I think it’s time we changed an unwritten rule in football. Unwritten rules are, by their very nature, hard to clarify as often only a few people truly know the full details, leaving others to make up these rules as they go on. But there exists in football an unwritten rule about putting the ball out when your opponents have a man down injured. No one really knows where this rule came from, or who indeed instigated it, but we all know it is there.
The rule was highlighted this weekend by the actions of Leroy Fer of Norwich City against Cardiff City. The game was near the end when Norwich midfielder Alex Tettey was injured in a challenge in the centre-circle. The ball eventually ended up in the hands of Cardiff goalkeeper, David Marshall. Marshall then kicked the ball to the sidelines to give Norwich a throw. Norwich striker, Ricky van Wolfswinkel wanted to take the throw quickly as Cardiff were still pushed up. It looked like one of his teammates told him to throw it back to the visitors but he just threw the ball petulantly back onto the pitch in the direction of Fer, who passed the ball first time into the empty net. Marshall had waited in his 6-yard area to receive the ball back and so had no chance of stopping Fer’s perfectly weighted pass. This was the cue for Cardiff players to get very hot under the collar and an ugly melee ensued. Eventually the referee blew the whistle and denied Norwich a goal. Both sets of coaching staff were at one with the decision, although presumably they were just happy with a point. Clearly, as the game was in its final minutes, this was an easy offering on behalf of Chris Hughton. Had it been in the first minute of the game, or perhaps a cup match then it remains to be seen whether he would’ve been quite so generous. The referee’s explanation was also perplexing as he said he disallowed the goal as he hadn’t signalled for play to continue. But the referee doesn’t need to signal for a throw to be taken and he hadn’t stopped the game for the physio to come on, and so this would add more confusion to the whole episode.
Personally I think it’s about time we got rid of this ‘rule’ about kicking the ball out. Generally, it is often fans of the side whose player is injured, who will boo the opposition to kick the ball out, but why should a team give away possession like that?
The actual rules state that if a player is down injured he should go off the pitch to receive treatment, resulting in the often farcical instance of a player who has feigned injury coming straight back on once he has crossed the side line. If the player is genuinely injured then he will leave the pitch for treatment and the team will be down to 10 men anyway. So what difference does it make for the other team to play on whilst the player is down?
It seems remarkable to me, in an age of so much showmanship and feigning of injuries that todays players are quite happy to believe the player is actually injured and so hurry on the physio. To illustrate the point by the time van Wolfswinkel took the throw, Tettey was back on his feet. There was another incident in the Chelsea v Manchester City when Aguero went down after a challenge in the back from John Terry. The Manchester City fans were screaming for the ball to be put out of play and when it was, Aguero was already on his feet too.
If the injury is clearly a bad one, such as blow to the head, then there is a good reason to hold up play, but other than that, if the referee hasn’t deemed it to be a foul then why stop the game? Of course, Steve Bruce is to blame for all this. In 1999 his Sheffield United side were at Highbury playing Arsenal in an FA Cup Fifth Round tie. A Sheffield United player went down injured and one of his teammates kicked the ball out so he could get attention from the physio. Arsenal took the throw-in and Kanu received possession, ran clear of the defence and squared for Overmars to score. The Sheffield United players were incensed believing the ball should’ve been thrown back to them. Eventually, Bruce ordered his players from the pitch. Kanu said he misread the situation and didn’t realise the United player needed treatment. Arsene Wenger then offered to play the game again, which Arsenal won 2-1.
Ever since then we have had numerous incidents each season and all around the world. Things came to a head in a recent Capital One Cup match between Yeovil and Birmingham City. Late in the game a Birmingham player went down injured. They were leading 2-1 at the time and in possession, so they kicked the ball out to allow the player to receive treatment. But the player was soon back on his feet and Yeovil decided to keep the ball and went onto score. Birmingham were incensed accusing Yeovil of unsporting behaviour. Yeovil couldn’t see what they had done wrong as there is nothing in the rules which states you must return the ball to the opposition.
FIFA needs to act and re-affirm the power of the referee. One of the things you are first taught as a kid when playing football is to play to the whistle. If the referee hasn’t deemed it necessary to stop play then the players shouldn’t try and run the game themselves.
Some may call for the last vestiges of sportsmanship being held sacred but actually this can often be an attempt to disrupt the play and slow it down. Since the abolition of the back pass rule and the introduction of multiple balls on the side lines, the game is rarely held up unless for an injury. These days players admit to the accusation of being willing to take any advantage they possibly can to win a game, and as FIFA has tried to cut down on time wasting then feigning injury is the modern footballers’ only tool for stopping the game. Well, that and scoring.