Two-touch penalties, imaginary cards, lazy subs: Football's unwritten rules
The Laws of the Game -- laws, remember, not mere rules -- are always changing, often confusing and never quite satisfying to everyone's tastes. The people responsible for these laws, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), will meet in Cardiff next month to discuss further tweaks to the 17-chapter, 144-page book of football commandments. On the agenda for their 130th annual gathering are the possibility of "sin bins"; a review of the "triple punishment" for a professional foul in the penalty area; and, in worrying news for football purists everywhere, the exploration of video assistance for referees.
Meanwhile, the game is also semibound by an equally labyrinthine set of unwritten laws. Unwritten, that is, but rarely unspoken. They take many forms: They are football's moral guidelines, the extralegal irritations, the cardinal sins and the dos, don'ts and I-really-wouldn't-recommend-thats. You can't download them in a handy PDF from FIFA's website, but they are nevertheless erratically enforced by the boos and howls of a matchday crowd.
Two-touch penalties and other acts of exhibitionism
There aren't too many opportunities at the elite level of modern football to produce something truly original, but Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez came as close as it gets with their collaborative penalty at the Nou Camp against Celta Vigo. Chances are that you have seen it, enjoyed it and appreciated the sight of a footballing novelty.
Somehow, there was enough distaste (or at least the presumption of it) to spark 24 hours of debate over the respectfulness of Messi and Suarez's 12-yard confidence trick. Those in the minority argued unsuccessfully that it made a mockery of their opponents (as if most visitors to the Nou Camp leave with any shred of dignity at the best of times) and that it crossed an as-yet unestablished line in the sand.
It certainly wasn't the first time football flirted with the boundary between self-expression and "disrespect." A goalless encounter with Rangers in 1972 was brightened up when Hearts' Tommy Murray decided to sit on the ball for a couple of seconds, goading the opposition defenders out of position before setting up the only goal of the game. George Best once got so bored with being a class above that he stopped the ball, casually removed a boot and carried on.
More recently, Nani earned several Arsenal boots on the backside for some showboating towards the end of a 4-0 victory for Manchester United in 2008. Bringing things nicely full circle, the irrepressible Neymar attracted the ire of several Athletic Bilbao defenders for some late exhibitionism in the Copa del Rey final.
Waving an imaginary card
This is phenomenon that has perhaps avoided specific inclusion in the official Laws of the Game mainly because "waving an imaginary card" is a preposterous set of words to appear in the same footballing sentence. Nevertheless, the waving of imaginary cards is frequently cited as an unwelcome by-product of the foreign influx to these Premier League. Before 1992, we apparently made do with simply asking the referee to book an opponent -- which is fine, obviously.
Like harmless heavyweight pitch invaders and 18-man brawls, it has become one of those spectacles that can simply be filed under Things Nobody Wants to See, despite being very entertaining indeed.
Making a sub before defending a corner
This is less of a moral issue, perhaps, than a superstitious one. Football analytics apparently has bigger fish to fry than to examine the supposedly catastrophic effect of making a substitution before an opposition corner. Perhaps a man-to-man marking system is more at threat from the fresh legs of an 82nd-minute substitute skipping happily on the pitch without a worry in the world? Despite little evidence to support this, it is generally accepted to be one of the worst decisions a football manager can make.
Substitutes not getting themselves ready in time
On the face of it, this is utterly inexcusable. Sure, there's a fluorescent bib to deal with first, not to mention the laminated folder of instructions similar to that which NASA used for the Apollo missions. But to then delay matters by forgetting to put on your shirt, your shorts, your boots or the all-important ankle tape? Perhaps substitute benches, with their ergonomic furniture and blankets, are just too comfortable these days.
Putting the ball out of play for an injury
Despite the authorities' attempts to defuse this frequent flash point by reminding everyone that it's the referee's job to stop the game for an injury, the sporting act of kicking the ball out of play to allow some treatment for a grounded player frequently descends into some mild on-pitch injustice.
Tottenham's Danny Rose gave the old controversy a fresh twist against Manchester City by gesturing to do the honourable thing before charging 40 yards with the ball down the left wing, leaving several outraged blue shirts in pursuit. Arsenal brought the issue into the mainstream consciousness when the nonplussed Nwankwo Kanu and Marc Overmars ignored the custom to score a winning FA Cup goal against Sheffield United in 1999, which eventually ended in the novel solution of Arsene Wenger offering a replay to his indignant opposite number Steve Bruce.
Already a confusing moral quandary, the decision to put the ball out of play for an injury has been muddied even further by the lingering suspicion of simulation and time wasting that tends to plague the closing moments of modern cup ties.
Swapping shirts at half-time, in full view of the world
Nothing -- not even their cars that cost more than your family home, or the inexplicable jeans footballers wear in their spare time -- emphasises the chasm of disconnect between players and fans than when shirts are politely swapped on the way to the tunnel at half-time. In recent seasons, Mesut Ozil, Mario Balotelli and Robin van Persie have all committed the ultimate crime of premature, public shirt swapping. It sends supporters and pundits alike into displays of furious, head-shaking disapproval, yet no one is quite able to explain exactly what the problem is.
Strikers not looking across the line
Co-commentators in particular have reserved a special place in hell for strikers who, on the clear evidence of the reverse-angle action replay, failed to look across the defensive line to check if they're offside. The crowd, too, let out the most weary of groans when this happens, as if this is the most pathetic way to concede a free-kick imaginable.
For decades, this understandably loyal non-act was served fairly well by the straightforward label of simply "not celebrating". Now, the "muted celebration" has become even more than that: a genuine spectacle, characterised by its emphatic nothingness.
This is the most deadly serious face of modern sportsmanship. The fascination with the muted-celebration phenomenon has outgrown the moment itself, dominating prematch questions to the player about the possibility of scoring against his old club. The gesture (or, rather, the lack of one) has become the generally accepted rule for such circumstances. That's how much we all care about the muted celebration, but don't expect FIFA to get officially tangled in it any time soon.
The full-time whistle will be blown at the safest moment
There may well be some small print guidelines on this in the referees' training course, but it remains a convenient mystery to the rest of us. Most half-time and full-time whistles take place during the safe, unremarkable moment that a goal-kick reaches its highest point somewhere near the halfway line. That custom, blindly accepted by all as the tidiest way to do things, inevitably leads to incredulous reaction from players if a promising attack is ever interrupted by a referee sticking strictly to his timekeeping duties.
Adam Hurrey is a London-based football writer and author of the book "Football Clichés".