Do you remember obstruction? It used to be quite the thing. Defenders would often use this tactic to stop opposing players. Usually a defender would surreptitiously block an attacker by placing his body between his opponent and the ball. “Obstruction” we would cry. “Shoulder to shoulder!”, the other side would contend nonsensically.
I still hear protests of obstruction, but there is no mention of that offence in the laws of the game. It has gone. Nobody obstructs any more. It is defunct, irrelevent, written out of the rule book.
We now call it Impeding the Progress of an Opponent. It is Law no.12.
Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the path of the opponent to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction by an opponent when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.
So there we have it, players no longer obstruct, they impede. And I think everybody would agree that there’s a lot of impeding going on. So why don’t our officials referee it?
We see impedement at every single corner kick. At Under 10 level, where I coach, I have never told my players to defend corners like American footballers, but they all do it. It is now the first thing they think of at a corner kick. Small, otherwise innocent children are grappling with each other in complete ignorance of the ball coming their way. They think it’s OK, they’ve seen it on the telly.
I would love to see it punished at the top of the sport. It’s a blight on the game. Bizarrely, I think referees more often penalise attackers for fouls at corners. Well I have yet to meet that attacker who would rather foul his opponent than try to score a goal. I can’t say the same about defenders though. It seems to me that if there is anyone impeding in the box, it would be the defender. I just wish referees would punish them.
The other occasion when the law needs to be changed is in the act of “shepherding the ball out”. Does anyone think that this should be legal? Anyone? We regularly see defenders place themselves between an attacker and the ball and prevent them from reaching it as it rolls out of play. Why is this a good thing? One of the main accusations against rugby is that it is the only sport in the world where kicking the ball out of play is deemed to be a skill. Well “shepherding the ball out” is no better.
All our natural instincts tell us that it should be illegal. One player is trying to play football, the other is trying to kill the action. But the laws of the game specifically state that it is acceptable:
Shielding the ball is permitted. A player who places himself between an opponent and the ball for tactical reasons has not committed an offence as long as the ball is kept within playing distance and the player does not hold off the opponent with his arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent.
A player may be charged by his opponent? Really? I never thought that charging would be specifically encouraged by the laws.
The key phrase in that paragraph is as long as the ball is kept within playing distance. In other words, a defender is entitled to prevent access to the ball as long as they would be able play it themselves if they wanted to. That’s just weird. Why do defenders get such benefits? The law assumes that because the ball is within possible playing distance that it belongs to the defender. The law has never seen Gavin Maguire play football.
The law should change now. Nobody should be deemed to be in control of the ball unless they have touched it. Of course once they have touched it, the defender wouldn’t want to kill the game as they would be conceding a set-piece. The ball would stay in play, and the flow of the game would continue, which would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?