August 12, 2022

Gutta of Palaquium is an evergreen tree, native to Malaysia and Borneo, that can grow up to 100 feet tall. Its sap – known as gutta percha – is a kind of botanical phenomenon, a moldable but durable latex that resists extreme temperatures and does not conduct electricity. Profusely plundered by the British Empire, gutta percha was used to make furniture and pistol grips, and it covered the undersea cables transmitting the first international telegrams. He also played a role in the birth of association football.

When the Laws of the Game were first devised during a series of meetings in a Covent Garden pub in London, there were two key issues at stake. The first was whether this new codified sport should allow people to pick up the ball and run with it. The second concerned the level of violence allowed. ‘Hacking’ was a real concern among the clubs involved, as were players modifying their boots to make them even more likely to dig into someone’s flesh. So when the laws were finally signed on December 8, 1863, not only did three of them prohibit players from picking up the ball, but rule number 13 prohibited a player from wearing “protruding nails, iron plates or the gutta perched on the soles or heels of his boots”.

Gutta percha still leads a respectable life, commonly used as a material for dental fillings. However, its relevance to football has drastically diminished, with the militarization of football boots seen as less important in the 21st century than the ability of the shoe to effectively create kinetic friction between the foot and the grass. The Laws of the Game are also concerned with different things these days, but they are perhaps just as indicative of what is on the minds of lawmakers.

This week, the game’s global legislative body, the International Football Association Board, announced its openness to a series of trials that would test ideas that could yet become law. In a statement to the media, Ifab said that “trials such as the explanation of certain refereeing decisions during a match, a potentially fairer calculation of playing time and kicks” were discussed during its AGM.

The news follows a similar announcement from the KNVB, the Dutch Football Association, which said it had offered to test such measures – and others – at Fifa. Additional ideas included the ability to dribble from a free kick, unlimited “flying substitutions” made while the ball is in play, and changing each game to 30 minutes per half of clean playing time. These changes, according to KNVB’s Jan Dirk van der Zee, would make the game “faster, sportier, fairer and more attractive”.

KNVB’s Jan Dirk van der Zee (left, with Daniëlle van de Donk) thinks it ‘needs more than sticking to tradition and nostalgia’. Photograph: Gerrit van Keulen/EPA

Van der Zee is the director of amateur football at the KNVB and his interest is in getting more children to play. But something else he said fits precisely with the thoughts of those at the top of the professional game. Arguing in favor of trying rule changes, Van der Zee said: “If we are to compete with the temptations of the screen and free individual sports, it takes more than sticking to tradition and the nostalgia.”

That elite football is in direct competition not only with the NFL and the NBA, but also with Netflix and PlayStation is an idea shared by just about every senior gaming executive. calls, is understood to be promiscuous and easily bored and will take his eyeballs elsewhere if not entertained. This logic helped inform the thinking behind the reform of the Champions League, the abortive launch of the Super League and even part of football’s flirtation with cryptocurrency, where tokens were marketed as a way to buy ( and therefore to remain faithful to) a club and the Game.

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You can look at these proposed essays through the same prism. And the argument, defended among others by Arsène Wenger, according to which a kick would avoid failures of throw-ins, or that a free kick dribble would make things move faster, has its merit. However, you could also argue that a player might also take their time deciding who should be kicked as a throw-in, or that coaches might still prefer to make their rolling substitutions when the ball is out of play, the maintain better tactical form. Either way, the results of adopting the changes and what kind of game it would create is not yet known.

Trials, if and when they happen, would seek to address this issue, but regardless, the underlying message that the game needs to speed up and be less interrupted is growing. strong. Van der Zee argues that those resisting changes to the law are “football romantics”, stuck on an idea of ​​how the game once was. Others may respond that it is the spirit in which the game is played, rather than the laws, that define the outcome and that the importance of winning – or rather the fear of losing – is what slows things down. . It’s also possible to wonder what the Victorian players might have thought of all this regulation tinkering – though they’d probably be too busy picking shards of gutta percha from their shins to notice.