Palaquium gutta is an evergreen tree, native to Malaysia and Borneo, that can grow up to 100ft tall. Its sap – known as gutta percha – is something of a botanical phenomenon, a moldable but durable latex that is resistant to temperature extremes and doesn’t conduct electricity. Plundered heavily by the British empire, gutta percha was used to make furniture and pistol grips, and it coated the undersea cables transmitting the first international telegrams. It also played a role in the birth of association football.
When the laws of the game were first devised over a series of meetings in a pub in London’s Covent Garden, there were two key issues at stake. The first was whether this new, codified sport should allow people to pick up the ball and run with it. The second was above the level of permitted violence. “Hacking” was a real concern among the clubs involved, as players were modifying their boots to make them even more likely to gouge someone’s flesh. So, when the laws were finally signed off on 8 December 1863, not only did three of them prohibit players from picking up the ball, rule number 13 banned a player from wearing “projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on the soles or heels of his boots”.
Gutta percha still lives a respectable life, commonly used as a material for fillings in people’s teeth. Its relevance to football, however, has substantially waned, with the weaponising of football boots considered less important in the 21st century than whether the shoe can effectively create kinetic friction between foot and grass. The game’s laws are interested in different things nowadays, too, but they are perhaps just as revealing about what concerns the minds of the law makers.
This week the game’s global law-making body, the International Football Association Board, announced its openness to a series of trials that would experiment with ideas which may yet become laws. In a release to the media, Ifab said “trials such as explaining certain refereeing decisions during a game, a potentially fairer calculation of playing time, and kick-ins” had been discussed at its AGM.
The news followed a similar announcement by the KNVB, the Dutch Football Association, which said it had proposed trialling such measures – and others – to Fifa. The extra ideas included being able to dribble from a free-kick, unlimited “flying substitutions” made while the ball is in play and altering each match to 30 minutes per half of clean playing time. These changes, according to the KNVB’s Jan Dirk van der Zee, would make the game “faster, sportier, fairer and more attractive”.
Van der Zee is the director of amateur football at the KNVB and his interest is in getting more children to play. But something else he said chimes precisely with the thoughts of those at the very top of the professional game. Arguing in favor of trialling rule changes, Van der Zee said: “If we want to compete with the temptations of the screen and the free individual sports, more is needed than sticking to tradition and nostalgia.”
That elite football is in direct competition with not only the NFL and NBA but Netflix and PlayStation is an idea shared by pretty much every senior executive in the game. The “fan of the future”, as they are known, is understood to be promiscuous and easily bored and will take their eyeballs elsewhere if not entertained. This logic helped inform the thinking behind reform of the Champions League, the aborted launch of the Super League and even some of football’s flirtation with cryptocurrency, where tokens were marketed as a way of buying into (and thus staying loyal to) a club and the game.
You can look at these proposed trials through the same lens. And the argument – espoused by Arsène Wenger among others – that a kick-in would avoid the faff of throw-ins, or that a dribbling free-kick would get things moving more quickly, has its merits. You could also argue, however, that a player could equally take their time over deciding who should receive a kick-in as a throw-in, or that coaches might still prefer to make their rolling subs when the ball is out of play, the better to preserve a tactical shape. Either way the outcomes of embracing the changes, and what type of game it would create, are not yet known.
Trials if and when they happen would seek to work that out, but regardless, the underlying message that the game needs to speed up and be less broken up is being made increasingly loudly. Van der Zee argues that those resistant to law changes are “football romantics”, stuck on an idea of how the game once was. Others may respond that it is the spirit in which the game is played, rather than the laws, which define the outcome and that the importance of winning – or rather the fear of defeat – is what slows things down. It’s possible, too, to wonder what the Victorian players might have made of all this regulatory tinkering – though they would probably be too busy picking shards of gutta percha from their shins to notice.