Why Don't They...make football a nine-a-side game?

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FOOTBALL IS an ever-changing game. Coaches switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 to 5-3-2, they introduce wing-backs and liberos, tell their strikers to play in the hole, their wide men to tuck in and the whole team to play a pressing game.

Administrators introduce penalty shoot-outs, golden goals and no back- pass rules, allow three substitutes or five substitutes, restrict your number of non-EU players, outlaw the tackle from behind and tie referees' hands behind their backs.

So why does nobody ever talk about reducing the number of players on the field? With this one change football could solve the modern game's biggest problem: the fact that there isn't enough room on the pitch.

Watch any archive film of matches played more than 20 years ago and one of the first things you notice is how much space there was on the pitch. Midfielders had an uncluttered midfield in which to weave their magic, wingers had wings to fly down and lumbering centre-halfs had room in which to make fools of themselves.

The size of pitches hasn't changed, but tactics and fitness have. Today teams crowd the midfield, starving the opposition of space in which to play. Offside traps are set near the half-way line.

In the old days defenders simply defended and the forwards' only responsibility was to create and score goals. Today, creatine-fuelled defenders plough upfield in support of attack and muscular strikers charge back to try to stop them. "We defend as a team and attack as a team," is the modern coach's mantra. The end result is fewer goals, less entertainment and skill increasingly squeezed out of the game.

Changing the size of pitches isn't practical, of course. So why not reduce football to nine per side? The ball players would suddenly find more room in which to make their talent tell, forwards would find space in which to run at defenders and those teams which have built their success on stifling the opposition would at last be found out.

The Professional Footballers' Association wouldn't enjoy it, but I bet the rest of us would.

Mark Pierson

All iconoclastic contributions to this column - on any sport - should be sent to Sports Desk, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL. Faxes to 0171-293-2894 or e-mail to sport@independent.co.uk. Contributions may be edited for length and clarity.