1) The idea of the rule
Once upon a time, in rather dimly remembered times, a rule was introduced that almost directly followed the official introduction of the game of football as a competitive sport: In the case of foul play or handball – both of which are defined within certain limits as to what counts as such – there is a free kick at the place of the offence. Even if the word and the sport were introduced in English, the word “freekick” is largely synonymous. Free kick. Kicking, that is, it must always be, since it is played with the main ball-carrying body part anchored in the name, the foot. Only this shot should also be “free”. In order to emphasise this fact, it was said that the opposing players had to keep at least 10 yards distance to the ball until the free shot was taken. At this point, it seems certain that 10 yards (=9.15 metres) seemed to the rule-makers at the time to be quite a large distance, which gave the shooter so much freedom that one could not even use the word “danger of scoring” near the penalty area.
There was certainly a certain logic behind it all: a foul is an unsporting act. You don’t want to see unsporting behaviour, the spectator doesn’t want to see it. If it does happen, the offender should not only be threatened by the rules, but perhaps also by coaches or team-mates, because he has caused damage to his team, perhaps even by the spectators, who give vent to their displeasure about an unsportsmanlike act by blowing their whistles, and afterwards the media would also have the chance to give the offender a dressing down. Unsportsmanlike conduct should go. The means: punishments in the true sense of the word, if the code of honour is not sufficient, that one should not foul out of a sense of honour, should not be unsportsmanlike, apart from the risk of injury.
In this context in particular, it is worth remembering that the original rules did not provide for a player to be substituted, even if injured by his opponent through foul play. Almost 100 years had to pass for this change. But even so, this fact says enough: you don’t foul. It’s unsporting, and nobody wants to see it.
The intention was certainly there: if someone does commit a foul, it should definitely not be worth it. “Crime dont pay.” So if a foul happens near the penalty area, then the goal situation prevented by the foul (as one of the means!) should at least be replaced by the free kick situation equally, if not better. Of course, this will not be possible in all cases, but the tendency should remain recognisable. This was certainly the case when the rules were introduced.
2) A free kick today
In today’s world, almost nothing reminds us of these noble, but actually self-evident intentions. People foul to their hearts’ content. Whenever an opponent passes the defender, the latter will practically always go to the limits of legality and, in an emergency – this has occurred when he has really been played around – will transgress them with a light heart, which in principle already happens permanently during the action with supposedly “small nods not worthy of punishment”, which the defenders have approached over time in the knowledge of the impunity with which they will go out. Fouling happens, all the time actually. The question is always how long the ref watches or how cleverly you foul so that you don’t get a whistle but just nullify the action, ideally recovering the ball.
If you now ask the question why the defender fouls, the answer is easy: he does it because the benefit is greater than the harm. There is no other consideration here. Unsportingness? Risk of injury? Breaking the rules? The prestige of being considered a roughneck? There is only one criterion: success. In fact, it’s not just that he does it because the harm in this situation is less than the benefit, but because the long-term effect would be that the coach, while appreciating and respecting him as a fair sportsman, would give his place to someone else who, while less good, would at least “get right down to business.” The truth is that this man has only got there, to this division and to this position, because he has consistently adhered to this sort of guidance: “Your opponent must never pass you. Otherwise you’re out of the team.” Something like that. However, the precept only exists because it was first made and later carried by the media. The one-hard defender is nothing but iron-hard, whereas he used to be able to be fair.
This foul play alone – see chapter “What is a penalty?” – is an unpleasant fact, because from the point of view of the once again summoned neutral spectator (who, admittedly, has long since ceased to really exist due to all these little perceived illogicalities and injustices), the permanent interruptions of play, even the very view of foul play, of unfairness, is an abomination and, shaking his head, he shifts even further away. But the fact that the penalty never comes off as such, and that one senses this more than clearly, ensures rebellion against the game of football in every respect, even if it remains inarticulate at this point. Something is wrong, you can feel it. It simply can’t be like this. Worrying about it? “What for? The game is no fun, but I know a good other one!” So many could have been lost long ago.
Back to the free kick: provided the offence occurs near the opponent’s 16, the free kick should calmly provide increased goal danger. If the danger of scoring were identical, there would actually be no serious problem with it, but even then one might confidently ask why the concept of a penalty is not taken seriously? It is allowed to hurt so that the behaviour does not happen, isn’t it? One more aspect is mentioned here: if the goal chance were reproduced in its magnitude by the free kick situation, then it would still be a little unfair because the execution of the free kick allows time to pass. Consider that the striker who had just broken through was laid just before entering the penalty area (“yes, cleverly fouled!”). The finish would be expected within the next two seconds, with a direct free kick it may well take a whole minute with wall adjustment and palaver! In fact, it’s unbearable.
Two comments arise, building on the introduction:
Comment 1: If the rule that the distance of the wall must be 10 yards is considered to be set in stone and must never be touched, then it is requested here that it at least be observed.
In practice, there is actually never a free kick where the wall takes this distance and keeps it for execution, at least not for those near the goal. The referee makes an effort, steps back the distance, pulls the wall back to the height of its dimensions with a lot of effort, already gives way a lot there, but then has to watch the annoying counter-stepping powerlessly (?), which reaches its climax at the moment when the shooter takes his run-up, because a player has already come out of the wall. In short: At the moment the ball is touched, the distance to the wall (or the player closest to the ball) is on average less than 8 metres, and for that you can safely sacrifice a hand for the fire, if that is not true.
