How to destroy football

“Blue cards” will only add to the confusion and subjective rulings we’re now seeing

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Anyone who has watched football — let alone played at a high standard or studied the game seriously — knows that the latest wheeze dreamt up by the desk wallahs of world football is a dud.

From this summer, football will trial blue cards. Having missed the lessons at junior school about mixing primary colours, the International Football Association Board came up with blue cards as a mid-point between a yellow card and a red. While a yellow is a warning, and a red an instruction to leave the pitch for the rest of the game, a blue card would send a player to a sin bin for ten minutes of play.

The motive for the change is understandable. The proposal limits blue cards to dissent against the referee and tactical fouls designed to prevent promising attacks. And the inspiration for the change is clear enough too. Sin bins are used in other sports such as rugby. Football fans — sick of the disrespect and cynicism of the high-stakes modern game — often look at rugby with envy. In rugby, players address the referee as “sir” and unlike your average Manchester United midfielder — who these days are indeed very average — would not dream of screaming expletives in the face of a touch judge.

There will be new incentives to play negative and cynical football

Yet it is not hard to see how the idea will fall faster than Bukayo Saka in the penalty area. First, the incentives to dive and to pressure referees will grow even further. Players already demand referees show a yellow card for any number of fouls. The temptation to get an opponent sent to the sin bin will only encourage such behaviour.

Second, once a team has a player sent to the sin bin, there will be new incentives to play negative and cynical football. They will take an eternity to take throw-ins, corners and goal kicks in the hope of winding down the clock. They will form what is known as a “low block” — a defensive formation that aims to stifle the opposition — while doing little to take the game to their opponents.

Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa in the sin bin after receiving a yellow card during the Rugby World Cup Final in Paris (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Third, it will increase the stakes for marginal and subjective calls. We have all watched matches where a referee tolerates abuse from the likes of professional whingers like Bruno Fernandes, only to book an opposing player for something that seems innocuous.

And we all know there can be little difference between what commentators call a “coming together” of two players who end up on the ground, and a cynical shove or trip that stops a promising counter-attack. Drastic consequences for almost random decision-making cannot be good for the sport.

And the sport has already become over-complicated. Consider the handball laws, which once seemed pretty clear. My generation was brought up understanding that handball had to be deliberate, and applied to the whole arm, but not the shoulder. “Ball to hand!” was the cry of a player whose arm had been struck accidentally by the ball.

Now the laws say it is handball if the ball touches a player’s hand or arm when the player “has made their body unnaturally bigger. A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.” This complexity has unsurprisingly been a recipe for disaster — with subjective calls having enormous consequences and similar incidents being judged in very different ways.

It would be naïve to believe that referees are not influenced by the noisiest managers and players

The same applies with offside laws. Attacking players beyond the last defender are not deemed to be offside if they are not interfering with play. But deciding what interfering with play means these days is another minefield. Players can make runs just ahead of where the ball is played through to another, they can distract defenders in the penalty area or even six-yard box, and be judged not offside. Inevitably, this creates yet more subjective decision-making with inconsistent outcomes.

Refereeing is not, as some fans claim, corrupt. But it would be naïve to believe that referees are not influenced by the noisiest managers and players, the high stakes for teams vying for the Premier League title and Champions League places, and the sheer media coverage devoted to certain clubs.

When most fans believe some players and teams benefit most from subjective and marginal calls, this is not the stuff of paranoia but the wisdom of crowds. It is the consequence of basic human psychology and the fear of making mistakes.

The introduction into football of VAR — the video assistant referee — only seems to make this point more obvious. Using technology has succeeded in rooting out some, some, of the most obvious and egregious errors. But mostly it has amplified the fallibility, assumptions and unconscious biases of referees. And it has exposed the fact that both the laws of the game and their enforcement are growing more complex and less predictable than before.

Adding blue cards to this complicated mix risks compounding existing problems with new ones. In so many ways, football is more skilful, tactically sophisticated and entertaining than ever before. But often this is despite, not because of, the administrators and referees, who struggle to enforce existing laws. “You know what [this is] going to do to our game?” asked Tottenham’s manager, Ange Postecoglou, recently. “It’s going to destroy it mate.” To that Aussie candour, we can only say fair dinkum.

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