For me it is a very unfortunate coincidence that the FIFA World Cup falls at the peak of General Assembly Season. I must confess that my GA tracking has gotten a bit distracted by following the beautiful game. Sometime I will blog about how being a soccer referee has informed my theology and how I turned that into a children’s sermon – but that is not today. Right now I wanted to give a few more general thoughts about the game and, hold on, Presbyterian polity.
To give a brief background I grew up in a city known for its support of soccer with an NALS team and now a team in the “revived” NASL. As a youth we played pick-up games, a couple of which resulted in injuries requiring significant medical treatment to friends of mine. While I only played organized soccer one year on a Jr. High team I have followed local teams, college and professional, where I have lived. I am a trained soccer coach and referee. It is the latter that connects with my passion for Presbyterian polity.
The first point I want to touch on is the origin of the “organized” game. While the exact origins of the game are debated, and many cultures seem to have similar style games, the rules that the present game derives from come from a series of rules developed between British public schools who played similar style games but each with their own specific differences. (See where I’m going with this about different Presbyterian branches?) The rules of what we now recognize as Association Football and the predecessor to the modern Laws of the Game were agreed upon in 1863 with the formation of the Football Association. Some of the schools’ versions of the games involved the use of the hands and an alternate game, based on the game played at Rugby School , was codified in 1870 as rugby football. (Note the not-so-subtle inclusion of the rugby goal in the banner picture on the Rugby School web site.) So bottom line for polity: rules were agreed by collections of individuals representing the different schools and where different rules were favored different branches of the sport developed.
Association Football is sometimes referred to as The Simplest Game because the objective and core rules are easy to explain. As one colleague of mine puts it, you could give the whistle to someone who has never seen the game before and tell them to blow it when they see something wrong and they would get 90% of the fouls and restarts. (But they would not know what to do after they blow the whistle.) There are 17 Laws of the Game which take 47 pages to explain in the official, nicely illustrated, rulebook . And yes, there are also pages and pages of interpretation and other stuff that go with it. But, it takes Major League Baseball 12 pages just to explain the Objective of the Game and the equipment. Or, compare the rules for a soccer kickoff versus an NFL kickoff:
A kick-off is a way of starting or restarting play:
• at the start of the match
• after a goal has been scored
• at the start of the second half of the match
• at the start of each period of extra time, where applicable
A goal may be scored directly from the kick-off.
• all players are in their own half of the field
• the opponents of the team taking the kick-off are at least 9.15 m (10 yds) from the ball until it is in play
• the ball is stationary on the centre mark
• the referee gives a signal
• the ball is in play when it is kicked and moves forward
• the kicker does not touch the ball a second time until it has touched another player
After a team scores a goal, the kick-off is taken by the other team.
If the kicker touches the ball a second time before it has touched another player:
• an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team to be taken from the place where the infringement occurred * (see page 3)
For any other infringement of the kick-off procedure:
• the kick-off is retaken
- In addition to a kickoff, the other free kick is a kick after a safety (safety kick). A punt may be used (a punt may not be used on a kickoff).
- On a safety kick, the team scored upon puts ball in play by a punt, dropkick, or placekick without tee. No score can be made on a free kick following a safety, even if a series of penalties places team in position. (A field goal can be scored only on a play from scrimmage or a free kick after a fair catch.)
- A kickoff may not score a field goal.
- A kickoff is illegal unless it travels 10 yards OR is touched by the receiving team. Once the ball is touched by the receiving team or has gone 10 yards, it is a free ball. Receivers may recover and advance. Kicking team may recover but NOT advance UNLESS receiver had possession and lost the ball.
- When a kickoff goes out of bounds between the goal lines without being touched by the receiving team, the ball belongs to the receivers 30 yards from the spot of the kick or at the out-of-bounds spot unless the ball went out-of-bounds the first time an onside kick was attempted. In this case, the kicking team is penalized five yards and the ball must be kicked again.
- When a kickoff goes out of bounds between the goal lines and is touched last by receiving team, it is receiver’s ball at out-of-bounds spot.
- If the kicking team either illegally kicks off out of bounds or is guilty of a short free kick on two or more consecutive onside kicks, receivers may take possession of the ball at the dead ball spot, out-of-bounds spot, or spot of illegal touch.
As a soccer referee I find the soccer rules simpler and shorter than other sports’ rulebooks. And taking this one step further, you could almost consider the FIFA Laws of the Game as a confessional standard since that basic rulebook is applicable from the Jr. High games I referee to the World Cup. An amazing continuity throughout the game as the Westminster Standards provide a document many Presbyterian branches look to.
The other thing about the soccer rules is their flexibility, intended like the new revised Form of Government for the PC(USA). While certain things are hard and fast, like the procedure above for the kick off, other things are left up to the particular situation. For example, in the Laws of the Game there is no specified size of field, only a range: 90-120 meters long and 45-90 meters wide. The only requirement is that the field must be longer than wide. Yes, for international matches there is a smaller range, at the larger end, and individual tournaments, like the World Cup, can specify exact field dimension. Also, the referee is not to stop play for a foul if stopping the game would cause the fouled team to lose an advantage (unlike basketball which always stops for a foul which drives me crazy). And the famous (at least in the soccer world) Advice to Referees 5.5 says:
5.5 TRIFLING INFRACTIONS
“The Laws of the Game are intended to provide that games should beplayed with as little interference as possible, and in this view it isthe duty of referees to penalize only deliberate breaches of the Law.Constant whistling for trifling and doubtful breaches produces badfeeling and loss of temper on the part of the players and spoils thepleasure of spectators.”
There is a degree on interpretation, like AI’s or PJC decisions, that a referee makes to strike a balance between flow and control of the game. One would hope that our application polity would be similar.
Which brings me to my final point and that is to point out that in soccer a nil-nil draw is a perfectly acceptable outcome to a game. A soccer game does not require a winner. The exception is tournament situations where after the extra time (over time) we have the shootout which most soccer fans, players, coaches and referees consider a dreadful way to determine a winner — but nothing better has been worked out yet. The reason that many find it dreadful gets back to the philosophy that the game does not require a winner. It is among the lowest scoring of sports and the play for the 90 minutes as the players work to put the ball in the back of the net is just as important as actually putting the ball in the back of the net. Like Presbyterian assemblies, the process is as important as the outcome. How we discern the will of God together is important to our life together.
There is one more similarity between the two disciplines which is unfortunate. The intent is that an Assembly is one team working together but with different members with different understandings that help inform the process. It is unfortunate when an Assembly or Synod takes on the feel of a soccer match with two different teams on the pitch (field) each trying to push the ball over opposite goal lines.
I do not intend to argue an analogy between the two areas but only to point out a few of the parallels. Something to ponder as I keep #ga219, #30ga and #pcaga on my Twitter feed while live streaming Brazil v. PRK over lunch. Your milage may vary. Play on!