Football’s laws: The ball and the players…

Sarah Winterburn

It’s the second in Peter G’s series on the laws of the game. Miss the first one? You’re a fool…

If there’s anything about football which we take for granted, it’s the ball itself. Of course the primary purpose of the ball is to carry advertising, but give or take a Jabulani or two, we can also rely on it to allow our heroes to engage in their supremely heroic endeavours.

For the most part Law 02 – The Ball is like that: solid, dependable, without much to get excited about. We find that the ball has to be spherical, and circumference and weight have to be within a narrow range. We also get the same vague standard as with the posts, in that the ball has to be made of ‘suitable material’, without any guidance as to what that might be.

There’s one surprise lurking in the specifications, though. The pressure can be anything between 0.6 to 1.1 atmospheres at sea level, or 8.5 to 15.6 psi. That’s a truly extraordinary range. For comparison, an NBA basketball has to be within 7.5 and 8.5 psi, an NFL football within 12.5 and 13.5 psi. (NFL fans can insert the obligatory New England Patriots joke here.) It makes sense to have a wide range of pitch dimensions, since available play areas may vary considerably. But anyone with a pump and pressure gauge can fill a ball properly with air.

I’m guessing the clue is in the phrase ‘at sea level’. Football is played at a wide variety of altitudes, and maybe the rule exists so you can adjust the pressure of the ball based on how high you are. The lower the pressure, the shorter the ball will travel, so you might want a less inflated ball at higher altitudes, where it’s going to travel farther anyway. But someone with a better knowledge of the science might have a better answer.

We do get to have some fun near the end of the rule, where we’re told what to do when the ball becomes ‘defective’. Once more this isn’t defined, although obviously this includes when it won’t roll, tends to swerve past your keeper unexpectedly, or comes off the foot of Simone Zaza.

If the ball becomes defective, the re-start comes from the point where the ball became defective, unless it arises from a dead ball situation, in which case you have a re-take. But the penalty kick has a special provision:

‘If the ball becomes defective during a penalty kick or kicks from the penalty mark as it moves forward and before it touches a player, crossbar or goalposts the penalty kick is retaken.’

Spotted the loophole? What if the ball deflates after it hits the hand of the keeper and is still moving toward the goal? I’m imagining Thibaut Courtois with a spring-blade dagger, à la Sir Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, puncturing the ball as he moves to tip it. And loophole aside, I’m also imagining a sniper in row X shooting down any ball that looks like it’s going in.

Law 03 – The Players is a cornucopia of provisions on the proper number of players and substitutes, how and when their names must be officially submitted, how to send in a substitute, and what to do when someone wanders on the field who’s not supposed to be there.

We know that in competitive matches you get three substitutes, with the FA Cup currently trialling a fourth substitute in extra-time. For international friendlies you’re limited to six, a provision added in 2004. But for more informal matches, such as money-spinning club friendlies in Asia, you get as many as you can agree upon beforehand, up to a maximum of 12. It’s such a strange number – why not 11? Maybe they’re contemplating 23-man squads, along the lines of international tournaments?

Anyway, we know that there are a lot of things FIFA don’t like: taking off your shirt after scoring a goal, complaints about Qatar, and financial transparency. But something they REALLY don’t like is ‘return substitutions’, allowing someone who’s come off to go back on later in the game:

‘The use of return substitutions is only permitted in the lowest levels (grassroots/recreational) of football, subject to the agreement of the national football association.’

Can you feel the disdain in that ‘lowest levels’? And when you’re playing with your mates, make sure you get a signed and notarised document from the FA allowing John back on the pitch if Jack breaks his leg. Sheesh.

A nice little bit of hairsplitting appears in the provision that ‘substitutes can take any restart provided they first enter the field of play’. So if the new substitute wants to take a throw-in right at the halfway line, he has to step on the field first (is one step enough? It doesn’t say) and then step right back off, thus providing the perfect gif.

