Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are constantly reminding us why football is the most popular sport on the planet. Love them or hate them, they are not merely incredible athletes, but artists, virtuosos and creators of sublime beauty.
They also make it clear when the laws of football fall short of its lofty ideals. The advantage rule is one such law.
The advantage rule is noble in spirit and purpose: It prevents defending teams from holding up promising spells of attacking play by cynically fouling off the ball. It prevents minor infringements from interrupting the flow of the game.
But the rule suffers from three critical flaws: It rewards foul play, gives the referee undue discretion and plays a larger-than-recognized role in the epidemic of diving that plagues the modern game.
Luckily, there is a simple fix, and it hails from the sport of ice hockey.
The laws of football give referees the power to award free kicks as a disincentive to fouling. Without the threat of punishment, defenders would run rampant and the artistry of the game would be severely undermined.
However, when the advantage rule is properly applied, a foul is deliberately not punished. As a result, it gives defenders a positive incentive to foul.
In the video below, Cristiano Ronaldo plays a lovely first-time pass in what could have been a very promising counterattack for Real Madrid against Manchester City. However, he is cynically held back by Pablo Zabaleta and prevented from joining the attack.
It's impossible to know exactly why Zabaleta decided to foul Ronaldo in that moment, but one thing is clear: He wasn't punished for it because the advantage carried the day. (Zabaleta was not booked after the play, either.)
In this way, players often get away with minor fouls on attacking players after they make passes. If the pass goes to a teammate and the foul isn't severe enough to warrant a booking, there's no reason for the defender not to foul.
And the advantage rule gives more power and influence to the one man no one wants to see with any more of it. Only the referee gets to decide when an advantage is truly an advantage and when a free kick would be a better reward. But why should he get to decide?
Imagine that an attacking player gets fouled just outside the penalty area as he makes a successful pass to a teammate. Play the advantage or take the free kick? Perhaps the manager of the team is in a good position to decide. Are there any decent free-kick takers on the pitch? Is the player who just received the ball a bumbling fool? Certainly, these seem like relevant considerations. But the referee is in no position to consider them as he decides whether to blow his whistle or allow play to continue.
It's no surprise, then, that teams are so often infuriated at a referee's decision to either play or more often not play the advantage.
Which brings us to the problem of diving. And that problem starts with the definition.
Diving is what we call a player's attempt to deceive the referees into calling a foul. But just as often, players go to ground to indicate to the referee that a foul has actually occurred. We like to think that every fall on the football field falls neatly into the category of honest or simulated, but the reality is much more complicated.
And why would a player need to indicate to the referee that he has been fouled? Because of the advantage rule, of course! Referees too often interpret a player's willingness to continue play as evidence the player is seeking to capitalize on an advantage, however minor.
Messi is an outlier in world football—a player who rarely hits the deck to receive a free kick. Though supporters admire him for playing through tough challenges and pursuing the ball even after being fouled, all too often he does so to his own detriment. Referees are loathe to stop the game when attacking players keep their feet, pursue the ball and minimize the impact of the foul. After all, they have little incentive to upset a defending team by whistling for a foul when the attacking player makes no appeal, nor do they wish to interfere in case an advantage for the attacking player ensues.
But in most cases, Messi doesn't go on to score in these plays. And the fouls that defenders commit against him make him less likely to do so. Rather than serving Messi, the advantage rule serves the defenders who hack at him.
Most players see how Messi gets punished for his steadfastness and go to ground. Why get battered only to eventually lose the ball when you can win a free kick instead?
So, what's the solution? Simply adapt hockey's advantage rule for football: Whenever a team commits a foul, the referee makes a signal but doesn't blow his whistle. Play continues until the attacking team either scores or—more often—loses possession.
If they score, then the advantage has, of course, been realized. But if they don't, then a free kick is awarded at the location of the original foul.
With this simple modification, all the problems of the advantage rule vanish. FIFA, what are you waiting for?
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