Monday, July 10, 2006

How I Would Fix the Game

Now let's just be clear. I mean 'fix' as in 'make better the things that are not correct' as opposed to the Italian Serie A definition of 'fix' as in 'makes lots of money for my mafia pals.' Glad I got that out of the way.

A surprising number of casual US sports fans really tried to watch the World Cup this time around. From Bill Simmons to my brother, I know of a LOT of people who actually paid attention to this World Cup, which they had not done in the past. There are undoubtedly several reasons for this - the games were on at a better time than in 2002, all of the games were shown live, the US team had high expectations, etc. Whatever the reason, people were paying attention.

And Americans LOVE events. Although soccer and cycling remain decidedly minor league in the US, the World Cup and the Tour de France are followed simply because we're SUPPOSED to follow them. 'Millions of people in other countries care about this? Well then, I care about it too!' Not that anyone but the most hardcore cycling enthusiast would step out his front door to see a cycling event other than the Tour de France; but by golly we'll watch Lance (and now Floyd) ride in the Alps! The proliferation of live sports on cable TV certainly helps to fuel this particular fire.

(Bill Syken has an interesting take over at Americans will watch something if it's truly the best. But that's bad news for the MLS. We're spoiled. We like the best. Why would we watch a second-rate soccer league?)

Having said all that, these same Americans who gave the World Cup a chance this year simultaneously shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads and wondered aloud 'Why does the rest of the world like this so much?'

I try to explain to the ones I talk to about 'the beautiful game', but at the end of the day, my heart's not really in it, because dammit, they have a point. Where is the offense? And what's with all the melodramatics? And why are the referees so inconsistent and so impactful on the outcome? These are all valid questions, and much more glaring problems to the eyes of those new to the sport.

Not that anyone (least of all FIFA) cares, here are my suggestions for improving the game.

Where is the offense?

This one is tough. In fact, by far the toughest. It also happens to be the one where the powers that be have been most willing to tinker. The last two major changes (I can think of) were both designed to encourage more offensive play (or maybe to discourage defensive play): the scoring change to award 3 points for a win instead of 2, and the rule against back-passes to the keeper.

And it doesn't help that Italy won a World Cup playing slow, conservative, BORING soccer. If you're an international coach, your take away from this World Cup is build a GREAT defense, and put ALL of your efforts on offense into set pieces. You can bring guys up to the front for corners and free kicks, but other than that, keep (at least) seven guys back. You know what? This is great stuff. I should be selling this, not giving it away for free.

The one simple, realistic thing that can be done to help offenses is to modify the offside rule, or at least modify how it is called. I'm a big fan of understanding the 'spirit of the law' rather than slavishly adhering to the 'letter of the law.' Of course, I realize that things have to be codified, but it was never in the original 'spirit' of the off-side law that defenses should deliberately move forward and trap offensive players. The idea is that strikers can't be allowed to cherry-pick. Fine.

But of course it still has to be codified. No one is going to institute some sort of hockey-style blue line (although that would be pretty cool), so here goes my attempt at defining a more lenient offside that still maintains the 'spirit of the law' and doesn't change the game too much.

1) You can't be off-side on a free kick. Look, the ball is dead. The whistle blew. If the defense can't realize that an attacker is behind them and get back and mark them, tough nuggies. The idea that the AR's flag would go up because an attacker broke free behind the defense a split second before the ball was played forward on a free kick (as happened in the final) is just ridiculous. Everybody is set, the defense is ready - let them play.

2) All of the attacker has to be beyond all of the second to last defender to be considered off-side. I find this interpretation more in keeping with FIFA's laws in other areas (like all of the ball has to be over all of the line). Call it the 'daylight' rule. The AR has to see daylight between the attacker and the defender to put up the flag. It might not have a huge impact, but defenses might be a little more hesitant to play a trap if there were an extra yard or so of 'grey' area. I'd even allow an attacker to stick his hand as far behind him as possible (to use the hockey analogy again, like a winger doing the splits at the blue line) to try to stay on side. Those bang-bang plays where the attacker is a fraction ahead of the defender when the ball is played forward now go to the attacking team.

3) When in doubt, keep the flag down. Of course, this is officially the advice to AR's currently, but clearly not the way they call the game. Look at it this way - in the long run, is it better to create scoring chances on questionable calls, or to kill scoring chances on questionable calls? Keep the damn flag down unless it is blatant. If nothing else, teams will stop playing the off-side trap in that event.

