Monday, 19 June 2017

Further changes proposed that could change the face of football

I've written a couple of times recently about changes being mooted that aim to improve the entertainment value and fairness of football (see "Will penalty shoot-out changes make any difference to England?" and "A game of four quarters?"). Now some more tweaks have been suggested, by Ifab - the International Football Association Board. Will these improve the game, make it worse, or have no effect whatsoever if they were brought in?

30 minute halves

This is the proposal that has attracted most of the headlines. The idea, counter-intuitively, is to increase the amount of playing time. The logic is that there are so many stoppages in play during two 45 minute halves that the clock should be stopped a lot more often than at present, for example when the ball goes out of play, waiting for a free-kick or penalty to be taken or when booking players. With the clock only ticking when the ball is in play, the idea is that game-time would be clear for everyone to see. We would then not be left wondering how long will be added on for stoppage time or go home feeling short-changed. It would also discourage time-wasting.

However, whilst all of this makes sense, why reduce the length of the half to 30 minutes. Ifab claims that there are only about 60 minutes of playing time in an average "90 minute" match at present, so 60 minutes of play outside of interruptions doesn't actually help does it? Perhaps two 40 minute halves would work.

Linking the stadium clock to the ref's watch

To complement the idea of the clock stopping every time there's a delay in play, the stadium clock could be linked to the ref's watch so we can all see when it's running and when it's not, and exactly how long is left. It works in rugby and other sports, and makes perfect sense for football.

In other words, no more Fergie time.

No follow-ups from penalties

If a penalty kick is saved, rather than the attacking team having the chance to follow-up the ref would blow his whistle and the defending team would take a goal-kick. The aim is to prevent encroachment into the penalty area, but surely it hands an advantage to the defending team, who, let's not forget, are supposed to be getting punished for an indiscretion. We want to see more goals, not fewer.

More relaxed corner, free-kick and goal-kick rules

Kick takers could pass to themselves and goal-kicks could be taken whilst the ball's still moving, to speed up the game and encourage attacking football. Seems to make sense.

Goals to be awarded if a handball on the line prevented one

I think most of us would support this. Ghana supporters certainly would, as a handball on the line by Uruguay's Luis Suarez in 2010 prevented them from becoming the first African World Cup semi-finalists. (Suarez was sent off for the offence, but Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty, much to Suarez's delight, and Uruguay went on the win on penalties.)

Ref's can only blow for half/full time when the ball goes out of play

Again, this already happens in rugby and it seems to work well, apart from when penalty after penalty is awarded at the end of a game. This happened in the controversial France v Wales Six Nations match in Paris earlier this year, which saw 20 minutes of time added on as the referee attempted to get a scrum properly taken.

It would however have stopped Clive Thomas from blowing up with a Brazil corner in the air, a split second before Zico put the ball in the next for what would have been a winning goal against Sweden in the 1978 World Cup.

Only captains to talk to the ref

One that football should definitely pinch from rugby. Nobody wants to see those all-to-common scenes of players surrounding and harassing referees, who, let's face it, aren't going to change their decision anyway.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Can English football "do a Germany"?

England are football world champions! Not unfortunately at senior level, but nonetheless, yesterday's 1-0 victory over Venezuela in the Under 20 World Cup is cause for celebration. It was not only the first victory but also the first appearance in a World Cup final since 1966, and it has of course got us all wondering whether it's an indication that the senior team might be on course for further success in the near future.

The day before another England Under 20 squad had won the Toulon Tournament, amazingly winning a penalty shoot-out to beat Ivory Coast in the final. Evidence indeed that English football is producing some impressive strength in depth.

However, the tag of "golden generation" has been hung around the necks of young England squads in the past, like a millstone. Never before has it been the label for a squad of World Champions, but still one has to wonder whether these talented youngsters will be able to take the next step, of securing regular places in the starting line-ups of Premiership sides and pushing for senior call-ups.

A classic example of a country that has managed to turn success at youth level into success at senior level is Germany. Having plumbed (for them) the depths of footballing despair with their group stage elimination in the 2000 European Championships they embarked on a root and branch reform of German football that helped their Under 21 side become 2009 European Champions, thrashing England 4-0 in the final. That side included the likes of Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Benedikt Howedes and Mesut Ozil, all of whom were present in the squad that won the senior World Cup in 2014.

So can England emulate their success? One key difference between the nations in the Premier League. With so much more money available to clubs than the Bundesliga it's much easier for English sides to go out and buy in ready-made talent than to nurture home-grown talent, and the prevalence of German ownership of German clubs also helped to develop a style of play that national sides of all age-groups shared with club sides.

