The Sweeper: Should the British have so much say in the Laws of the Game?

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The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is something of a curiosity in today’s system of global governance of the game. The board meets annually to discuss and decide on any changes to the Laws of the Game, which all national associations affiliated to FIFA are required to enforce in games under their auspices.

The curiosity is the board’s constitution.  It’s made up of four representatives of FIFA and one representative each from the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It takes six votes for a rule to be changed.

Effectively, that gives the United Kingdom (a single nation, if not for FIFA purposes) a veto over all changes to the rules of the game.

The IFAB is holding its annual meeting this weekend in Zurich, and has five main changes on the agenda:

  • no automatic red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity if a penalty is given;
  • the legality of players “feinting” before taking penalty kicks;
  • allowing direct input from the fourth official on the sideline to the referee on key decisions;
  • the future of goaline technology;
  • similarly, the possibility of introducing extra assistant referees on the goaline

The latter is obviously a hot topic because of the Henry handball against the Republic of Ireland. Which brings up back to the curiosity we started with: in an age when FIFA has over 200 member nations, is it fair or sensible that four member associations have such a disproportionate say in the rules of the game? Had it been Northern Ireland, rather than the Republic, robbed by Henry, how would that change the dynamic of this weekend’s meeting?

Historically, of course, this makes sense. The IFAB existed long before FIFA did: with various rules in place across the British Isles as the game began to be played in an organised fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, the Football Association pioneered standardisation of rules alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Irish associations in 1882, with the first meeting agreeing on the rules of the game taking place in 1886.

When FIFA was formed under continental leadership in 1904, it accepted the IFAB’s authority to determine the Laws of the Game, with Britain still very much the epicentre of the footballing world. FIFA itself was first invited to take part in the board’s discussions only in 1913.

The IFAB has guarded the rules with a respectable conservatism; is this historical provenance enough to justify the curiosity of so much British Isles representation on the board?

One might argue, of course, that anything which prevents Sepp Blatter’s FIFA leadership from having more say in the game’s rules is a good thing. That said, why not continue the same balance of power, but have four member associations randomly rotate each year on the board in place of the British associations?

Or is this a case of if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it?

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