What's With the Melodramatics?

FIFA had better be taking this problem seriously, because the diving has gone way beyond ridiculous. Seriously, they are no longer allowed to call this 'The Beautiful Game' as long as the ugly, ugly spectacle of players diving all over the pitch is allowed to continue. The biggest problem of course, and the reason that it keeps happening, is because it works. France's last two goals in this World Cup were on PKs, and while neither Henry nor Malouda were 'untouched', they weren't mugged either. In both cases, the touch just before the foul was probably a little too far out in front, so both guys went into the turf like pelicans into the surf.

One wonders if this particular problem affects the american audience more than other audiences. Not only do we not 'get it' not having watched these theatrics for years, but to an audience raised on basketball and american football, these guys writhing on the floor in pain just look stupid. In basketball, if you step in front of Shaquille O'Neal going full speed to the basket and take a charge, you hop up and start high-fiving your teammates. Did it hurt? Sure. But nobody's paying you to lie on the ground crying. In football, if you get blindsided on a crossing route, you hold on to the ball, signal first down, and run back to the huddle. No WAY you want that safety to know it hurt.

Simmons actually lists the flopping on his list of 10 reasons he loves the World Cup, but of course he's being tongue-in-cheek.
Everyone makes fun of the flopping, and it is hideous, but it's also funny as hell. These guys drop like they were gunned down by a sniper, then they roll around for 10 seconds in absolute agony, heroically hop up and limp around to "shake it off," and within 30 seconds they're running full speed again. Even Ric Flair didn't sell pain so well. More important, it's the one thing that will keep soccer from ever, ever, ever becoming a bona fide force in this country. Americans won't stomach such dishonesty. We see right through it. No way Dwyane Wade pulls that crap; we'd never allow it. OK, bad example.

Compare american athletes to World Cup strikers, supposedly some of the best athletes in the world, falling as if they have been shot, lying there for several minutes, being carried off the field (on a stretcher for PETE'S SAKE), and then immediately hopping off the stretcher and asking the ref to let them back on. It's a farce.

Interestingly, following the law of unintended consequences, one recent attempt to clean up this mess actually contributed to the farce. In an attempt to limit the diving, FIFA mandated that if play was stopped, the player had to leave the pitch and could only return when the referee signaled him back on. The idea was that teams would be at a disadvantage and therefore there would be less diving. But it turns out, strikers are only to happy to have a little lie down in the middle of the match (they're tired, you see), and the idea that playing a man down for a few seconds is any disadvantge is laughable. So now we have the surreal sight of incapacitated players rising miraculously off of their death beds 5 or 10 times per match, as if each team has employed Jesus himself (or at least Oral Roberts) to lay hands upon the lame on the sideline.

So what to do? Well, as I said, they do it because it works. It needs to stop working. Even Materazzi, who of course was legitimately butted by Zidane, was rewarded for playing it up. Elizondo has to stop the game to see why Materazzi is down, and after much time has passed (during which time the fourth official may or may not have seen the replay), Zidane is red carded. Come over here and head butt me in my chest. I won't stay down if you don't reward me for staying down, I promise.

It is particularly curious in a sport that prides itself in endurance and non-stop action (no open substitution, only three subs per game, running clock, no time outs, etc.) that the game stops CONSTANTLY for injuries. If you're injured in basketball, your team has to call timeout. And if the other team has the ball, your team has to play 4-on-5 (which is a lot harder than 10-on-11). The 'gentlemen's' tradition of putting the ball out of play when a player is down is the first thing that has to go.

It is another irony that basketball, with pretty much open substitution rules, has a more stringent mechanism for dealing with the potential of feigning injury. In basketball, if you are too seriously injured to shoot a free throw, then you are NOT allowed to return for the rest of the game and the OTHER TEAM gets to pick who shoots.

So, let's do this right.

1) Don't stop the game unless the injured player asks that the game be stopped.

2) If a player asks that the game be stopped due to injury, that's it, they are done. They must be substituted for, and the standard rules apply, i.e. they may not return.

