Victorian Moustaches and VAR

Perhaps it makes me an anorak if I say that there is a peculiar pleasure in reading the rules of football and their past iterations. Take the Sheffield Rules of 1858, an important milestone in the laws of the modern game. In their first draft, Rule 5 stated:

  1. No pushing with the Hands or Hacking is fair under any circumstances whatsoever

No doubt the enforcers of the age were unhappy with this state of affairs, since the second draft gave more leeway to their peculiar set of skills:

  1. Pushing with the Hands is allowed but no Hacking (or tripping up) is fair under any circumstances whatsoever.

  1. No player may be held or pulled over.

The echoes of a thousand touchline arguments can be heard in these changes. ‘Twas only a trip,’ says the upright culprit. ‘Yes, but that is still ungentlemanly!’ the crumpled victim replies. Every new rule adds another entry to football’s thesaurus of violence and new loopholes to be exploited. It gets worse when you remember that in 1858 there was still no provision for a referee. One can imagine those Victorians gleefully hacking, yanking and pushing their way to victory, pausing only to rearrange their moustaches.

Of course, our footballing vocabulary is constantly shifting to accommodate new rules. Pundits now pour over slow-motion replays for evidence of contact, rather than questioning if that contact was really enough to constitute a foul. The emergence of VAR has led to some even more spectacular contortions in the language. What really is a ‘natural silhouette’ in which a handball is deemed ‘unintentional’ and how does one assume such a position?

Amongst an older generation of players and fans, there is often a holier-than-thou disdain for the modern game. To them the Premier League has become a floppers’ paradise. But could the game really have ignored all the evidence of TV cameras in favour of an obscurer code of conduct? It is surely easier to establish if contact has been made, than to determine some pre-conceived amount of force that is acceptable?

The rules of football may have to adapt to meet the needs of technology, rather than the other way around. Or at least, the rules may need to distinguish where technology can be helpful (say, the offside rule; foul play off the ball) and where it merely complicates matters. Otherwise we will be back on that Victorian field, arguing over the differences between hacks and trips and watching replay after replay in search of validation.