The FA has to take credit for the investment it has made in developing talent, most notably with the St George's Park development, but it's the next step that needs to be put into place now. Many top clubs, such as Chelsea, loan out their young talent, sometimes to great effect - look at the season Tammy Abraham has just had for Bristol City - but he looks more likely to be sold than to feature at Stamford Bridge next season. Perhaps that's no bad thing, if he gets regular Premier League action, but surely England needs players turning out for its top clubs if it's going to finally end its 51 (at the moment) years of hurt.

But for now, let's just enjoy England winning a World Cup (even if the BBC didn't show them being presented with the trophy!).

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Even more problems for the Qatar World Cup

It’s been far from plain-sailing for the organisers of the Qatar World Cup since it was announced as the 2022 host country in 2010. Since then it has faced allegations of corruption in its World Cup bid, accusations of terrible treatment of migrant workers brought in to build the event infrastructure, criticism that its human rights record makes it unfit to host such a high profile event and problems with the staging date for the tournament (what with deserts being quite hot in the summertime) that have necessitated a move from summer to winter.

However, a political development has now threatened the organisation of the event further. This week seven middle eastern countries withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar and three, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have told Qatari nationals to leave their countries and banned travel to Qatar. The moves are a response to allegations that Qatar has been supporting Islamist terrorism, although the Qatari government has strenuously denied this. The knock-on effect for the World Cup is the possibility that raw materials used in their massive construction project could be in short supply, as much of it reaches the country via Saudi Arabia.

With a blockade effectively in place this causes a serious logistical problem for Qatar, but it also adds weight to the argument that they really shouldn’t have been awarded the World Cup in the first place.

Doubts about whether the stadia for major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics are almost a tradition, but none have been bolstered by a blockade before. They still have five years to go, plus a few extra months now that the event has been pushed back from the summer to the winter, but the scale of the project is unprecedented, with even the city that will house the World Cup final stadium, Lusail, still to be built.

FIFA, who happen to be sponsored by Qatar Airways, have so far declined to comment on the situation, and have shown no signs since announcing Qatar as hosts of reconsidering its decision, despite the numerous problems. The 2022 World Cup still therefore seems certain to go ahead in Qatar, but one thing is for certain: it will be a World Cup like no other we have seen before.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Was it a good season or not for Man Utd?

Last night's Europa League final victory over Ajax gave Manchester United their first European silverware since 2008, when they beat Chelsea on penalties to win the Champions League. It provided a great boost to the people of Manchester in the wake of the terrorist atrocity earlier in the week, but on the football side of things, does it mean that United had a good season under Jose Mourinho or not?

As well as the Europa League they also won the EFL (League) Cup, the first time they have won two trophies in a season since 2011 (if you include the Community Shield, or since 2009 if you don't). Since Alex Ferguson departed in 2013 they have won just 4 trophies in 4 seasons (again, including a Community Shield), and fans have been struggling to come to terms with no longer being one of the best, if not the best team in England. Their seasons have gone as follows:



Premier League Position


Qualified for Champions League

David Moyes



Community Shield


Louis van Gaal





Louis van Gaal



FA Cup


Jose Mourinho



League Cup, Europa League


Although they have won trophies, they haven't come close to reclaiming the Premier League title that Fergie last won for them in his final season. The knock-on effect of that is failure to qualify for the Champions League, in which they have only made one appearance since the Fegie days. They will be in it next season courtesy of their Europa League win, but supporters desperately want to be gaining entry as English champions.

This season they were only beaten in the League 5 times, which only second place Spurs bettered, but it was their 15 draws that cost them a top 4 finish, and they ended the season 24 points behind champions Chelsea.

As well as struggling for silverware and Premier League competitiveness, fans have also complained about the style of football they have played. Brought up on a diet of attacking football, frustrated chants of "attack, attack" have rung out around Old Trafford for the past few seasons, including this one, and their goals-scored tally of 54 left them well behind their rivals.

This will certainly need to be addressed, but Mourinho will surely have a plan for next season, with or without Wayne Rooney, and he will undoubtedly be given the funds he needs to strengthen his squad over the summer. How much time he will be given remains to be seen though, as probably only a Premier League title will be enough to cement anyone's position as Alex Ferguson's true successor.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Can the Football League learn from the IPL?

In the IPL today Rising Pune Supergiant beat Mumbai Indians by 20 runs to reach the final. It was the first match of the play-offs, which follow a format that the Football League might want to take a close look at.

The Football League introduced play-offs in 1987 to decide the third team to be promoted from the top two divisions and the third from the third tier. They've proved invaluable in maintaining interest for fans longer in the season, but they can be criticised for seeing teams that had a considerably poorer season than others win promotion.

The team that finishes third in the Championship has no advantage over the team that finishes sixth, which does seem somewhat unfair, and can lead to situations such as seen this year when Huddersfield Town rested players for their last few matches. Once they had clinched a play-off place they had no incentive to keep trying to win.

