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Taking Marco van Basten seriously

Tuesday 31st January 2017
Opening minds in this day and age is even more difficult than unlocking a defense with ten men behind the ball. Those who fear globalization and climate legislation may force uncertain change in their lives are gaining political power, threatening to stagnate society into a dull existence of losses and nil-nil draws that will eventually relegate humanity to self-extinction. Accepting new challenges in order to evolve is too daunting a prospect for many to consider.

In this context, football is definitely a microcosm of life. Club supporters tend to be tribalist, not only distrusting those who wear rivals' kits but mistrusting far-flung fans who wear their own. Did I mention I'm a Man United supporter born in New York, raised in Canada, now living in Florida, who has yet to enjoy the privilege of attending a match at Old Trafford? Hi, there. Why are you sharpening that knife?

Elite footballers and coaches are a different breed from supporters, however. Fans idolize them for doing what they themselves are too afraid to attempt, whatever their chosen occupation. Players face difficult challenges match after match. Winning demands they not only be the strongest, fastest, most skillful, but also the most imaginative and creative in order to stay on top. Then, when their physical skills wane, they must find new ways to remain in the game they love.
Enter Marco van Basten. The Dutch legend has forged a new career in the executive, rather than coaching, ranks. Now FIFA's Technical Director, his bailiwick is the rulebook. The game's conservative nature has meant his predecessors tended to guard the rules. They held fast to the maxim dictating one shouldn't fix what isn't broken. Maybe, if there was a slight dent or a loose part here or there, they'd stick their necks out to recommend a mild tweak. More audaciously, Van Basten has embraced his new role's full possibilities.

In an interview with German magazine Bild, a fortnight or so past, he shocked many by recommending radical changes to the game. His recommendations were comprehensive, albeit all were intended to promote more attractive play whether by forcing defenses to open up or through capping the total matches in which any player might participate during a calendar year, thereby keeping players rested and less subject to injury. Some notions, such as incorporating a rugby-style sin bin to punish reckless play more effectively by forcing a team to play ten minutes while a man down, would not fundamentally alter the game's nature. Others would, most significantly to my mind, his suggestions to remove the offside rule and use MLS' old eight-second one-v-one penalty tiebreak rather than spot kicks.

Naturally, many in the football world immediately jerked their knees upon hearing Van Basten's ideas. Arsene Wenger. Jürgen Klopp. Christian Gourcuff. People who, like me, you wouldn't know from Adam. A few, such as Glen Hoddle, managed to keep an open mind, noting the Dutchman's good intentions if disagreeing with some or all his suggestions. The man himself stated he was going public with his thoughts to promote healthy debate before moving forward with any changes.
So, rather than sitting down immediately to test my keyboard's durability by ferociously typing an opinion filled with caps-locked words like absurd, bonkers, and mental, I allowed Van Basten's thoughts to percolate in my mind for a bit. I realized his wasn't an either/or proposition. He wasn't saying, "Let's change things exactly in this manner or leave them entirely alone." He was inviting everyone to find the best possible solutions to make the game better. And there may just be a couple ways to do so.

Eliminating offsides isn't one. Yes, the rule permits defenses to park the bus, disallowing many otherwise exciting goals. Yet, that only occurs in the final third. Everywhere else, the offside rule serves a meaningful purpose. For example, coaches can't space players about the pitch in an offensive version of zonal marking. Nor can they always play Route-1 football, Big Sam. It prevents static play, instead encouraging teams to work together to move the ball up the pitch.

I mentioned I'm a United fan, so I'll use their FA Cup match against Wigan on Sunday as my example. There were stretches in the match where one defender or another hoofed the ball as far as he could to relieve pressure. Somewhere up the pitch, another player would head the ball back towards the goal. Then another defender would return it whence it came. And so on. Yawn infinitum. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, we'd all gone to a football match only for a volleyball game to break out. On the other hand, United's third goal derived from a beautiful series of lightning-quick passes to secure possession in their own box, followed by an outlet to Anthony Martial, dashing up the left side. He was joined by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who, upon penetrating the opposing eighteen, redirected the Frenchman's pass beyond the Latics' helpless goalkeeper. It was proper, exciting football, made possible by the offside rule.

Given the rule is necessary to promote orchestrated movement but is counterproductive when a team has reached the attacking third, I wouldn't be opposed to an amendment. My suggestion would be to extend the white line demarcating the top of the eighteen so that it extends across the pitch's entire width like so:
Now, I know that looks a bit odd, like coming home to find your wife has dyed the hair on the left side of her head purple. Still, you get used to it. The purpose for extending the line in this manner is to help match officials determine when the attacking team possesses the ball within eighteen yards of the end-line. When they do, offside will no longer apply.

