Five-substitute rule change works to the detriment of UPL teams with small squads

Robert Madoi

What you need to know:

  • Survey show parties use the rule for their own selfish interests.

Football – simultaneously beautiful, euphoric and disturbingly addictive – is famed for its equalising effect. We are constantly reminded about how this game’s sense of fair play fast-tracks it into a very rarefied space.

This, er, beautiful game wears its ‘playing fair’ stripes in a captivating manner, and if other moments fall short, it’s not for want of trying.

So, why then does a rule change that was intended to be temporary sputter along without conclusion? The pandemic, which continues to fill us with inexpressible anguish and terror, has disruption written all over it. This has precipitated a new normal. 

Football found itself embracing a five substitutes rule as it acclimatised to the new normal. The rule change to allow five substitutions from an extended bench of nine was tailored to mask fitness concerns of players willed into existence by hard lockdowns. 

There was always a palpable fear that this change, as any other often does, would play out on a puzzling note. Whereas the change in question did not entirely rest on a spurious concept (players were evidently struggling to get back in shape), it experienced rejection from the get-go. 

In England, small clubs that labour mightily to string together decent squads offered no words of praise. Five substitutes make them, they insisted, vulnerable to well-resourced teams with deep benches. To those operating on shoestring budgets, the worst human impulses, perhaps unintentionally but not unsuccessfully, threatened the rule change’s success.

Surveys have of course gone on to show that different parties continue using the rule change primarily as a means to pursue their self-interests, variously defined. It’s not just clubs with a “long tail” that stand to reap tremendous rewards. 

The findings of the surveys have offered remarkable insight into how the rule change has fashioned a win-win situation. The quality of play and player welfare have reportedly been safeguarded in the face of the relentless pace of the modern game. 

Teams would be lacking the energy for a fight if substitutes were capped at three. Players would also be more predisposed to burnout and injuries.

Yet – be that as it may – anecdotal evidence shows that the rule change stacks the deck against teams with smaller squads even in footballing backwaters like Uganda. If you were part of UPDF’s backroom staff, it would be hard for you not to feel powerless and despairing in the face of losses inflicted by URA and KCCA.

The institutional clubs’ actions during the offseason always seem to serve a lust for consumption and convenience. This tends to result in a bench that is almost inconceivable in its scope. 

UPDF, itself an institutional club, can attest to what happens if URA and KCCA choose to bring down the entire weight of their bench to crush. The army side failed to hold onto identical 1-0 leads during road trips to Ndejje and Lugogo in the StarTimes Uganda Premier League. In both encounters, it can be successfully argued that a deep bench added a degree of flex to URA and KCCA’s causes. 

At the Arena of Visions, it was substitute Viane Ssekajugo’s goal that managed to get the Tax Collectors’ noses in front. URA had trailed to Simon Mbaziira’s opener on the stroke of half-time, but I guess it’s more than serviceable if a roll of the dice can trigger quick-fire substitutions that have Ibrahim Dada, Ssekajugo and Kabon Living in the frame. 

At the MTN Omondi Stadium, another high-profile substitute turned things around for KCCA after Frank Yiga had fired the army side into a shock fourth-minute lead. UPDF found themselves inherently vulnerable to attack after Morley Byekwaso turned to a raft of attacking options on the bench in the shape of Julius Poloto, Arafat Usama, Rogers Mato, and Charles Lwanga.

It was the latter’s brace – with the winner coming in stoppage time – that condemned UPDF to defeat. Try pitching the equalising effect of the five-substitute rule change to the army side!

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Twitter: @robertmadoi