Imagine you’re José Mourinho. It’s the last week of the season, and a win means Champions League qualification (I was going to say the title, but baby steps and all that). You’re playing Stoke City, a side that like to keep the ball on the carpet, and you expect Saido Berahino to start up top. So you name Jesse Lingard starting and Marouane Fellaini on the bench. But Mark Hughes fools you, starting Peter Crouch, who you thought was injured. So you tell Fellaini to start the game instead of Lingard, without telling the referee. The referee figures it out. What’s the punishment?

Nothing. No one gets a yellow card, Fellaini gets to play, Lingard can come on as a substitute later if needed, you still get three substitutions, and the game goes on. After the game the referee reports the incident to the ‘appropriate authorities’, and that’s that. Imagine the very plausible scenario that Fellaini scores with a header in the first minute and then you park the bus for a 1-0 victory. If you claim an honest mistake, would the league decree a forfeit? Dock points? Levy a fine, which would be meaningless?

One of my very favorite phrases in the laws involves touchline personnel. You name your team officials (physio, assistant coaches, etc.), and they go on the official list. And then: ‘Anyone not named on the team list as a player, substitute or team official is an outside agent.’ Oh yes.

It’s worth a laugh, but outside agents can be dangerous. The law says that if any player not in the currently-playing 11, or a team official, interferes with play, the restart is a direct free-kick, or if appropriate, penalty-kick. But if an outside agent interferes with play, the restart is only a dropped ball.

The problem is obvious. If you’ve hired someone not on the team list to do your bidding, they can interfere in the penalty area and all that happens is a dropped ball. As long as you’ve laundered the money properly (and what self-respecting club owner doesn’t have that kind of experience?), you can get away with it. Outside agent, man!

By the way, note that the law says ‘anyone’ not on the team list is an outside agent, implying a person. In fact, the Glossary which accompanies the laws explicitly defines an outside agent as a person. So if it’s not a person, but an object (to pick an example totally at random, a beachball), what happens? When that particular brand of spheroid entered the field of play at the Stadium of Light in October of 2009, many reports afterwards classified it under the laws as an outside agent. But if there’s one thing in this crazy world I’m confident of, it’s that a beachball is not a person. Of course the drafters of the laws could very easily have written ‘anyone or anything’, but they didn’t. In fact, non-human interferences are covered in Law 05, and in these cases are treated exactly as outside agents.

Whoever or whatever does the interfering, there’s an interesting qualification:

‘If a ball is going into the goal and the interference does not prevent a defending player playing the ball, the goal is awarded if the ball enters the goal (even if contact was made with the ball) unless the ball enters the opponents’ goal.’

This is pretty complicated, but it seems to give a fairly strong advantage to the attacking team. Striker shoots, hireling or beachball deflects, keeper can still play it but, understandably distracted, fumbles it into the goal – goal counts? After all, the keeper wasn’t ‘prevented’ from playing the ball. I suspect the ref would still disallow the goal, though.

One more thing: how about that last clause? If the ball is going into the goal but the interference causes it to go into the opponents’ goal, it doesn’t count. How often will someone bring a bazooka onto the pitch?

We’ll close appropriately with the very last provision of Law 03, undoubtedly the most ridiculous provision in the entire Laws of the Game (and probably all the other games, too):

10. Team captain

The team captain has no special status or privileges but has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of the team.’

Nothing more. No guidelines for captains, no descriptions of behaviours, no punishments of any kind. What you see is what you get. You don’t need me to tell you how monumentally silly this is.

“JT, you’ve got the armband today. The Community Shield is important.”

“Right, gaffer.”

“No special privileges, but the guys are counting on you.”

“Right, gaffer.”

“You’re responsible for their behaviour.”

“Um – what?”

“Not completely, you know, but to a degree.”

“Um – what degree?”

“No idea, but you’re responsible.”

“But gaffer, what if Diego Costa grabs Koscielny’s nose and twists it? He does that sort of thing all the time. Last week in training…”

“JT, responsible. To a degree. Now go out there and if we win maybe I’ll let you lift the trophy.”

Peter Goldstein