The worst match at the most boring World Cup in history prompted football regulators to erase backpasses, change the game forever
A boring 0-0 is easily forgotten, happy to be erased from collective consciousness once the final whistle is blown. It takes a really special 0-0, something terrible, to remember.
So, can not help but admire, maybe even a little inspired by Ireland 0-0 Egypt at the 1990 World Cup – the game was so bad that the International Football Association Board (IFAB) raised and changed the soccer law to stop it from happening again.
It is the symbol of Italy ’90, a tournament determined by negativity. An average of 2.2 goals per game is still the lowest ever recorded. There are five 0-0 draws and 15 1-0 wins.
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Republic of Ireland reached the quarter-finals despite failing to win one match (not including penalties), scoring two goals in total. Tournament decider, West German1-0 defeat top Argentina, is generally considered the worst World Cup final ever. However, Ireland’s group match with Egypt is the lowest point of the competition.
This speaks to the mythology surrounding the match which many reports claim that at one point Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner held the ball for six minutes in a row without releasing it. Bonner actually held him for six minutes total in 90, and Irish fans wanted to show, as manager Jack Charlton after the game, that ‘The Boys in Green’ really tried to win. Past Egypt that really takes time to a new level.
Pharaoh’s ultra-defensive setup involves constantly passing the ball back to the goal keeper, who will pick it up, walk a little, and immediately bring it down. There’s nothing in the rules that says they can’t do this again and again, so Ireland – knowing the draw will likely be enough to see them through the group – follow for a big period.
At the end of the tournament, IFAB is enough. The game, in general, is too slow. There are too many stops and defenses too easy, and while wasting time always appearing in the game, poor sportsmanship has crept into football in previous years.
The most famous example came in 1987, when Graeme Souness, at the last moment Rangers‘clashed with Dynamo Kiev in the European Cup, stop his team’s attack by turning and booting the full 70 meters back to the keeper.
The alarm bell rang, and Italy 90 was the last.
Euro 92 is often mistakenly called the trigger for backpass law, but IFAB has signed documents before the tournament starts. DenmarkThe extreme use of backpasses, no doubt inspired by events in Italy 90 and the Ireland-Egypt match in particular, is just a swan.
IFAB’s decision to ban goalkeepers who hold the ball when it is authorized by their team-mates, tactically changes the most important rules in sporting history, making football faster and more entertaining overnight.
For the Premier League, which coincidentally launched the same summer, the backpass law is the single biggest reason for its global success.
Suddenly, the goal keeper must use their feet. Defender cannot rely on simple ball-out. Teams cannot rely on breaks in play to catch their breath. Originally, this meant a ball that was longer ahead of strained players who until now had not been trained in playing technical football, but it was not long before the club adapted and the sport improved dramatically.
As Michael Cox wrote in ‘The Mixer’, a tactical history of the Premier League, a change in regulation means the forward is pushed to press high, to force mistakes, while the defense must go down deeper, because the space behind is too dangerous without catching the goalkeeper, and rearranging , from a teammate feed.
This means that the field extends, creating extra space in midfield for direct passing, dribbling, and assault football. What’s more, the game is accelerated significantly, not only because there is far less rest in play but because a longer tone means more opportunities to attack and counterattack.
The Premier League was also formed as an explicit means to exploit the potential income from broadcasting the nation’s favorite sport. BSkyB – producing richer colors and sharper images, presenting football as a TV drama – owes their exponential success in the early 1990s to high quality entertainment from matches. That IFAB changed the rules in the same summer was a very fortuitous moment in the history of English football.
Man Utd’s charming attacking football, for example, owes a lot to the speed and quality of attrition from Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach, which is far less effective when goalkeepers can easily hold the ball.
In the following years, games like Liverpool Newcastle 4-3 – which will define the Premier League as the most entertaining division in Europe – owes a lot to the style of football seen by backpass laws.
Further forward, and throughout Europe, change will help Cruyffian’s philosophy of ownership of the ball reappear and dominate.
Johan Cruyff Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ might straddle a 1992 law change, but the legacy – from Louis van Gaal Ajax to Barca from Pep Guardiola and beyond – much owes to how the backpass law encourages players who press and play football.
Using ownership as a tool to control the game becomes important without the backpass returning commands to the defense.
So, from 1992 onwards, goalkeepers and center backs had to start using their feet, and their heads, more regularly, led to the emergence of guards like Edwin van der Sar. His role in building Ajax’s attacks in the early 90s stemmed from Cruyff’s statement that the goalkeeper was not separate from the rest of the team.
Cruyff laid the groundwork, but the backpass law really found a sweeper-keeper. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Outside: A History of the Goalkeeper, the change of rules reintegrates the goalkeeper as a soccer player, an insider, rather than stripping them with the “privilege” as framed at the time: it was a “big step in the development of the goalkeeper, because its history is a classic story about an exile who is trying to find a way home. “
The overall unification (including the goalkeeper) is at the heart of tactics in 2020, where ultra-compression of space and technical universality have made football less individualistic than ever before.
Ironically, where in 1992 the backpass law extended the field, in the long run it had been shortened, only this time with gegenpressing and sharp counterattacking the main goal. Both of these methods make football more attacking and entertaining. And we have a sour draw between Ireland and Egypt to thank them for this development.
Sometimes it takes the darkest time to inspire a revolution. Sometimes, you need torturous lows to reveal your way to new highs. Sometimes, you need 0-0.
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