SALT LAKE CITY — Nobody asked, but here goes … four ways to improve soccer. Why go there now? Because soccer has everyone’s attention (via the World Cup) and, besides, the sport is due for its 3,000-year checkup.
For purists, these suggestions will be tantamount to asking a church to rewrite the Bible. But it’s not as if I'm proposing that they allow players to use their hands or eliminate the goalie position altogether, or prohibit backwards kicks (not yet anyway … ).
Let’s get started.
Eliminate penalty shootouts
So far, four games in the World Cup knockout round have been decided by penalty shootouts. As The New York Times put it so bluntly, “The penalty shootout is an abomination. It reduces a team sport to a contrived tiebreaker that obliges physically tired and emotionally drained players to step up one by one, trudge half the length of the field and try to shoot down the opponent’s goalkeeper from 12 yards ... Ludicrous. Grotesquely, compellingly ludicrous."
Studies have shown that it’s pretty much impossible for a goalie to stop a kick into the corner of the net. He is required to defend an area that is 24 feet wide and 8 feet tall against a ball that is kicked from just 12 yards away at speeds of 70-80 miles per hour. An ESPN demonstration showed that a goalie has less time to stop the ball than a batter swinging at a major league fastball and, unlike the batter, the goalie has to run or leap to the ball before he can even make a play on it. By the time a goalie sees the path of the kick and reacts, it’s too late. He has to guess.
There are at least a dozen ideas that are better than the penalty shootout. One popular idea: In an extra-time situation, reduce the number of players on the field every five or 10 minutes — 10 on 10, then eight on eight, then six on six and so on. Another idea: Beginning from midfield, one attacker has 30 seconds to beat a defender and a goalie — or some variation of the theme (two on two, two on three, etc.).
Change the timing system
Look, we Americans are mouth-breathing soccer rubes, but we know how to keep time for an athletic event. Soccer, if you don’t know this (I’m talking to the rubes now), doesn’t keep time in any sensible manner. It uses a running clock — as in, they do not stop it for injuries, kicks out of bounds, coaches who want to discuss strategy, or even, thankfully, TV commercials.
In theory, it seems like a good idea — at least the game isn’t repeatedly interrupted and dragged out by endless timeouts a la the NBA and NFL — but there are two primary problems: 1) Teams abuse this system by employing a number of stalling tactics, such as flopping (see below), lengthy celebrations, the goalie holding onto the ball before kicking it, and so forth; and 2) Game officials track the amount of time that play (but not the clock) is stopped for all of the above reasons and add it to the game clock at the end of the match. This “stoppage” time, left to the referee’s discretion, is highly subjective and he pretty much keeps this information to himself. No one else really knows precisely how much time is left in the game.
Keep it simple: Do what the NFL and NBA do: Stop the clock for injuries and penalize teams that stall. Post a clock in the stadium that shows fans down to the split second how much time is left in the game.
Stop the flop
As has been widely reported, a Swiss TV station reviewed videotape and determined that Brazilian star Neymar spent a total of 14 World Cup minutes on the ground, writhing in fake pain while trying to draw penalties. Who does he think he is, James Harden? It’s an embarrassment. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio called it “clowning,” and said, ” … to me it is just shameful that so much time could be lost over one player.”
As already noted, the clock continues to run and game time is wasted.
It’s not just Neymar who is flopping; it’s every player on the field. Soccer is famous for it. A player brushes another player and he falls to the ground as if he were shot, his face a mask of pain. Officials gather around him to check his condition, as if this is an unusual occurrence rather than one that occurred five minutes earlier. It appears they are about to call the morgue. Any second you expect a priest to arrive on the scene to deliver the last rites.
Three minutes later the player is racing around the pitch again.
New rule: Do not stop play unless there are bones actually sticking out of the skin or an appendage has fallen off. Put up some police tape around the victim and play on.
In 1925, FIFA changed the offsides rule — instead of requiring three players between an attacker and the goal, it was reduced to two (counting the goalie). In 1990, FIFA, hoping to increase scoring, changed the rule again — the attacker could be even with the last defender (not counting the goalie). FIFA should take the next step and eliminate the rule completely.
(If you don’t know what an offsides penalty is, you qualify as a rube and you should ask your kids to explain it.)13 comments on this story
In January 2017, FIFA’s technical director, Marco van Basten, proposed the idea of abolishing the offsides rule as a way to spread the field and increase scoring. “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or 10 defenders in front of the goal,” he explained. “It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you. If you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”
The idea has gone nowhere, with soccer aficionados such as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp calling van Basten’s idea “immeasurable (bleep).” “My opinion is this wonderful game that we all love doesn’t need rule changes …,” said Klopp. “They try to squeeze everything out of it but I don’t think they care about the future of football. (van Basten) can create another game.”
Translation: We might be ready for more drastic changes in time for soccer’s 4,000-year checkup.