However, in India the IPL the play-offs work differently. The top four teams in the league stage play-off for the title, but there are advantages for finishing higher in the table. The top 2 teams, this year Supergiants and Indians, play for the chance to go straight through to the final. The losing team then has a second chance, playing the winner of the sides finishing 3rd and 4th for a place in the final.

In the Championship this year this would have meant Reading playing Sheffield Wednesday, with the winner straight through to Wembley. The loser would play the winner of Huddersfield Town and Fulham, with the winner of that match also reaching the final. The matches would have to be single leg affairs, with home advantage for the side finishing higher in the league.

To me that sounds like the perfect solution - keeping the excitement of the play-offs and making sure more sides have something to play for at the end of the season, but now giving an advantage for finishing higher.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Will penalty shoot-out changes make any difference for England?

UEFA has announced that it is going to trial a change to penalty shoot-outs. At the moment, its research shows, 60% of the time the side that takes the first kick wins, which essentially means that the coin toss has a fair chance of determining who goes through to the next round.

The logic is that there's slightly more pressure on the team going second, because as the duel progresses they know that their miss would send them out, whereas their opponents would still get one more chance should they miss.

The proposal is to change the structure so that the teams alternate who goes first in each round of strikes. It's been explained as following an ABBA format instead of ABAB.

But the statistics aren't supported by England's experiences in shoot-outs. Their record of defeats on penalties is:

1990 - World Cup - lost to West Germany - England went first
1996 - Euros - lost to Germany - England went first
1998 - World Cup - lost to Argentina - Argentina went first
2004 - Euros - lost to Portugal - England went first
2006 - World Cup - lost to Portugal - Portugal went first
2012 - Euros - lost to Italy - Italy went first

That's six defeats on penalties, three when they went first and three when they went second, so based on England's experience there's no advantage either way - you'll beat England whenever you take your kicks.

However, the one time England did win on penalties, against Spain in the Euro 96, they went first, so perhaps there is some sort of advantage.

So would England have beaten Argentina, Portugal and Italy if the ABBA method had been used? Of course, we'll never know. Probably not given England's terrible penalty-taking skills, and they haven't looked like needing penalties to go out of tournaments lately.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Athletics needs to clean up the present, not the past

Under controversial plans being considered by the IAAF, all athletics world records set prior to 2005 could be wiped from the record books unless they meet they meet three specific criteria, namely:

• It was achieved at an event on their approved list
• The athlete was tested in the months before the record
• The sample taken after the record was stored for 10 years

The aim of the plan, put forward by the European Athletics taskforce, is to restore credibility in the sport following a series of medal-stripping and reallocating over the past few years as stored samples have been re-tested using modern techniques.

On the face of it you can see what they’re trying to achieve. There are a number of records on the books that some might see as suspect. Jurgen Schult’s discus world record has stood since 1986 and was set at a time when his country, East Germany, has been proved to be heavily involved in doping, and American Randy Barnes set the shot putt best in 1990 shortly before being banned for steroid use.

It’s probably worse in women’s athletics. Another East German, Marita Koch, has held the women’s 400m record since 1985, but evidence has been put forward that purports to link her to drug use. Czechoslovakian Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 800m mark has stood for even linger, since 1983, yet the communist government of the time is suspected of state-sponsored doping, and Flo Jo, Florence Griffith Joyner, is still listed as being the 100m and 200m world record holder despite repeated allegations of drug use, although she never failed a test.

None of them have been proven to be drug-cheats, but the rumours abound and the doubts remain, which is why the IAAF may act. However, the move would also remove many other athletes who are not suspected of being anything other than clean. One of the most high profile is probably Mike Powell’s long jump record, which in 1991 finally overcame Bob Beamon’s famous leap from 1968. He has already threatened legal action if the plan is agreed.

It would also affect British greats Jonathan Edwards, Paula Radcliffe, Steve Cram and Colin Jackson (as indoor and European records would be affected too).

The aim is a good one, but is it missing the point? Don't athletics fans want to be sure that performances they see now are clean, rather than worrying about performances from the past that we can all make up our own minds about. It's clean athletes who lose out when a drug cheat robs them of a record, a medal or a place in a final, and it's clean athletes who would be losing out again if they have their honestly-earned records taken from them.

There are other knock-on effects as well to be considered. Colin Jackson has made the point that his European record was set whilst winning a world title. If that performance is going to be questioned should he not lose his medal as well? And what about every single country's national records, which may also need to be re-written as they may end up quicker/longer/higher than the new world record?

There is no doubt that athletics, like many sports, needs to clean up its act, and be seen to be doing so. Fans need to be confident that the performances they see are clean. But messing with the past in this way isn't going to achieve that, and too many innocent parties will see their careers and achievements tarnished in the process.