LONDON (Reuters) – Football always has been a relatively simple sport, governed by 17 laws largely unchanged since the 19th century, yet that template is now surrounded by 22,000 words of interpretations, creating anomalies the rulemakers want to streamline.
Former Premier League referee David Elleray has spent 18 months revising the sport’s global law-book and bringing it up to date for the first time since the last major re-working in the 1930s by future FIFA president Stanley Rous.
Elleray has examined incidents from minor infringements at grassroots level to a famous pre-match clash in the Premier League as well as canvassing opinion from the heads of refereeing in each of FIFA’s six confederations.
“What we have tried to do is add some common sense, write in clearer language, tell referees to be more sensitive to the spirit of the game they are controlling, and bring all the laws up to date,” he told reporters.
“Most of these changes are really about common sense. Right now, especially with some situations, especially those that do not happen very often, the laws are a little crazy because they have been put together piecemeal over the years.”
Elleray said his goal was for fans to understand why referees make decisions, leading to more respect for officials, adding that there were no plans for referees to be fitted with microphones, as they are in rugby.
The laws, first drawn up in 1863 when the world’s oldest Football Association was formed in England, are a dry read and it is doubtful whether many fans or players will have gone through them in detail.
The power of their words, however, impact on every organised match, from a World Cup final to a Sunday League park game in London, Soweto or Miami, and provide the unifying link between all levels of the game.
Unlike many other sports which have countless laws, there are only 17 in soccer, but Elleray had a mammoth task editing them and their interpretations down from 22,000 to 12,000 words.
As an example of where the modern game has left them behind, Elleray recalled the occasion when Roy Keane of Manchester United and Patrick Vieira of Arsenal nearly came to blows in the tunnel before a Premier League match at Highbury in 2005.
“We all remember the famous Keane and Vieira exchange of words in the tunnel at Highbury. But if that had developed into a full-scale fight, what would you expect to happen to them?.” he said.
“You would expect them to have been red-carded and not allowed to play, but that is not the case.”
Elleray said under current regulations a referee cannot dismiss players in the tunnel because they are not yet on the field of play. That rule was drawn up before the two teams lined up next to each other ahead of a match.
“In future what will happen is that those two players would not be allowed to play in the game, but both teams will still start with 11 men, using a substitute off the bench,” he said after a meeting of the law-making International Football Association Board (IFAB) in London.
“This is one example of where the laws have not kept up to date, and they need to change so we can protect the image of the game.”
These proposed changes are running alongside experiments with video replays which are due to be tried out from next season.
But Elleray, who officiated in 78 internationals, was keen to emphasise that his revisions apply just as much to grassroots football, where no technology will be used, as they do to the elite levels of the professional game.
All aspects of the laws have been examined, including the ruling, which incenses most fans, that a player has to leave the field after being treated for a minor injury, before being waved back on by the referee.
The offside law, the most contentious of all, is not being altered, apart from a technical aspect of where a free kick might be taken in certain circumstances.
The new version of the laws is expected to be approved at IFAB’s annual law-making meeting in Cardiff in March.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)