Sat watching England play Canada at hockey (the field version rather than the chillier, skate-based variety) in the Commonwealth Games the other day, I was intrigued by how different the feel of the game was compared to watching a professional game of football. Hockey is a game of 22 players that has the same aim as football, with the same kind of target, which would indicate similar tactics and flow to the game. Although I am no expert on any kind of stick sport, this does not seem to be the case. I came to the conclusion that a lot of the differences were down to the conspicuous lack of an offside rule.
In the last 15-20 years the rules of field hockey have been constantly tinkered with to make it more exciting and attractive to spectators as it has largely lagged in popularity behind other team sports. One of the major changes was the abolition of the offside rule, with the purpose of this shift to: transfer the balance of power towards the offense; create more space around the circle and midfield; and help the flow of play, more goals and less whistles. This was supplemented by changes to the positioning and timing of free hits and corners and the recent ability to play a “self-pass” from a free hit. This enables the player who has been fouled, after taking a free hit, to play the ball to themselves again, which should again encourage free-flowing hockey.
Since the rules of football were formally developed at the English public schools in the early nineteenth century, there has always been an offside rule in some form. Although it has been modified on various occasions, and different versions used in different leagues and countries, the general concept has always been maintained.
At various times there have been murmurings that the offside rule should be removed from football. FIFA’s always controversial front-man Sepp Blatter was said to be considering it after a discussion with his hockey counterpart Leandro Negre twelve years ago. Again the idea that more space could be created, with more goals being scored would be the driving force behind this.
I do think that hockey has probably benefitted from losing the offside rule. I would imagine that most hockey players these days could not imagine playing with offsides now as at the moment they can make use of the whole pitch and have more space. It has also given an overall effect of making the game a lot more skills based with emphasis on dribbling and individual techniques. It has also made it incredibly tiring. In their previous game against Trinidad and Tobago, England made 64 (there is no limit on players returning to the field) substitutions in the hour long game.
I’m not so sure that this would be a good idea for football though. By modifying rules so integral to the game you risk irreparably changing the game we all love
For me, there are few better sights on a football pitch than being able to look down from a high point in the stands and watch the defence and midfield moving as one unit. This organic movement is something that well tuned teams work hard to achieve and forms the basis of the structure of games. True, it is annoying when assistant referees constantly make the wrong decision but would we want to risk a possible reversion to the early days of the game where it was just a series of 1 on 1 battles across the pitch?
There is also no guarantee that it would make it more open and exciting or that there wouldn’t be horrible side-effects. Indeed, when the offside rule was slightly changed in the 1987–88 season of the Vauxhall Conference, where no attacker could be offside directly from a free-kick, the attacking team could pack the penalty area for any free-kick and have several players standing right in front of the opposition goalkeeper. This was not deemed a success and the rule change was subsequently abandoned. The fear would be that an extension of this rule, or the complete abolition of offsides might lead to teams packing the boxes with physically imposing players and playing a series of long balls, reducing the technicality of the sport and its enjoyment.
I think the distinct evolution of the two sports should be applauded. I have said it before but diversity is good for sport and having two reasonably similar games taking different approaches to their rules should make things more interesting and provide something for everyone.
Field hockey should be respected for taking such a brave move back in the eighties and nineties but I think it has to be remembered, in thinking about any possible changes to football in the future, that the offside rule has formed the basis of the modern football game; a game that has reached unparalleled heights of popularity across the globe.