A game of four quarters

half-time

Half-time. Photo by Alan Myers, http://www.flickr.com

Football is a beautifully simple game. That, more than anything else, accounts for its global appeal. A ball, a scrap of land, a few willing friends and you’ve got yourself a game.

Even at the highest level, played by multimillionaires with their own Twitter emojis, the essence of the game is the same.

As a player, Marco van Basten was a marvel. He was one of the greatest centre forwards of all time, scorer of ‘that goal.’ Now he’s FIFA’s technical director and he’s decided that perhaps the beautiful game is in need of a makeover.

It’s a mystery to me why FIFA needs a technical director. Who is Marco supposed to be directing in a technical sense? Since it’s clearly not what we might call a proper job, the Dutchman has been using his time in it to dream up some radical proposals for changing football.

His proposals include scrapping the offside rule, introducing sin bins, replacing penalty shoot-outs with those run-ups that they used to use in America (when it’s fair to say the U.S. was still getting to grips with this whole soccer thing), and splitting the game into four quarters rather than two halves.

There are many things wrong with football today: diving (by far the ugliest thing in the modern game), saturation TV coverage, match fixing in many parts of the world, ‘third strips,’ and a preponderance of pink boots to name just a few.

But Marco proposes remedies for none of these blights. Instead (as is so depressingly common these days) he goes in search of solutions where no problems exist.

Offside is not a problem in the game, other than when someone asks you to explain the rule. The shifting interpretations of it don’t help either but nonetheless offside does not detract from the spectacle of football.

Sin bins aren’t actually a totally ridiculous idea. They work ok in rugby, which is a sport that has a fairly similar rhythm to football. But yellow and red cards have served the game perfectly well for years. Van Basten suggests that ‘maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card.’

The cunning solution currently in place is that incidents not heavy enough for a red are dealt with by a yellow. Again, not really a problem in need of solving.

On his idea for replacing penalties, the Dutch maestro argues: ‘It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.’ It’s not clear to me that penalties are ‘less football’ but what makes them such a wonderful part of the game is the extreme tension and nerves that they generate.

I’m sure there are many players and ex-players (perhaps Chris Waddle, who still has a penalty orbiting the moon) who would happily see the back of penalty shoot-outs but they are a brutally, agonisingly beautiful part of the game. To lose them would be a tragedy.

Finally, and most incredibly, is the four quarters idea. Van Basten: ‘The coach can have three times with his players during the game.’ Imagine if you’d told Manchester United players that Fergie would have three opportunities during a game to set the hairdryer blowing.

Four quarters would make football a completely different game, the whole rhythm and dynamic would change. Forty five minutes is a perfect length of time for the ebb and flow of a match to be established and develop.

Managers get one opportunity to decisively influence the outcome at half time but they also do so through substitutions and tactical adjustments during the rest of the game. There are lulls in football punctuated by periods of intensity. It is, in short, nothing like basketball.

I haven’t been to a live basketball match but at the other end of the spectrum I have been to a baseball game. It lasted all night. In fact, I left the game around 11:30pm while it remained in progress. Back in a Manhattan bar at midnight, it was still going on.

One half time break is also more than enough punditry and analysis. We don’t need to be cutting back to the studio every twenty odd minutes for the considered thoughts of Ian Wright or Robbie Savage.

So please Marco, leave our game alone. It is fine just exactly as it is (so is the World Cup by the way but that won’t stop FIFA’s relentless quest for money, sorry I mean ‘change’).

It’s a game of two halves; not four quarters.

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I would fly 6,600 miles

United

Brothers United

Happy New Year readers! I hope 2017 is off to a good start and my best wishes to you and yours (your football team that is) for the year ahead.

The traditional festive fixture whirlwind has just blown by and left a few disgruntled managers in its wake. The managerial whine has become as much a tradition as mulled wine at this time of year. The usual suspects have had their say:

Wenger: “In 20 years it is the most uneven Christmas period I have seen on the fixture front, the difference of rest periods is absolutely unbelievable.” A surprising outburst from Arsene, a man not usually inclined to complain.

Mourinho: “The busy period is for some clubs not for everyone because you analyse there is no congestion for them. The fixtures are chosen to give some rest for some and create problems for others but we are used to it because we are in the Europa League, which creates more difficulties.” Mourinho is the great conspiracy theorist of the modern game; he sees a dark plot against him in every shadow. I rather doubt that Rupert Murdoch is out to “create problems” for you Jose but you never know.

Some are newer to the English game but have adapted quickly with their complaints:

Pochettino: “The physical demand is massive but mental too. You can see plenty of pictures from different leagues in Europe — [players] in swimming pools, at the beach, players with families, relaxing. Our players were at training, playing and going to bed early. That is tough because they are young and they need to enjoy life.” Yep, those young multimillionaire footballers hanging out with models in clubs, if only a way could be found for them to enjoy life.

Klopp: “I am a football fan, I would like to watch football everyday but if you do it, after four weeks, you cannot do it anymore. The only thing is you have to accept the problems you cause with things like this.” Is he saying that after four weeks it’s impossible to play any more football or watch it? I’m pretty sure I could keep it up for four weeks (watching that is). Indeed, it’s a challenge we all rise to every four years with the World Cup.

The unspoken complaint of course is that Chelsea have had it (relatively) easy this festive season. Conte however has a hypothesis as to what is really troubling his rivals: “I think they are angry for our position, not for the fixtures.” I think he’s right.

In his recently published Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football (buy it), Daniel Gray gets to the heart of why those of us in the stands love Christmas football:

‘Down in the concourses at half-time, football and Christmas collide to make excitable children of us all. There is probably a bigger crowd than usual. It is swelled by home-comers from London, Aberdeen and abroad, bumping into old pals and old flames, sipping with seldom-seen kid brothers. It becomes a grotto, hubbubbing with more noise than any class on a school visit could make, the air mobbed by breathless chatter about life and the transfer window.’

As an expat now, I’m one of those who’ve swollen crowds on Boxing Days as I make my annual pilgrimage. My dictionary defines a pilgrimage as ‘a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.’ That sounds a lot like my recent journeys to Tannadice from Kuala Lumpur.

We fans will get up early, arrive home late, and travel for miles to see our teams. It’s often expensive and exhausting. But you won’t hear me complaining (much), unless United lose; because 6,600 miles is a long way to travel to see your team get beat.