3) Penalty kicks should be awarded ONLY for red card offenses in the penalty area. A standrad foul or a yellow card results in a free kick, wall and all. It's ridiculous that a foul committed 18.1 meters from the goal results in a free kick that has about a 5% chance of being converted, while the same foul committed 17.9 meters from the goal results in a penalty that has 95% chance of being converted. Does ANYBODY like penalty kicks? I mean other than the fans of the team that gets them? Seriously, every neutral fan HATES a penalty. Quick, name 3 penalty calls in this World Cup that you disagreed with? Now name 3 that you agreed with? Which ones were easier to name? Now name a penalty that EVERYONE agreed with. Can't do it, can you? Penalty kicks should be reserved for the MOST OBVIOUS and EGREGIOUS violations (a deliberate hand ball that saves a goal, a deliberate take down that saves a goal, etc.) Nothing will keep strikers on their feet more than the possibility that they have a better chance to score NOT falling down than they do falling down.

4) Use video replays to hand out suspensions and fines for diving. No matter what you do, it is basically impossible for the referee on the field to tell, in real time, if a player is diving or legitimately fouled, with 100% accuracy. In addition to the above recommendations, FIFA should start suspending and fining players for obvious dives in post-game reviews. How many yellow cards were handed out for diving in this World Cup? I remember 1. But there were plenty more dives than that. Don't make the ref on the field solely responsible for cleaning up this mess. Review the match, and suspend players who dive. That will get their attention.

The current situation rewards diving, with basically no risk of punishment. If the rewards are reduced and the risks are increased, the diving will stop.

Why are the referees so inconsistent and so impactful?

This is a good question. Any sports fan will tell you that the best referee is the one you don't notice. Well, in World Cup soccer, that seems to be impossible.

Again, Simmons facetiously includes this aspect of the sport on his top ten list of things he loves:
The red card/yellow card thing. Nonsensical, completely arbitrary, even crooked to some degree … I love it. Why hasn't the NBA adopted this yet? Can you imagine how many yellows and reds the Mavericks would have gotten in the Finals?

The obvious answer is, 'have the referees be more consistent.' But that's a tad banal - it's not as if FIFA is currently striving for inconsistency, right? Although, I do believe that FIFA takes strange pride in the 'human-ness' of the game - one ref, no time keeper other than that one ref, yellow and red card 'bookings' that are almost entirely up to the ref's interpretation. The wireless mics are the first incorporation of technology in 100 years, and they were adopted about 20 years after they were first suggested.

There is no way to codify the consistency of the refs. So one is left with performance reviews, and rewarding the best refs with the best assignments, which is supposedly how it works today. Of course, Larrionda ended up reffing in the semis after his highly questionable performance in Italy-USA, so that may not be really working either.

There is a problem inherent in the laws of the game, however. The problem is, the ref in a soccer match has a choice between calls which have essentially no impact (standard fouls) and calls which have MASSIVE impact (yellow cards, and especially red cards and penalties.)

I've already suggested that penalties be awarded much more strictly, which should help. As for yelow cards, I really don't see why those decisions can't be reviewed after the fact. I am not a fan (in any sport) of INTRUSIVE use of instant replay. I think the NBA has it about right - plays that can be reviewed and reversed WITHOUT slowing down the game (like last second shots) should be reviewed. Anything else has to be called on the fly.

The impact of a yellow card invariably is on the NEXT game. I only recall a couple of Reds resulting from multiple yellows in this cup - Trinidad and Tobago against Sweden and of course Eddie Pope against Italy. Why not have the referee's committee review every card handed out in every game, and rescind those which are unwarranted? Or even hand out new ones that were missed? This has zero impact on the flow of the game, while enforcing consistency on the refereeing community. It even gives FIFA a concrete 'scorecard' for evaluating refs. Those which are overturned the least are doing the best job. If you're supposedly doing the evaluation anyway, why not let the sport benefit from it?

If the impact of penalty calls and yellow cards is reduced, then we're left with red cards which the referees have to get right on the field. Will the refs still be able to impact the match? Of course, just as they do in every sport. But the direct impact is reduced. A penalty call can absolutely decide the outcome of a match (Italy benefited against Australia in the round of 16). It's too much power in the hands of one man.

Let me reiterate that I know none of these things will ever happen, but I actually think there are some simple, feasible things on the list above. I know we'll never see drastic changes (open substitutions would keep fresh legs on the pitch at all times and increase offense, a hockey-style blue line would break things wide open), nor will we see significant use of technology any time soon (in and out of touch, close calls at the goal line and even offside could be easily solved with sensors in the ball and on the field). In fact, I'm not advocating drastic changes. But I am finding it more and more difficult to watch, and I don't seem to be the only one. Something needs to be done.


At 7:01 AM, Blogger jeff said...

wow! you have a lot of time on your hands. i haven't even read this post... i need a coffee.


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