Monday, January 12, 2009

FIFA Out To Ban The Slide Tackle

Since the start of this season's English Premier League, referees have been under the spotlight. As the FA launched their pitiful "Respect" campaign, FIFA also made it known that they wanted certain types of tackling eliminated from the game...

The referees were in between a rock and a hard place.

Wanting to take advantage of the FA's latest initiative, and needing to implement FIFA's new directive meant that referees took one step forward but two steps backward.

The FA initiative was directed at an increasing rate of verbal abuse directed at the referee in the professional game and at how this influences the development of the game at the lower levels and in the schoolboy area.

With "monkey see, monkey do" type behaviour becoming increasingly apparent on schoolboy pitches across the country, the FA enacted the "Respect" campaign in the hope that better behaviour would be mimicked too.

However, the FA had not bargained on FIFA also trying to clean up the game, albeit from another direction.

Over the last 20 years or so FIFA have implemented changes to the game, in an effort to make it more accessible to emerging markets and to keep it in line with the more traditional pioneers of the sport.

The offside rule has now changed to such an extent that you are no longer offside if the referee doesn't think you were interfering with the first phase of play. Tackling from behind has been outlawed, and keepers were banned from picking up back passes in an effort to make the game faster and to eliminate time wasting.

The back pass rule and the tackle from behind rule have been widely accepted as positive rules, but the same can't be said of the various attempts at changing the offside ruling. And there is a growing campaign to bring the ruling back to it's traditional understanding; if you are not interfering with play, then you should not be on the pitch.

FIFA commissioned these studies in the hope of coming up with the most common injuries. And that list has been pain stakingly accumulated.

We now have the knowledge that an average of almost 20 injuries are incurred per game, ranging from niggles that almost go unnoticed to injuries that keep players on the sidelines for indefinite time periods.

67 percent of all injuries that are picked up are based in the lower extremities (from the knee down) and the most common injury being damaged ankle ligaments, which were four times more likely to happen during practice.

48 percent of all knee injuries picked up resulted in players missing a minimum of 10 days training, while one statistic that really stood out was that the mandatory requirement of shin guards has only reduced injuries by 0.1 percent since FIFA enforced their use.

Most injuries were picked up while in physical contact with another player with knee and ankle injuries coming to the fore.

Serious injuries like concussion was also looked at, with the clashing of players heads being the most common cause (84 percent), however being hit by the ball resulted in eight percent of concussion type injuries. This figure has moved many schoolboy federations around the world to look at "head guards", although they only seem to be used in emerging markets at the moment.

After FIFA had sifted through all of the statistical data, they decided upon a plan to reduce injuries within the game.

First up were the preventative measures, at junior football levels, coaches are being encouraged to learn new training methods and more importantly—proper training methods.

With this knowledge, it is hoped that injuries at various levels of the game will be reduced.

At senior level, clubs like AC Milan have taken this knowledge to a new level. They now employ sports psychologists who regularly interview players. If they feel that the player is not focused enough, then he is given a psychology session to re-direct him.

Sounds weird?

Not at all, AC Milan have pin pointed this lack of focus as one of the determining factors of muscle strain type injuries. And so far they have reduced this type of injury dramatically. Their physio's have seen a reduction of almost 60 percent and players such as Paulo Maldini have seen their careers dramatically lengthened.

FIFA have also issued the NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) to set the standards for protective equipment, i.e. shin guards.

Having set all these wheels in motion, FIFA set about the final phase of their solution. During the studies it was determined that 25 percent of all injuries are caused by slide tackles.

So FIFA set about changing the culture as far as slide tackling was concerned. This on going war against the slide tackle started back in the early 90s. Marco van Basten's career was criminally cut short by such tackles from behind. And faced with losing other star players FIFA decided to act.

First the tackle from behind, then the slide tackle.

In England, tackles such as the one suffered by Eduardo against Birmingham have prompted the English officials to act more swiftly than around the rest of the world.

Under Keith Hackett the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) referees were instructed in July to stamp out slide tackling.

"Challenges that endanger the safety of an opponent are unacceptable, and you must have the courage to quite correctly, go for the red (card). The player has to have control over the speed and intensity of a challenge. It's your duty to see, think, and act. You cannot duck your responsibility."

With this in mind referees visited training grounds across the country to establish their drive against foul play as they saw it.

And this is where a major divide arose.

Players and managers disagree with the referee's interpretation of a slide tackle. Two footed tackles are rightly outlawed, but now referees began to see slide tackling as the same.

With attacking players who have the ball moving at the speed of an Olympic sprinter, a good slide tackle can look so much worse than it actually is. Players who simulate don't help, but FIFA have left that battle for another day.

The only way to tackle diving is to retrospectively award yellow cards, but that would be to acknowledge television coverage. And if you start questioning one decision, where does it end?

Personally I think "Citing an infringement that the referee missed" like the ruling that is used in Rugby may help. But that's for another day.

With their clamp down on slide tackling, referees have now begun to punish slide tackles where the ball is won first, because the tackle was over-aggressive.

Traditionalists from the game have so far been unimpressed with referees' interpretation of the slide tackle. On Setanta Sports late last year a huge row erupted between Craig Burley and Graeme Poll after the two disagreed on Habib Beye's slide tackle on Robinho that saw him get sent off.

Burley in particular feels that traditional parts of the game are being eroded, he said: "I keep hearing, "Just because he played the ball it doesn't mean it's not a free kick." For the life of me, I don't understand that.

"There are all these buzz phrases, (like) momentum, over aggression, trailing leg. But if you win the ball first, how is that not a fair challenge?

"Like it or not, every challenge has the potential to cause injury, you can't get rid of that. Not every player can be Fabregas or Robinho.

"The talent of some is as ball winners, they've worked on those skills all their careers and they're necessary to the team. My worry is what happens to them? Go to any ground in Britain and a 50-50 challenge will get bums off seats as much as a good shot or pass. Fans love to see passion"

Paul Parker, rated as one of the best full backs that Alex Ferguson ever managed has also spoken about this worrying turn of events, he said: "Everything, now is about giving advantage to the attackers but why? Defending is an art. Shouldn't there be help for defenders as well?"

Unfortunately pundits such as Parker and Burley may have entered the battle too late to save tackling. The culture has already changed.

Prozone statistics show that defenders and midfielders now only make an average of three tackles per game. Follow these statistics further and you will realise that there are 23 percent fewer tackles per game today when compared with the league five years ago.

Football is undoubtedly less of a contact sport today, but does that make it better?

twitter / WillieGannon