Mar 162007

Sometimes you have to wonder if the people in charge of running our beautiful game have any common sense. Year after year we have the creation of rules that are either plain stupid, or not enforced by the game’s officials. At times the plans put forward are so transparently daft you wonder how they ever got approved in the first place. More on those ideas later.

Occasionally the powers that be do get it right though, yet the plans still fall flat. Over the past few years, we’ve had the introduction of a mandatory yellow card for shirt pulling, which I fully endorsed at the time, and still do. Let’s make it clear – shirt pulling is not an accidental foul, such as a mistimed tackle, but a deliberate and cynical act of cheating, and should be punished accordingly. Yet how many times do we see a referee indicate a shirt pull and not brandish a card?

We’ve also had the ten yard rule, which gets implemented even more rarely, to the extent that many people believe it has never existed. In reality, the referee has the power and the instruction to move a free kick ten yards further up the field in cases of dissent. Finally, referees were instructed to send players off who harassed them on the field, yet every match we see referees breaking the walking backwards world record while players rush up to them, knowing full well they’ll get away with it. It won’t change unless someone at the top of the hierarchy has some guts and start to justify their salary.

But there are some rules and proposals that you would rather see consigned to the bin, and worrying, some of them come from the newly elected president of UEFA.

Michel Platini

Platini was recently appointed as the head of the European game, quickly reaffirming his ties to the man who can’t keep stupid ideas coming out of his mouth, FIFA president Sepp Blatter (let’s remember, this ‘respected’ head of world football believes all women’s football should be played on a beach in bikinis). The appointment was met with a mixture of dismay and concern by some of the top clubs, as Platini had cleverly aligned himself with the smaller nations, who far outnumber the leading leagues. With each country having one vote each, the canny Frenchman knew that he didn’t necessarily have to keep the big boys happy. But you would’ve thought his ideas would still have to make sense, right? Wrong. Let’s look at some of his proposals.

To reduce the number of teams from the top nations in the Champions League

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. The term ‘Champions League’ suggests that the third and fourth clubs from any league should not be participating. In reality, the name is a misnomer, as the old term ‘European Cup’ would be more appropriate.

Currently, some nation’s champions have to play qualifying rounds, and come in before Italy, Spain and England’s third and fourth clubs (who also have to qualify, incidentally). Platini argues:

“I’m not sure that the fourth clubs from Spain, Italy and England are more important than the champions of Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark.”

If this was the case, then when the fourth placed Italian side played the Czech champions in the qualifying round, they’d lose, and the Czechs would move on to the group stage. That’s the whole point of the qualifying round, to find out who is good enough to continue in the competition and who isn’t. Many national champions get hammered annually in their first match in the tournament. Why give them a bye to the group stage where they get to be beaten an extra couple of times before going home? It weakens the competition, makes the group stages far less exciting, and for absolutely no gain.

What Platini wants to do is force weaker sides to automatically qualify for later stages, while causing big sides to miss out by playing them against each other in the qualifiers. What he needs to understand is that as soon as you start to force the balance towards a weaker team, you make the competition a farce. It is quite simple – if a side is good enough to qualify, they will, without the need for byes. Look at Liverpool – forced to qualify as champions from the first round. They got through without trouble, because they were good enough. Everyone has that chance.

The other point Platini seems to miss is that there is no bias towards any nation. The whole concept of how many teams each country has in the competition, and where they enter, is not fixed. It is based upon the country’s co-efficient, which is a measure of success of the country’s teams over the previous five years. So, if Poland suddenly start producing excellent teams, their representatives will qualify for the group stage, probably go on a run, raise the co-efficient, and their allocation will rise as a result. Similarly, if our clubs all fall early, ours will drop, and we will lose places.

It is a self-modifying system. It is fair to all countries, and goes by the simple rule that if you succeed one year, it directly benefits the country the following year. Lyon are a good example – single-handedly raising the French allocation in European competition with consistent Champions League success. The reverse is also true.

It is an excellent system, Michel, and a format that is working very well. Leave it alone.

To increase the number of officials in a match by two

These two officials would be at either end, watching the penalty area for any infringement. Which begs the question – if we need such an official, what exactly is the referee looking at when play is in the box? The centre circle? The crowd? We already have the referee watching play, why add another official whose opinion can be superceded by him if they disagree in any way.

We already have two referee’s assistants, who do very little that stops them being called ‘linesmen’, and a fourth official whose main job appears to be working out how the electronic board works. What exactly would two more officials add?

Not to mention the fact that we already have a shortage of referees. Taking the matchday number to six would stretch this to breaking point. How many leagues are expected to have the full complement of officials?

To introduce a salary cap

A salary cap based upon a percentage of a club’s turnover sounds like a good idea in theory, as it is designed to stop clubs spending beyond their means, while also curbing the spending power of a club like Chelsea, but it is wholly unworkable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is practically unenforcable. At what point does a perk become part of a salary? Would we see more contracts with a legal base salary, plenty of bonuses, and a car or house thrown in? Would that all count in the calculation?

And what about a club getting to the Champions League final, giving them a massive turnover, only to flop the following season. They might have 100m in the bank, but still have to sell players as their wage cap is now much lower (their turnover will have taken a big hit). This seems absolutely ridiculous, and leads to the bizarre situation where a bad season can’t lead to squad strengthening, as the turnover is down.

I don’t see how this helps anymore. Chelsea are Chelsea and will still flaunt their money. Everyone else lives by the rules of business, and some of those (Leeds being a prime example) got it badly wrong. They’ve already been punished enough for that.

Lord Mawhinney

Over the past couple of days, however, it has become clear that there is an influential man in football who makes Platini look like he’s got his finger on the pulse of the sport. Mawhinney has been credited with an idea which may actually have been created by a fan survey, but wherever it came from, it should’ve stayed buried.

What idea? Simply, that we should abolish draws in league matches. The proposal is to have a penalty shoot out to give one side a bonus point (for a total of two, to the loser’s one).

This is absurd. Aside from the lottery feel that this brings to a league (more on that later), it reverses one of the best changes made to the league format.

Many years ago, there only used to be two points for a win, with one for a draw. The mantra of championship winning sides was ‘win your home games, draw your away games’. Then, the points for winning a game were increased to three. Suddenly, away wins were extremely valuable, and now, you can’t win leagues without them. It made winning much more desirable than settling for a draw, thus promoting an attacking brand of football.

Quite often, you see two teams level towards the end of a game, both going for a win, as they’ve decided one point isn’t enough. But if they knew that they were a penalty shoot out away from two points, they’d take it. This could potentially lead to horribly dull and defensive games, as many teams take their chances with the lottery rather than trying to win the game.

And make no mistake about it, a lottery it would be. Let’s look at one of many examples from last season:

League One

Swansea came sixth, eleven points behind the champions Southend, yet the right results in their seventeen shoot outs could win them the league in the proposed system. On the other hand, the wrong results could see them come below 17th placed Bournemouth.

Let’s make this clear – with the right results in luck-based penalty shoot-outs, they could’ve won the league. With the wrong results, they could’ve come 17th. And all based on the same match results.

This scheme it utterly ridiculous, and is based on the notion that a draw isn’t a valid result anymore. This isn’t the US, there is nothing wrong with a draw here. It is an achievement for the smaller side, or the one coming back from a two goal deficit. It isn’t an anti-climax.

Which brings us back to common sense. Do the people that matter have any?

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