Making it up as they go along

Rules is rules – until they ain’t!

Football is a simple and exciting game, or it used to be. For the footballing uninformed here’s an equally simple explanation of how it was. Two opposing teams of eleven players, or footballers, each tried to deliver the ball (the foot-ball) into the goal (two vertical poles with a further horizontal pole connecting the two verticals at the top, with a net fixed to all three poles) of the other team. When they did that, it was also called a goal. So to score a goal they had to get the ball into the goal. (I said I’d keep it simple!)

Anyway, the team finishing the match with the most goals scored was the winning team. Sometimes, the teams would finish with an equal number of goals scored and the match would be drawn, and that could be exciting. Sometimes neither team scored a goal; those matches were usually pretty boring. Players could kick the ball or move it forward, backward or sideways with any part of the body – apart from the hand. If the ball did touch a footballer’s hand it was known as handball, a foul, and counter to one of the laws of the game. (By the way, one player in each team could touch the ball: the goalkeeper, but he wasn’t really a footballer, he was just there to try to stop the ball going into the goal in any way, and with any part of the body he cared to employ).

There were a few other laws. For example, you weren’t allowed to kick or strike an opposition player; that was a foul too, although some players were very good at it and got away with what was known then as “bloody murder”. Other rules included offside, a little more complex, but with three officials, a referee and two linesmen (as they were called then) officiating, it was mostly spotted, and the foul was given.

The important point to remember here is that a footballer could use his feet, legs – including the knees, his head, shoulder, chest, or any part of the body but the hand, to propel the ball. There was a slightly grey area surrounding how much of the arm was permitted to come into contact with the ball, with below the elbow generally deemed a foul, but in debatable situations the referee made the handball or not handball decision. And as long as he was consistent in his decision-making, all was hunky-dory. That’s what he was there for. Simple.

Then they brought in the VAR (video assistant referee), which we’ve discussed previously in these pages and have to date been less than impressed with. The introduction of VAR meant introducing another official, one who watches the match on a screen rather than for real, so that when there is a debatable decision – handball for instance – he or she can replay the incident on video and pass the correct decision to the actual referee on the pitch. The video assistant referee sometimes has assistants and those previously mentioned linesmen or women are now also known as assistants. And for good measure there’s generally another assistant on standby just in case calamity befalls any of the others. Some cynics have suggested that all this may have provoked a case of “Too many assistants spoiling the broth.”

But surely with all those assistants and all that technology, the game should again be simple, even simpler than it was in those good old days? But it isn’t, because there are rules, and more rules, and then there is the interpretation of those many rules. Let’s take the offence of handball. There are now such complex and contradictory handball rules, particularly for accidental handball, their interpretation is frequently proving impossible for referees, and all those assistants. You couldn’t make it up, but unfortunately, they are – mostly as they go along. What is decided in one match is derided in another. I won’t quote individual incidents because it’s so confusing and I’ll only further confuse, but crucial goals are being allowed or disallowed by incorrect decision-making by referees and video assistant referees because of confusing rules. And it used to be so simple.

In the short-term, top-flight referees in the English game have been ordered to be less strict in their interpretations of the handball laws, and told to particularly focus on the distance an offending player is from the ball and whether he has extended his arm outside the natural body line. Got that?

However, changes are afoot, or should that be a hand? From next season, the existing law of “accidental handball that leads to a goal-scoring chance or a goal for a team-mate” will no longer be penalised. Can’t wait to see how some refs interpret that accidental. And there are proposed changes to other rules too, especially to offside, an offence almost as contentious as handball. Former Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, has proposed that a player “should be considered onside if any part of their body that can legally score a goal is level with the second-last defender.” Er… what was that, Arsène?

Murray Mints

Legendary Formula 1 commentator, Murray Walker, who died in March at the age of 97, was for millions quite simply the voice of F1. His passion for the sport, his enthusiasm, and his high-octane commentary style made him a star as instantly recognisable in and around the paddock as the drivers and the high-profile team bosses. He commentated on his first grand prix at Silverstone in 1948 and
retired in 2001 after working as lead commentator for both the BBC and ITV.

Alongside his expertise and professionalism, it was always clear in Murray’s commentary that he genuinely loved the sport as much or even more than those legions of dedicated F1 fans hanging on his every excited word. He was a friend to many of the great drivers, particularly Damon Hill, the 1996 F1 champion, with whom he starred in a comical TV advert for Pizza Hut that same year, gaining for himself a host of new admirers. But for all his incredible knowledge of motor sport and his unique style, it was probably Murray’s occasional slip up during commentary that endeared him most to fans and cemented his place amongst sporting legends. They became known as “Murrayisms” and, in tribute to and fond remembrance of the great man, here are just a few.

“Do my eyes deceive me or is Senna’s car sounding a bit rough?”

“I imagine the conditions in those cars are totally unimaginable!”

“Either that car is stationary or it’s on the move.”

“With half the race gone there is half the race to go!”

“There’s nothing wrong with the car except it’s on fire!”

“And the first five places are filled with five different cars!”

“The battle is well and truly on if it wasn’t before, and it certainly was!’

“It’s a sad ending, albeit a happy one, here at Montreal for today’s Grand Prix!”

“Unless I’m very much mistaken… I am very much mistaken!”

“And now excuse me while I interrupt myself!”

Rigby’s Sports Shorts

It’s a record – at last!

It’s a new world record, which took Novak Djokovic just 311 weeks to achieve. Previous record holder was Roger Federer, who for 310 consecutive weeks in his incredible career reigned as world number one in men’s tennis. Djokovic beat that figure in March, and now the Serb has another world record in his sights; he’s just two behind joint Grand Slam singles titles record holders, Federer and Rafael Nadal, who both have 20 slam triumphs to their name.

What a name!

As a footballer, he was known across the planet simply as Pelé, considered then and probably still so now, as the greatest player ever by most soccer fans. And to honour the 80-yearold legend, the Rio de Janeiro state legislature has voted to rename Brazil’s iconic Maracana stadium – the Edson Arantes do Nascimento – Rei Pelé stadium. The first part is Pelé’s real name, while Rei means king
in Portuguese. A fitting tribute to a sporting king.

Double whammy!

So, boxing’s much heralded £200 million world titles unification bout between British heavyweight champions, Tyson Fury, the WBC belt holder, and Anthony Joshua, who holds the IBF, WBA and WBO versions, is finally on – and not just once, but twice! Actual dates and venues are unconfirmed, but according to promoters Eddie Hearn and Bob Arum, and even Joshua himself, contracts are signed and it’s now simply a matter of sorting the final details. They reckon the first fight will happen in the summer with a rematch in the winter. Tyson though, is unconvinced, and claimed recently he had stopped training and was enjoying a daily pint – or ten!

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children


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