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Kevin Roberts | Football has to put its hand up/by its side/behind its back and sort out its rule change train wreck

When a veteran coach says a new rule is destroying his enjoyment of the game it’s a warning about damage to the product at a critical time for sport

The name Gerald Ratner has become synonymous with self-destruction in business.

Back in 1991 the then-chief executive of the British jewellery company Ratners Group decided to liven up an address to the UK’s meeting of the Institute of Directors by describing his company’s products as ‘total crap’.

It was a remark that subsequently saw him billed ‘The man who destroyed his multimillion company in 10 seconds’ and saw him booted out of the previously buoyant chain which had branches on most British High Streets.

When the guy who runs the business and whose name is on the door describes its products in such a way it is hardly surprising that public confidence collapses and potential customers turn elsewhere for their baubles and trinkets.

It was difficult not to think about Ratner after the latest round of games in English Premier League saw a number of results decided by rulings on the changed handball law which, in an attempt to deliver clarity and transparency, has ignited an almighty row which is not going to go away any time soon and which might come to damage football and the brand of the Premier League.

The impact of the changed rules has been that any contact between a defender’s hand/arm and the ball in the penalty area – no matter what the circumstances – results in a penalty kick and the near certainty of a final score-altering goal.

Managers have lined up to criticise the move which has made defending a lottery. And the important thing here is that it is not just those whose teams have suffered who are livid, but also those who have actually benefitted.

Among the most vociferous and articulate was veteran Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson, who has pretty much seen it all in a long career during which he has been in charge at massive clubs like Inter Milan and Liverpool, as well as the national teams of Switzerland, Finland, and England.

You take the point…Roy knows about football.

So, when he tells the media that the new rule is ‘an absolute nonsense’, that it is ‘killing the game’, and that it is ‘ruining football’ it’s worth taking him seriously.

But it was his comment that the new rule was destroying his enjoyment of football that really made an impression.

When a Septuagenarian with more than 50 years in the sport says that it is losing its appeal you know something is wrong.

Unlike Ratner, who seemed to be looking for a laugh from his audience, Roy’s statements reflect a deep love for the game and followed a brutally honest assessment of the – one can only assume unintended – consequences of a new rule which appears to most people beyond Fifa’s law-making International Football Associations Board to be bonkers.

So why the focus on a technical and playing issue on this business of sport platform?

The point is that business is ultimately about the quality of the product and the desire of people to buy into it. Putting its intensely tribal nature to one side for a moment, football is part of the entertainment business. It’s must-see content that drives broadcasters all over the world to open their wallets to buy the rights to show great players in keenly-fought contests decided by skill, determination and tactical nous rather than the roulette wheel of a handball decision.

We are forever being told that consumers have never had so many choices on how to spend their time and money and are constantly reminded that sport has to work harder than ever to maintain and grow its share of attention.

To have the managers of most Premier League clubs echoing Hodgson’s thoughts, either in public or private, is having the people with their names on the doors of the business telling you that there’s something wrong with the product. To be clear, they are not saying the product is crap but, as in the case of Ratner, if those inside a business point out its shortcomings, the public will likely come to believe them.

Football, and in particular the Premier League, doesn’t need this right now. The games may be exciting, but they are being played out in surreal, sterile environments to the accompaniment of anaemic, not-quite synched soundtracks. And while ratings may be standing up for now there are questions about how long that will continue before the less committed start to drift away. That’s a particular issue when you factor-in research that suggests ‘Generation Zedders’ (born 1996-2015) are not as interested in watching sport as previous generations.

The issue with the new handball rule suggests a disconnect within the game between those who govern it and those at the sharp end – the managers, coaches, players, and the people who run clubs and their commercial operations.

It was left to Hodgson to wonder in public how it happened. How could such a far-reaching decision be taken apparently without the fullest consultation with key stakeholders? They appear to have been powerless.

Of course, this isn’t going to kill football, but the immediate question of the rules needs to be addressed before the next scheduled meeting of the International Board in 2021. But, equally importantly, the structural and procedural issues which have produced decisions that have left managers, players and fans incredulous and angry have to be reconsidered so that it can’t happen again.

‘For the Good of the Game’ is one of Fifa’s slogans. This isn’t and it needs sorting.

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