Going back to the Man United/Wigan match, United's first goal came when Marouane Fellaini headed in a diagonal cross from Bastian Schweinsteiger. Schweini's delivery originated from beyond eighteen yards. Therefore, if Fellaini had been behind the last defender before the pass was sent, he would still have been offside. Had Basti instead emulated Antonio Valencia, who likes to race his man to the end-line before sending in a more squared cross, the Belgian Chia Pet could have set up anywhere he liked.

The idea is both simple and fair. If offside exists to compel teams to move the ball up the pitch in unison, why should it penalize them when they've successfully done so? If an attack has pushed the defense back against its own goal, why should the latter be permitted to artificially limit the attack's options by moving away from their own goal without the ball? There is already less ground to cover thanks to the end-line. Force them to cover it. Scoring will increase through the same attractive passing which moved the ball up the pitch.

Beyond the offside rule, Van Basten's suggestion for deciding a winner using one v ones, attacker against 'keeper, is interesting. I just think it fails to sufficiently address a PK's shortcomings. Penalty kicks are viewed almost as a lottery, with results being more random than indicative of the more deserving team. Although, research has indicated stress is a factor in a player's conversion rate. Ironically, this is an instance where players and coaches are more conservative than fans, preferring to leave their chances for progression to luck rather than be embarrassed by conceding a bad goal because they were going for the win. Fans on the other hand, would generally prefer to see well-worked goals created in the run of play. Penalties don't offer that.
Old MLS-styled one-v-ones, in which the attacker has eight seconds to run up from thirty-yards or so with the 'keeper coming out to confront him, require more skill than a simple penalty shot. Yet, it still isn't really football. It's similar to penalty shots and shootouts in hockey. The hockey goalie, aided by all that padding, blocks out a much smaller goal, leaving himself a much better chance to save a goal. In fact, hockey's conversion rates are roughly opposite to football's. Although the terms are more equitable, I think there's a better compromise. Rather than going all the way from eleven-v-eleven to one-v-one, settle somewhere nearer the middle.

If you can believe it, rapper Ice Cube may be on the right track. The hip-hop artist/movie star recently announced the formation of a three-on-three professional basketball tour featuring recently retired NBA stars. Three-on-three hoops is a half-court game, meaning those old, tired legs don't have to run up and down the court to play defense. They need only turn around. Similarly, at least seven of ten outfield players in a football side are running on fumes after ninety minutes. Their heart, body, and minds are slogging through an additional thirty minutes to make it to penalties. Where is the spectacle in that?

Instead, have the coaches select four players to attack, and three to defend along with the goalkeeper. The defenders cannot leave the eighteen-yard box. Only three attackers may enter it. Put ninety seconds on the clock. One team begins with its four attacking players, the other its defenders and 'keeper, in four-on-four action.

What to do when the ball is cleared out of play or the keeper gathers it in can be settled by stopping the clock. Personally, I'd be in favor of throw-ins and corners for the former, restarting from the center circle for the latter. If no goal is scored within ninety seconds, the teams exchange defending and attacking roles. If a goal is scored within ninety seconds, the teams immediately switch roles. Either way, each side gets an opportunity to score. If neither or both do, another round ensues. When only one side scores, you have a winner.

Granted, it sounds a bit complicated. It's a system which borrows elements from half-court basketball and American college football's "Kansas tie-break" method. The idea is to maintain football's essential elements while lessening fatigue's effect on play, thus making a goal more likely. It's something like half-pitch five-aside with one less player to ensure space.

Think about it this way. How many deciding kicks from penalty shootouts compared to goals from run of play are immortalized in World Cup lore? Or Champions League, Copa Libertadores, AFCON, etc? People remember John Terry slipped with a chance to win the 2008 Champions League Final against Man United. Some may remember Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka's shot to seal the victory. Only a die-hard United fan can tell you Ryan Giggs conversion was the winner. Conversely, football supporters the world over know the Hand of God refers to Maradona's goal against England in Mexico. They remember Mario Götze coming on to get the winner against Argentina in Brazil. Roberto Carlos' thirty-five-yard swerving kick beyond France's wall and off the post to Fabian Barthez's left is legendary. Such goals are possible using this method to decide a winner.

The beautiful game needs more memories like those, not less. We shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Marco van Basten's attempt to give the world the best brand of football possible.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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