Is this the end of football as we know it? Hyperbole or not, there are sweeping changes being proposed by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) starting with the 2026 Russia World Cup.
The proposed elimination of one particular rule in association football is seen as an existential threat to football according to traditionalist critics, while the intended expansion of participating countries in the World Cup has also led to questions.
Of the rule changes proposed by FIFA, orange cards, maximum fouls, eight-second run-ups in lieu of penalty shots and four-quarter matches, the most revolutionary and controversial one is getting rid of the offside rule.
Currently, players in an offside position when the ball is touched or played by a teammate may not become involved in play.
“With the popularity of defensive strategies, football has become boring,” said Van Bastern. “By eliminating the offside rule, offensive football will become the norm and there will be a different kind of fun.”
Van Bastern pointed out field hockey as a positive example, the sport having implemented such changes before.
FIFA stressed the proposed revision of rules in football were for the enjoyment of the sport above all. The intent is to change the tactical rhythm of modern football’s emphasis on defense.
Martin Van Bastern, chief officer for technical development at FIFA, asserted, “With a goalkeeper and nine players surrounding the goal, there’s no difference with handball. The manner of playing matches that sucks the joy out of football must be immediately changed.”
The contention is that the offside rule is integral to football’s identity. Sports studies scholar Toshio Nakamura’s book, “Why is Offside Against the Rules - The Birth of Modern Football,” defines the offside rule as concurrent with football in history.
In the United Kingdom, he notes, where football originated, “Mass Football” was once a citywide football-game festival going on for several days that ended as soon as one side made a goal.
This is why it was designed so that it would not be too easy to score and why one who was “off” the “side” became a “sneaker.”
“Eliminating the offside rule isn’t going to change football,” said Carlo Ancelotti, coach of Bayern Munich, “instead it is going to create a new game.”
The offside rule is stricter in rugby compared to football and players ahead of the one in possession of the ball on the same team are all considered offside. American football relaxed this rule and, in the process, the two became different sports over time. On the other hand, FIFA says by eliminating the rule, the introduction of further changes can be realized.
How will football matches change with the implementation of the proposed changes? With the disappearance of the offside rule, Italy’s catenaccio, a tactical system emphasizing defense, will die out. Offside traps and other tactics focusing on the defensive line will give way to taller players and brawlers. Defenders from both sides will wait for opportunities to fight for possession.
FIFA claims this is to enhance the fun factor, but their true motivations may be commercially motivated. With all the talk of “offensive football,” FIFA is in dire financial straits and Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s last president, pledged, “[FIFA] will allocate all 209 member countries of FIFA, $5 million (590 million won) yearly and $40 million to continental confederations every year.”
This proposal was an attempt to garner votes of the underdeveloped football associations. The funds demanded for this proposed distribution are $1.24 billion annually, equal to the entirety of the 2013 FIFA budget.
Some detractors worry that FIFA will close its doors two years down the line, but Infantino has replied, “This is a measure necessary for the development of football. We’ve prepared the means to do so.”
After Infantino became president, the meat of his policies proposed in FIFA have concerned greater commercialization. For instance, the expansion of the number of participating countries in the 2026 World Cup is planned to grow from 32 to 48.
According to internal FIFA documents, after 32 participating countries, the anticipated income from the Russia 2018 World Cup will be $5.5 billion. If there are 48 participating countries, FIFA’s income will increase to $6.5 billion. With the increase in the number of matches, more sponsorships and fees from television broadcast rights will be a matter of course.
“Substituting in baseball or the quarter system in basketball is an advertising optimization system,” said Han Joon-hui, KBS football commentator. “Though football has a conservative atmosphere more than other professional sports, there are insufficient efforts for change… however, one can’t defy commercialization.”
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