Chaos Theory & Indirect Free-Kicks

by | Sep 28, 2017

I’ve been watching football for pushing forty years, now, and in spite of numerous serious challengers, there remains one question above all others to which I’ve never received a truly satisfying answer. It’s a question that touches upon refereeing consistency, my own personal baseness, and even the fundamental, existential matter of whether sport is, can, or even should be considered just another branch of the light entertainment industry, or whether it’s something other, that exists entirely within its own cultural bubble. And it’s a very simple question, as well: so, why aren’t more indirect free-kicks ever awarded inside the penalty area, then?

First of all, allow me to lay my cards on the table. As a consumer of football, I probably go against the grain, somewhat. It’s not that I consider moments of brilliant skill to be without value. That would be an absurd stance to take. It’s more that I consider the inherent beauty of the game to come from somewhere else. Most sports are boiled down to varying degrees of perfection. Take snooker, as an example. Watching snooker at the highest level can be an almost chastening experience, two players pitting their wits against each other in silence, employing a dazzling array of competencies to produce contests of sporting excellence from which it can often feel a pity that there has to be a losing player.

Football, however, is different. Whilst most sports are acts of genius punctuated by occasional mistakes or lapses of concentration, the timbre of football is different. Football leans in a different direction. Opportunities to score are few and far between, when compared with other sports. Whereas other sports consist of perfection that is punctuated by brief moments where fallibility rears it’s head, football’s natural rhythm is that of mundanity, pock-marked with absolutely blindsiding brilliance. Indeed, I would go so far as to posit that this, whether we experience it consciously or subconsciously, is a great part of its broad appeal. Even the best professional footballers are highly fallible, and we, the onlookers, recognise that.

In recent years, of course, the game has become increasingly sanitised and technical. Whether deliberate or not, that experience of the human condition is being exorcised from the game. But deep in our heart of hearts, there remain some of us who yearn for that imperfection. We long for pitches like swamps, for players swinging their feet at a moving football like a drunken golfer teeing off and missing. And we definitely miss goalmouth scrambles. There is something about a football bouncing around a six yard area like a pinball that is energising and hilarious. The not knowing where the ball might end up. The panicked looks on the faces of these ordinarily thoroughly reposed professionals. The ball either squirting into the goal or being leathered clear, and  into the earth’s orbit. Right there, for some of us, is the very elixir of this entrancing, ridiculous game.

So, rather than trying to iron the kinks out of football, why can’t FIFA’s International Football Advisory Board, who set the laws of the game, do what they can to make these fabulous freak shows a more common occurrence? There’s one obvious place that they could look for inspiration. As likely to cause a goalmouth scramble as anything else, the awarding of more indirect free-kicks to attacking teams inside the penalty area would give football some of its chaos theory back. There remain people who cannot fully grasp why indirect free-kicks to attacking teams are even awarded inside the penalty area. The answer is that a penalty kick should only really be awarded for a foul that would have constituted the award of a direct free-kick had it taken place outside of the penalty area. The offence of “dangerous play” – a player raising his or her boot above his or her chest without making direct contact with another player – is an indirect free-kick offence. There are plenty of others, besides.

If we work to the assumption that the offences that would allow for a greater number of indirect free-kicks inside the penalty area exist, then we can only assume that the reason why more are not given there comes down to interpretation. Perhaps there is an informal agreement that any foul on an attacking player inside the penalty area is a penalty kick offence. Perhaps referees, mindful of furious players, hysterical press and a media that doesn’t even seem to understand the laws of the game at times, just don’t need the bother of trying – doubtlessly in vain – to explain their workings. But I propose that we rise up against the tyranny of the penalty kick. I propose that we lobby for a concerted effort to bring more indirect free-kicks inside the penalty area to be brought into football.

The lawmakers have a golden opportunity to put this into action. Much has been made this year of the controversy over shirt-pulling inside the penalty area, and it has been suggested that one of the reasons why this particular offence so frequently goes unpunished is that referees are unhappy to award penalty kicks at the volume that they may need to, were they to apply the laws of the game correctly. Now, it could be argued that shirt-pulling only really constitutes an indirect free-kick offence anyway. After all, no body-to-body contact takes place with a bit of shirt-tugging. So perhaps all it would need to make this happen would be for either an edict to be sent out to referees to instruct them that shirt-tugging on attacking players by defenders should always be penalised by the award of an indirect free-kick or for shirt-tugging to be recognised as a separate offence that results in the awarding of an indirect free-kick.

There are two potential outcomes from this. On the one hand, players might finally get the message that they shouldn’t be doing this from free-kicks and we may see the amount of shirt-tugging that goes on during matches, in particular from set pieces, suddenly and somewhat drastically reduce. On the other hand, though, we may yet get to see more indirect free-kicks being awarded inside the penalty area. More chaos. More confusion. More of the whites of their eyes. It is, I would humbly suggest, a win-win situation. None of this will happen, of course. The IFAB will be considerably more likely to make the handball laws even more nonsensical or the offside law even more convoluted before they turn their attention to this sort of thing.

Indeed, with their standardisation of just about everything in the game, we might even be persuaded that the very thought of seeing these lavishly recompensed, slickly marketed superheroes thrashing about in the mud like a man trying to wrestle an angry goose brings those that run world football out in hives. Like the defensive wall facing a striker with somebody ready to tap the ball to him, and no intention of doing anything but belting the ball as hard as he possibly can straight into one of those defenders’ faces, they should stand firm. Please, please, please. Give us back our chaos.