Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Weekend of Controversy Flags Up Offside Mess

Some serious issues currently face the footocrats within FIFA whose ruminations and machinations in secluded Swiss committee rooms direct the substance of how the world's favourite game is played down to its grassroots. These matters include securing plum reservations in Germany's top restaurants and hotels during the World Cup, jockeying for position at the top table with Sepp Blatter and Franz Beckenbauer at the official FIFA pre-tournament dinner, and perhaps picking up a few new suits for the gruelling month of gladhandling that lies ahead.

Critical as these matters are, however, down amongst the lumpen masses who actually play and support the game, each weekend brings new and more dispiriting examples of two problems which are immeasurably harming the integrity of the game: diving and the craziness of the current interpretation of the offside rule.

While the former is a cancer which has long afflicted the game (just yesterday Eurosport showed highlights of the 1974 World Cup Final, in which Wim Jansen of Holland delicately brushed the fibres of Bernd Holzenbein's sock, sending the German into penalty-winning orbit) and has roots in the diverse cultures and attitudes within the game and the natures of those that play it, the latter is - pure and simple - a fiasco of the game's own making, the resolution of which should be at the top of FIFA's menu...er, I mean, agenda.

Last weekend's Premiership fixtures provided the latest exhibits, in the form of Djibril Cisse's 'non-interference' with the move that led to Robbie Fowler's winning goal for Liverpool at Blackburn, and Kevin Philips' movement from an offside position to contribute to Gary Cahill's astonishing second for Aston Villa against Birmingham.

Both cases highlight separate nonsenses which the definitions within the law foster. In Philips' case, the problem is a simple one of confusion, and the removal of the concept of a clear-cut offside decision from the match officials' repertoires. If an attacker is occupying an offside position when a dead ball is played into the box, the linesman (we will have no truck here with the assistant referee nomenclature, thank you) will not raise his flag immediately, only doing so when the attacker becomes involved with active play.

Fine. But as football has proven since the days of waxed moustaches and baggy shorts, referees are human - and therefore fallible - and rather than introduce measures to make their job easier or to reduce the potential for human error, the latest definition simply provides a bountiful habitat for the proliferation of cock-ups. Linesmen, addled by confusion, keep their flags in a default "down" position, hoping that the clearly offside attacker disappears into obscurity by the time the move has resolved itself.

At Villa Park the linesman must have seen that Philips was offside, then, like a copper tracking a shoplifter on a busy high street, lost him, guv. Philips, Artful Dodger-like, reappeared as the ball arrived into the box, ghosted through the crowd and got his head on the cross: in other words, became involved in active play. A perfect example, therefore, of a linesman mired in the precarious quicksand of the offside law's current guise.

While this example featured the time-honoured vista of the befuddled official, the Cisse case involved a more pernicious display of the new interpretation's pitfalls. Taking the semantics of Law 11 to their conclusion, referee Alan Wiley and linesman Barry Sygmuta adjudged Cisse not to be involved in active play as he was not "interfering with play, interfering with an opponent or gaining an advantage by being in that position."

Delve further into Law 11, specifically the definitions of active play as detailed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) meeting in London in February 2005, and you find the following:

-Interfering with play means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team mate.

-Interfering with an opponent means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent's line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.

Cisse quite clearly did not play or touch the ball. However, did he interfere with an opponent? Did he, by making that 'gesture or movement' toward the ball deceive or distract the Blackburn defence? Not in the opinion of Messrs Wiley and Sygmuta, for whom Cisse's very presence at that moment in the Blackburn 18-yard box was entirely inconsequential - indeed the bold Djibril may as well have been playing tennis with the Dalai Lama for all the involvement he was having on the play at that moment. Needless to say, Mark Hughes and his Blackburn players had some quibbles with this interpretation.

The offside rule, as football's one major regulation against total on-pitch free expression, needs to be kept simple and dogmatic, not convoluted and labyrinthe in its formulation.

Now, we're generally not given around these parts to those hoary old one-liners that get copied and pasted onto forwarded emails, so that we can read of the no-nonsense working class wisdom which bygone managers have imparted and apply it to the daft and shiny-fangled world of modern football. But, in this case, the last word is left to Bill Shankly: "If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then what is he doing on the pitch?"


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