I was watching old football matches on YouTube the other day, and a striker was standing in front of the opposing goalkeeper and waving his arms. The goalkeeper had calmly taken a pass from a teammate on the halfway line and then carried it around for 20 seconds. I know, of course, that this was allowed in the past, but at first I was irritated. The sight was so unfamiliar.
Then the goalkeeper kicked the ball back to the front, having used up about a minute. I don’t need to tell you which team were in the lead. The striker was still flailing. This seemed to be an expression of his helplessness. This year, football celebrates an anniversary: 30 years of the backpass rule. At the 1990 World Cup and the 1992 European Championship, a goalkeeper was still allowed to pick up his teammate’s pass and hold on to it as long for as he wanted. The defending team had no chance of getting hold of the ball.
Since 1992 this has been prohibited. The backpass rule is an example of how rules are created in a community and the positive influence they have on everyone involved. The new rule made the game faster, more interesting, more offensive. It still has an effect today. At no World Cup were fewer goals scored on average than in 1990, and since then the rate has risen, with almost half a goal more scored per game at each of the past two World Cup tournaments. The rule also redefined the goalkeeper’s position and integrated them more into the game.
The backpass rule was also significant because it highlights a central element of football, namely the talent of the players. Those who used to lead 1-0 were able to slow down the action. Teams have long since solved it differently in order to secure a lead. Today, the best manage to keep and possess the ball, free themselves from tight situations through combinations and attack anew. Spain did this particularly well at the Women’s European Championship this summer. It was both fair and beautiful.
Everyone now has to compete for the ball, even the goalkeeper. So the new rule has also contributed to a more sporting behaviour. It is important how we treat each other, how we play with each other.
Professionalisation and commercialisation influence the game and the mentality of the players. The more money is involved, the greater the attention and importance of the event, the more likely the end, the victory, gains the upper hand over the means by which it is achieved. Humans are like that. When the stakes are high, they sometimes exploit the leeway of the rules.
Good rules counteract this, change behaviour in the desired direction, shape people, put the good of all in the foreground. This kind of education happens all the time, in football as in society. Those responsible always have the task of adapting the rules to the present, of checking them so that professional and social behaviour do not contradict each other too much.
Women’s football could now find itself in a similar situation to 1992. In the final at Wembley, England defended their 2-1 win over Germany at the corner flag, where they practically trapped the ball for almost 10 minutes. They were clearly the deserving European champions, scoring 22 goals in six games. But this was time-wasting; it immediately annoyed many fans.
But the fans should know: there was a lot at stake for those England players at their home tournament. After more than half a century they had a chance to win another title for a nation which has invested heavily in its sport over the past decade. Investment in women’s football is required, investment in women’s football is right, and victories justify investment.
Against this backdrop, the play at the corner flag was professional. I know from my own experience in the World Cup final in Rio 2014 that the time until the final whistle can drag. The minutes between the winning goal and the end were the longest of my life.
Now the game starts all over again. Rule-makers always have to be attentive. They can ask themselves whether they will curb the amount of time teams are allowed to play at the corner flag in future. They have to decide when it is still accepted as a tactical tool and when the spectators will turn away when the end again justifies the means.
It also depends on how the players behave on the pitch, whether they feel it is unfair. In the final at Wembley, I noticed that the Germany players complained about the England players with looks and gestures. Similar to the strikers who once waved their arms, telling the goalkeeper: “Release the ball!” They were not helpless at all. They demanded new rules and were partly responsible for the new backpass rule. Their protest was successful.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.