Football / World Cup USA '94: Britain on brink of a wholesome new ball game: James Woodward on a Fifa circular met with reservations but now finding wide approval

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The Independent Online
THE invigorating winds of change that have blown through the corridors of international football this past month were destined to reach these shores before a ball was kicked in America - whether we liked it or not. But we should like it.

Fifa's attempts to give the game back to the ball players, with the near-abolition of the tackle from behind and the introduction of a saner interpretation of offside, were thrashed out in March and made universally binding from 1 July.

'Referees must apply the sanction laid down in Law 12 and send off any player guilty of this offence,' Fifa Circular 528 instructed in regard to tackles from behind where little or no attempt is made to play the ball.

Although it has not been an issue at the World Cup, they also handed out a similar instruction to referees and national associations over their concern 'about the increasing tendency among players to move their arms and elbows, without due care, too near opponents whilst competing for the ball'.

The use of a medical wagon to minimise interruptions was more specifically designed for the World Cup, but the net effect has had a net effect. Goals were back on the international football agenda, an anti-climactic final apart, and now we are to feel the breeze.

'We feel there are several lessons to be learned from the World Cup, although I wouldn't say we would be following 100 per cent,' the Premier League secretary, Mike Foster, said. 'But clamping down on the tackle from behind, the interpretation of offside and the attitude towards dissent, we believe are all things that we can build on.'

It cannot happen too soon for many: 'The World Cup has restored belief in the game - it has been an exciting festival of football,' Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said.

'The changes have swung the balance back in favour of open, attacking football. One or two innocents have suffered because of over-reaction by one or two referees, but there is room to introduce these interpretations into our game, not least because we have far too many serious injuries, not to say court cases.'

Of course, the domestic macho brand of football could be awash with red and yellow come August, and already the vested interests have issued their own caution, worrying about the loss of players through suspension. But remember the long-subsided brouhaha over the changes Fifa wrought in the back-pass two seasons ago?

Taylor, however, has no qualms. 'Players are adaptable,' he said. 'Even in the course of the World Cup those nations and players who have specialised in feigning injury have changed. I have sympathy with clubs who might fear losing players to suspension, but it's something our game can afford.'

David Elleray, who refereed last season's FA Cup final and is one of 22 elite referees selected to officiate in the Premier League this season, foresees teething troubles but believes it will be worth it. 'There will be a painful month or so, with people saying there are too many cards being handed out and referees are ruining the game, but one has got to look beyond that and ask what we are trying to achieve.

'One of the interesting comments was from Alan Hansen after the final, saying that he was originally against all the changes but by the time it got to the final it had produced a lot of creative football. There has been a change in philosophy, which now says 'if in doubt, give the benefit to the attacking player', and who can gainsay that?'

Terry Yorath, who was close to taking Wales to the finals, sees other benefits for the game in this country, but also an increasing threat to our already fragile international standing. 'I agree with the changes. You have to give your best players a chance to play,' he said. 'They will make our defenders have to think. I would back most continental footballers against ours in terms of technique and control. In the past, we have always had the work-rate and they have had the technique, but now they have the technique and work hard and the changes open up the game more for the Romarios and Baggios - we have got to be frightened in this country.'

It is no less true for being an old refrain and one that Taylor reinforces: 'The game played worldwide is a game that we are increasingly out of touch with,' he said. 'It's no surprise, really, that no UK side reached the finals. The long ball, battling in the air and compressing is not the way forward and we must reinforce with our national federations that direct play, or whatever you call it, really is a thing of the past. There's a time and a place for it, but no way can it be the main thrust of a coaching programme. Football is a passing game and a technique game.'

And it is ironic that what may finally drill the message home is not a coach, a manager, or a player, but a piece of paper: Fifa Circular No 528.

HOW THE WORLD CUP CHANGES WILL AFFECT DOMESTIC GAME

CHANGES THAT WILL BE IMPLEMENTED

Clampdown on tackles from behind, with offenders being sent off

Stricter enforcement of rules preventing use of elbow and arm in challenges

OTHER RULE CHANGES FROM WORLD CUP '94 THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED

Giving the attacker the benefit of the doubt when judging the offside rule

Use of red and yellow cards to cut down on dissent

Use of the medical wagon for injuries

Referees to be encouraged to give penalties

Referees to aim for at least 60 minutes of open play per match

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