Former Milan and Netherlands forward Marco van Basten is using his role as technical director at FIFA to propose a series of radical changes to the laws of our game. For one, van Basten suggests scrapping offside as part of his modernising plan for football.
It is a plan that also includes restricting players to 60 games a year, replacing penalty shoot-outs with eight-second run-ups, introducing orange cards to send players off for 10 minutes and splitting games into four quarters, rather than the traditional two halves.
The three times Ballon d’Or winner and former coach of Ajax and The Netherlands says he is attempting to preserve the image of football as the world’s most popular sport.
He says: “I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside. Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you. So if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”
“We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,” – Marco van Basten
Van Basten apparently enjoys a close working relationship with Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA and he said, making his announcement in January 2017: “We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,”
He said: “We want to have a game which is honest, which is dynamic, a nice spectacle so we should try to do everything to help that process.”
Certainly there is no question that these law changes could ever be enacted on Van Basten’s whim – regardless of his closeness to FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino.
As is customary, FIFA will take the temperature of the views of the wider game before any proposals are taken to The International Football Association Board (IFAB) for serious consideration. As it stands, FIFA controls half of the eight votes on IFAB, with the other votes retained by the four British associations.
Certainly my first instinct is that tampering fatally with the offside laws is a terrible idea.
The fundamental charm of football is reliant on the fact that it is a tactically mature, advanced game of relatively few goals but lots and lots of thrills, spills and controversy.
By removing offside decisions you’d do two things:
Firstly, you’d smooth out the random factor of football that is so central to its appeal. The more goals that are scored the more likely it is that the best team in ability terms will win the game. And the underdog charm of David and Goliath battles in football is surely something that is essential to the romance of cup football in particular? Do we really want to lose that?
Secondly, the great poring over of key decisions, controversial moments and right and wrong calls by officials is one of the secret pleasures of watching and discussing football. It is so embedded in the game that I wouldn’t want to lose that most cherished ritual of the post-match wind down.
No doubt, offside decisions are part and parcel of the evolved state of jeopardy that watching football is all about – especially live and in a stadium.
On another point, you could certainly envisage the destruction of the spectacle of the best modern football through the law of unintended consequences.
What happens in football is that the team without the ball sets the tempo of the game by the speed and direction of the efforts they make to win possession back.
But without the get out of jail free card of an effective offside trap you will see a defender (or two) drop off to cover in behind and the game itself would become elongated and slowed down.
Certainly, you’d be unlikely to see the super athletic high pressing, high defensive line game, that makes so many top level games so exciting and so end to end.
Instead you’ll get the kind of football that is played in the lower leagues in most countries in Europe: speculative lofted passes, channel balls and defenders petrified about being done for pace. You could turn Spain’s La Liga into the Northern Irish Premiership in one fell swoop.
Northern Irish football is not without its charms, as per Scotland. However, I’d always want to preserve the variety of the game as a spectacle. This is a law change intended to make football more exciting. But in practice it could have the complete opposite effect.