Permanent concussion substitutions introduced into football’s laws

The Athletic

March 2, 2024

Permanent concussion substitutions will be introduced into the laws of football, the game’s lawmakers have confirmed.

The measure, which has been trialled in a number of competitions such as the Premier League, Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship and FA Cup, will come into effect from July 1, 2024.

Teams will be able to use additional substitutions, outside of their allotted amount, if any player is showing signs of a concussion, regardless of the number of changes they have made already.

However, a trial for temporary concussion substitutions — a measure which has been called for by the Premier League as well as players’ unions — was not approved at the annual general meeting of The International Football Association Board (IFAB) in Scotland on Saturday.

It is understood the Premier League remain of the view that permitting professional leagues to trial temporary concussion substitutes will significantly benefit player welfare while Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) called the failure to do so “extremely disappointing”.

A PFA spokesperson said: “While it’s a positive step that additional concussion substitutions are now being introduced, it’s extremely disappointing that IFAB are still unwilling to let leagues trial temporary concussions subs, as they are requesting.

“Many leagues, unions and — importantly — club medics are aligned in the view that temporary substitutions would be a positive step for player welfare and concussion protocols.

“It is a problem if IFAB, as the body that sets the rules, are seen as standing in the way of that.”

Scottish Football Association CEO, Ian Maxwell, said: “Regarding permanent concussion substitutions, the trial we’ve run is effectively concluded and that is now enshrined in the laws of the game.

“It will be for competitions to determine whether they want to use permanent concussion substitutes, as per the protocol.”

Other law changes approved at the AGM include handball offences that are not deliberate, and for which penalties are awarded, are to be treated in the same way as other fouls as well as encroachment by outfield players during penalty kicks only being penalised if it has an impact.

Trials involving only a team’s captain being able to approach the referee in certain situations and the introduction of cooling-off periods to allow the referee to require teams to go to their own penalty area will be undertaken below the top two tiers.

There will also be a trial of increasing the time limit for goalkeepers holding the ball from six to eight seconds, with possession of the ball then reverting to the opposing team.

Sin bin trials will continue at grassroots level but won’t expanded after a significant backlash to plans for blue cards from a number of high-profile figures in the game.

How will permanent concussion substitutions work?

The permanent concussion substitute protocol that has now been enshrined into law means that if a player leaves the pitch for a concussion assessment, then the match will continue with either the player having to be permanently replaced and unable to return, or with their team playing at a numerical disadvantage.

According to FIFA’s data, there have been approximately 650 reported concussion incidents across 277 competitions — out of a total of 317 trialling competitions — over three seasons.

“I think the educational part is a real emphasis, to reach out to teams, team doctors and also the players,” Mattias Grafstrom, FIFA’s general secretary, said. “We really have to make a concerted effort.

“As the IFAB body, we set out the options for the competition organisers but then it’s up to them to apply it or not. We need to work with those leagues in order to collect more data moving forward and today is not the end of the topic. We will continue to monitor, and educate more and this will be ongoing.”

The Premier League, along with player unions, had been pushing for temporary concussion substitutes.

There is an element of confusion as to why IFAB would not take notice of the research the Consensus Group has been doing on the topic a number of years and not following the same model used in rugby and the National Football League.

Wasn’t there supposed to be blue cards and sin bins?

Blue cards were set to form part of a trial involving sin bins, but that proposal was scrapped ahead of the AGM, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino saying he was giving “blue cards the red card” on Friday night.

Even though the aim was to give greater protection to referees, conversations about the introduction of sin bins at the elite level will remain ongoing despite there being a sense that IFAB and FIFA could approve them at the AGM.

“The sin bin proposal definitely hasn’t gone further backwards,” Maxwell said. “It’s obviously been trialled widely in England and Wales and proved to be very successful.

“We’ve reviewed the protocol and updated the protocol so will assess how that works in that environment before we decide on what the next steps of those trials would be and if we start to take that further up the football pyramid.”

“There are two changes to the protocol for sin bins. At the moment, if you get a yellow card and 10 minutes off, it doesn’t count as a yellow card effectively from totting up,” explained Bullingham.

“So that’s been changed to simplify it. So now it’s the proper yellow card, and if you get a yellow card for a sin-bin and then another yellow card for something else you have that turned into a red card.

“The other point is at the moment it’s 10 minutes off and the referee effectively has to keep looking at their watch for that period of time and call the player back on even if the play is continuing.

“We felt that wasn’t right for the referee. So now it will be effectively 10 minutes and then you wait for the next stoppage in play. We want to make sure we get the protocol right before we consider rolling it out into other places.”

How will other trials work?

When asked to explain how the time-wasting trial will work, Bullingham noted that they could be introduced at any level from League One down and that he wants to get supporters involved.

“The idea is (that) once the goalkeeper has got the ball under control, and the referee puts up his hand so that the five seconds gets counted down, you’ll see the crowd respond to that and the other players will,” he said.

“Then the protocols being discussed, in terms of how you give possession to the other team, are either a throw-in in line with the penalty spot or a corner.”

IFAB and FIFA held discussions regarding the punishment that is handed out for time-wasting, with the idea of a corner being awarded to the opposing team or a throw-in on the 18-yard line.

“There are pros and cons to both of them. They are still working that out.”

What about VAR?

Grafstrom said that extending the scope of VAR had not been discussed at the AGM, but did confirm that the Olympic football tournament will include referees announcing VAR decisions to supporters inside the stadium.

“We are very happy with the trials we have had so are extending it, and there is a lot of interest from competition organisers,” the FIFA general secretary said.

On a similar theme regarding improving communications in terms of VAR, Maxwell said he understands the frustration over long checks and fans not knowing what is happening.

“It’s far from ideal sometimes when checks require that time to get through,” Maxwell said.

“We need to work on opportunities to increase the engagement and understanding of why that’s happening. But again it’s a journey.”

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