will relieve them of their duties and make a report to the appropriate authorities’. I love this: it sounds so intensely British. Can’t you see Mike Dean walking briskly to a rogue assistant referee and announcing, “You’re no gentleman, sir. I relieve you of your duties, and the appropriate authorities will hear about it.” Of course, it doesn’t say how he’ll enforce the law, other than calling out the police.

Next time handbags break out on the pitch, watch the linesmen and see if they enter the field of play to assist the referee. That’s because the law doesn’t explicitly authorise them to do so. It says they can enter the pitch to help keep the players ten yards away in the appropriate situations, but that’s all. It’s probably covered under the blanket ‘they will assist the referee in controlling the match’, but given the explicit ten-yards provision, it’s a strange omission.

The fourth official is one of the sadder figures in sport, particularly in England, where he has to deal with the weather as well as the managers. He can’t run up and down the touchline to keep warm, he can’t wave any flags to keep the circulation going in his arms, and saddest of all he can’t simply belt the managers when he’s had enough.

So what does he get to do? He gets to supervise substitutions and re-entries, supervise replacement balls (which are basically just thrown in by the ballboy, unless Eden Hazard is involved), and hold up that beautiful board with Fergie Time on it. Best of all, he gets to tell the ref of ‘irresponsible behaviour by any technical area occupant’, which likely doesn’t give him much time for his other duties.

Of course, a law about officials wouldn’t be the same without those little yellow and blue men. Surprisingly, the Law 06 pictures are all quite reasonable, until you get to the very last, number 6, which gives you an approved gesture for those additional assistant referees signalling a goal. Go take a look now. Yep, you always knew Captain Hook was an assistant referee at heart.

Law 07 – The Duration of the Match is blissfully simple and straightforward. Two halves of 45 minutes with a maximum 15-minute break at half-time, with time added on at the referee’s discretion for various stoppages, none of which are surprising or controversial. Halves are also extended for penalty-kicks, but not for other restarts. (Paging Clive Thomas, Sweden-Brazil 1978.)
You’ve undoubtedly heard (and read the Mailbox) about the recent IFAB proposal to change to 30-minute halves, with the clock stopped for injuries and other delays. It’s an old idea, with some merit. If you’re wondering which way to come down on the issue, here’s a link to an excellent Statsbomb article on stoppages and added time. It turns out that 90% of games have the ball in play for less than 60 minutes, and the median (Spain excepted) is between 56-57 minutes. So whether or not a 60-minute rule would reduce time-wasting, it’d give us more football, which is an excellent thing.

So would it reduce time-wasting? I can see both sides. Players will take any advantage they can get, so if they sense the ref isn’t stopping the clock enough, they’ll continue to do what they’ve always done. And, as several mailboxers have pointed out, players will still waste time to break up the other side’s momentum. But if the refs really do their job, and players see they’ll gain little if any time advantage, it could make a real difference. It’s probably worth a trial.

On the other hand, I see a couple of clear negatives, which may seem small but are a genuine part of the spectator experience. You’d almost certainly lose the practice – followed fairly consistently in England – of letting the last attack of the half go to its conclusion. That adds a little extra to the game, particularly since a goal on the stroke of half-time changes momentum significantly.

More importantly, I’d hate to lose the tension that comes in waiting for the referee to blow for time. You’re up one goal, nerves taut as a tightrope, begging for the whistle, ready to explode/collapse in joy and relief. Come on, ref, the injury can’t have taken more than 30 seconds! The guy’s wasting time! He’s STILL wasting time! Come on, come on, come on…..YESSSSS!!! If we go to the new system, we’ll probably have to settle for the triumphant countdown on the final seconds “10…9…8…” like in American sports. In some ways it may be more rewarding, but it doesn’t really reflect the inescapable agonies of life.

Law 08 – The Start and Restart of Play is another simple rule, covering kick-offs and dropped balls (other restarts are covered in separate laws). As we know, the kick-off rule has recently been changed to allow backward kick-offs, which is why we now see only one player at the centre spot instead of two. But go back to tapes of the 1966 World Cup (and you shouldn’t need my urging to do so), and you’ll find it was the custom then to have three players around the spot at kick-off. Does anyone know why that was, or why it changed?

The law does manage to lead you down a couple of interesting byways. Because the new version says the kick-off can go backward, the board added a provision that only the kicking team can score a goal from the kick-off. So if you kick it directly into your own goal, it’s not an own goal. So what is it? Believe it or not, the law doesn’t say. Bloated on caviar, champagne, and nonnettes de poulet Agnes Sorel, the board simply forgot to add the relevant provision! Fortunately for the football universe, in the 2017 revision (of which the full text has just been made available), they remedied the omission. It’s a corner-kick. Thrilling.

The other notable provision comes in the dropped ball section:

‘Any number of players may contest a dropped ball (including the goalkeepers); the referee cannot decide who may contest a dropped ball or its outcome.’

Is this epic or what? It’s Everton v West Brom, and Idrissa Gana and Chris Brunt are ready to contest a dropped ball. But suddenly Ronald Koeman orders Ashley Williams into the fray. (Where does he stand? The law imposes no restrictions whatsoever.) Tony Pulis adds Claudio Yacob. Koeman counters with Gareth Barry. And so on until we’ve got a rugby scrum. Meanwhile the ref has somehow to position the players, stop them from elbowing each other, and decide whether he really wants to make a living this way. You know you’d love it.

Oh, and what the heck is that ‘or its outcome’ at the end of the sentence? It was added in 2016, and in the section where new provisions are explained…isn’t. Not for the first time in this series, I don’t have a clue.

Law 09 – The Ball In and Out of Play is the shortest law in the book, a mere 69 words, and doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t always known. But to one raised on American sports, and basketball in particular, the primary provision seems odd.

The law says the ball is out of play when the whole of the ball passes over the line on the ground or in the air. But it’s hard enough judging when the ball is over the line on the ground – can a ref reliably spot when it’s over the line in the air? Why not go with the basketball rule, which keeps the ball in play until it actually touches the ground outside the lines?

Not only would this rule be easier for officials, it would 1) lead to a few less stoppages; 2) allow for occasional spectacular gymnastics to keep the ball in play; 3) make corner-kicks a bit more interesting, since dead-ball experts could curve the ball behind the goal line and thus provide more attacking options. Not a huge change, perhaps, but by no means absurd.

We’re approaching some heavy duty laws now, so we’ll close for today. Next time, Law 10 – Determining the Outcome of a Match (lots of stuff on penalty shootouts), Law 11 – Offside, and probably a start on the big one, Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct.

Peter Goldstein