The danger of scoring is minimal. The foul play was worth it. The referee has no means?! This is comparable to a kindergarten where the children dance on the table despite being forbidden to do so, an outsider observes this and points out that this behaviour is forbidden, but the teacher helplessly shrugs his shoulders and says: “Yes, I can’t do anything. They just won’t get off the table.” “Oh, interesting,” says the man, “I know a remedy.”
Now what is desirable about the situation described? Which honest, fair sportsman, enthusiastic (neutral!) spectator can still visit the stadium with a good heart and in good spirits? Football as a full-fledged substitute for war, yes, that’s true. All means are justified, including storming the opponent’s fan camp, to name just one example. The opponent is to be rendered idle, defenceless, will-less and helpless by any means necessary to subdue him. This applies to both sides. In the stadium there are only warriors armed to the teeth who, if necessary, are even prepared to lynch the referee for the good cause – which is: their team wins – as at least the fan chants suggest. A neutral spectator would have lost about as much there as a Harvard student in jail.
The second observation is this: How solid is the stone in which, how sharp was the chisel with which, this rule was pounded? If 10 yards should prove insufficient – which, in their own opinion, they have long since – then it would behoove them to sink the stone, together with the chisel, deep into the sea of injustice and raise it to an audacious 12 yards! An outrageous, unbelievable demand? It seems right up there with blasphemy. Changing a rule already doesn’t go at all. And then with the intention of making it work in favour of the attackers? After all, a goal will be scored and there will be suspense? No, better a tired 0-0 than an exciting 3-3, or something like that.
3) The arms are part of the wall?!
Incidentally, there is another observation in connection with direct free kicks near the penalty area. The wall does not take up the distance prescribed by the rules, it tips towards the shooter, often a player comes out of the wall earlier than allowed – i.e. before touching the ball –, one even occasionally sees the absurd scene of a defender running sideways towards the shooter as he takes his run-up. Even if one should correctly conclude that he could never, ever reach the ball before the shooter, the behaviour is still irritating and robs a certain percentage of concentration and thus precision. But that’s not enough: you often see the wall jumping up, and all the players in it angle their arm, feigning some kind of protection for their head.
Now there are the two cases that can be further subdivided: The ball goes against an arm. As a result, nowadays there are actually referees who blow the whistle, but usually only if the wall is outside the penalty area. If inside the penalty area: penalty? No, you don’t get it, see the relevant chapter. Nevertheless, the referee is sure to be outraged if he blows the whistle. This applies to the “penalised” team, but can also spread to spectators and announcers. “What did he see?” It’s hard to see, after all, and something like that always causes a bit of an uproar. The normal case is that he doesn’t blow the whistle. Chance thwarted, everything as usual. Nevertheless, thanks to the attentive whistle blowers! Stick to it and also penalise in the penalty area (but this has already been observed).
The second possibility is that the ball really doesn’t go against one of the outstretched arms. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? At this very point the answer is “Yes there is!” and the perplexing follow-up question: Why didn’t the ball go against it? Here’s the answer to that: It’s because when adjusting the shot, before and during the execution, the performer has a certain plan, sees a trajectory in front of his eyes, imagines how and where the ball will hit. The wall is the obstacle to be overcome. And that’s exactly what he concentrates on: “How do I get over this wall?” But that’s exactly where the snag lies: the wall is higher, wider, more compact than allowed, precisely because of the illegally (?!) extended elbows. There is a further irritation caused by this. This is further exacerbated by the fact that, as a shooter, one can be absolutely unsure whether, if one’s arm were to be knocked off, one would really get the just reward, in the form of a penalty or free kick even closer to the goal. This fact, again only intuitively but very consequentially observed, reduces the size of the goal chance even further. Everything, but really everything, is initially at the expense of the strikers – don’t forget here the logical yellow card that an attacker would get if he called attention to intercepting the ball with his hand, in a scene because the ref didn’t penalise it –, at the expense of the attractiveness and excitement of the game and at the expense of the person who is supposed to finance it in the end: The spectator.
4) The improvement
So let’s just mention here that this rule change proposal is also generally based on a rethinking process. We want goal action. We want sport, play, excitement. We want fair and tough duels, they are part of it. We don’t want permanent unsportsmanship and injustice. We want a penalty for the one who deserves a penalty. We want unsporting behaviour to cause more harm than good. We want a free kick to be taken correctly. See to it!
Just to present two ideas: For example, there could be certain, fixed free kick positions that are awarded depending on the severity of the offence. The idea would be to choose the position in such a way that it roughly corresponds to the size of the thwarted goal opportunity, if not exceeds it. The fixed free-kick positions would have the advantage that, if one is awarded, one can deal very seriously in training with the execution from this position. For this purpose, the wall distance is either to be maintained, as required, or simply increased, to 12 yards, to make it a chance.
Alternatively or in addition, one could start to add up the number of fouls individually and per team, comparable to basketball. A foul is a foul, always plus 1. For more serious offences, the means yellow or red card remain unchanged. One could invent an aggravation, a penalty, from 5 individual fouls or 15 team fouls. For the individual player, a suspension, forcing a substitution (possibly beforehand), for the team a good free kick situation from every further foul, regardless of the position where the current foul play just happened and regardless of the severity of the current offence. That, too, by analogy with basketball. Anyway, it must be possible to get rid of the real unsportsmanlike conduct, to get the kids off the table. It’s just a question of what one would like. And whether one understands it.