Football: They fail to understand that football is nothing without passion

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The Independent Online
FOR years, I have had a secret ambition in life. It isn't to sail around the world, pilot a jet, shoot a hole in one or hit a winning streak in Las Vegas. It's to bang some of football's legislative heads together.

This earnest desire surfaced again last week with the announcement by Fifa, football's world governing body, that a foul tackle delivered from behind in the World Cup finals would result in instant dismissal. Get it marginally wrong through an angle of 180 degrees and you're off.

You only have to ponder the edict for a moment to infer what it implies; a game ultimately without physical contact, in no time all challenges for the ball are effectively to be suppressed.

That is where the interpretation of the laws against foul play now stands, and a very rocky stance it is, and will remain so as long as there are people, often highly intelligent types, who believe that putting a foot in is detrimental to the entertainment. When compulsory cautions for fouls from behind were introduced at the World Cup finals in the United States four years ago, Fifa's policy resulted in a ludicrous proliferation of yellow cards, depleted teams and a betrayal of principles important to football's global development.

Nobody in their right mind condones violent play and there is clearly room for more intelligent interception, but some of the most thrilling football in World Cup history was made possible by ruthless acts of intervention.

The orange glow of Dutch football in the 1974 finals would not have been possible without the aggression of two militant midfielders, Johan Neeskens and Wim Van Hanegem, who could be relied on to regain possession. Gerson, the mainspring of Brazil's brilliant attacking surges in the 1970 finals, had to be approached with the utmost care and anyone who attempted to intimidate Pele was asking for trouble.

After many years of devoted research, and in common with people involved more directly in the game, I still have no clear idea of Fifa policy beyond it's relentless exploitation of commercial possibilities.

On the face of it, you might suppose that nothing Fifa attempts is more commendable than making life easier for the artist. But we should not forget that the greatest attackers in history have turned adhesive attention to their advantage. "If I could reach back and feel the marker I knew he was in too close, making it easier for me to spin off him," Denis Law said in his heyday. Getting tight with Law carried other penalties too, all of them painful.

What prompted this sympathy for the man in possession? The imagined perceptions of a new audience or the belief that football must be tailored to the demands of its television paymasters?

The clue to football's future lies, I suspect, in the growing and perhaps irreversible conviction of its governing body that tackling should disappear from the agenda.

Doubtless, plenty of people who follow the game today, some in my trade, would see this as a big step in the right direction. What they fail to understand is that football is nothing without passion. There is more to it than virtuosity although any old timer will tell you that there is as much art in tackling as there is in a body swerve.

Some years ago I watched a match in the Uefa Cup between Tottenham and a team from the then Yugoslavia whose name now escapes me. Both played possession football to the point of boredom. The game can get like that if teams don't contest the ball at every available opportunity.

Apart from anything else tackling has provided some memorable moments in football. Bobby Moore's thunderous challenge (perhaps dubious in today's climate) on Brazil's muscular right winger Jairzinho remains a terrific image of the 1970 World Cup finals. There was plenty to admire in Franco Baresi's forceful defending for Milan and Italy. Nobby Stiles's aggression was vital to England's success in the 1966 World Cup.

The thought that they and other notable defenders from the past would quickly incur Fifa's wrath if they were turning out today suggests that the game's popularity is at risk from muddled thinking.

Doubtless, coaches are giving a great deal of thought to the implication of Fifa's directive. They had better make learning how to cope with the loss of one, even two men an urgent priority.