Sunday, July 09, 2006

New Ideas For The Beautiful Game

Two days ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter stated that he was worried that there were too few goals being scored at this year’s World Cup. The statistics would prove him right: before Germany’s 3-1 demolition of Portugal in the third place game today, a total of 141 goals had been scored in 62 games at the World Cup, for a clip of 2.27 goals per game. That is a shade above the 1990 record low of 2.21, and, had there been no goals in either the Germany-Portugal third place game or the Italy-France Final yet to be played, the average would have dipped below 2.21 but just barely, to a clip of 2.20.

It did take Blatter a while to reach this conclusion, but in this case, at least it is better late than never. In light of his realization, I have decided to put forward my own ideas for Blatter and the soccer brain trust to consider in helping improve the Beautiful Game and breathe some new life into soccer’s top competition. In no particular order they are:

1. A set of standards for cards and fouls. This is the biggest problem facing the World Cup this year- there appears to be no set standards with regards to what qualifies for a foul or a card, and, expectedly, a lot of players and coaches have been confused as a result of it. So, I suggest the following system of fouls to be put in place: (1) Minor fouls- these are fouls that specifically impede a player from doing his job, such as tripping, clutching and grabbing, holding, pushing and “body-checking”. Four of these kinds of fouls by one player brings an automatic card. (2) Major fouls- these are fouls worthy of receiving an automatic card, such as a two-footed tackle, a tackle from behind, “unnecessary roughness” or a “professional foul”. Should this foul also result in a player’s fourth foul and he has yet to be yellow-carded, he would receive a red card.

2. New Penalties for Diving. Blatter and his associates make a big deal about catching “divers”, and, after seeing Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance earlier today, it’s high time he acted. However, I don’t think FIFA goes far enough simply giving a yellow card for diving- FIFA should also award the opponent a spot kick, either a penalty kick if it’s in the penalty area or a free kick close to the opponent’s goal if it’s not. Yes, it’s an extreme decision, but this is an extreme infraction, plus the point of diving is to draw a penalty or free kick anyway so why not award it to the other team?

3. Have a standard for awarding penalties. This goes along with the diving component, but it does stand alone- far too often in the World Cup, the referees have been afraid to call a penalty kick, probably because they’re afraid that decision will turn the game and public opinion against them. This has resulted in a considerable amount of penalty calls- such as the obvious foul on Ronaldo in Portugal’s semi-final against France- that are just not called. It is thus impertinent that the same types of standards used for fouls outside the penalty area be used inside it as well, because obstruction in the penalty area- which, in this World Cup, has resulted in far too many fouls being called on attacking players- kills far too many scoring opportunities, and the most skilled players in the game should be allowed to strut their stuff without being mugged. Yes, fouls should continue to be called against attacking players should they commit them, but sometimes attackers should be given the benefit of the doubt, as sometimes they push away because they’re being grabbed or pushed themselves. Defenders should only win the ball with their feet and that should be the standard throughout the field, not just in the penalty area.

4. Offside Changes. Here’s a bold new idea: should the ball be inside the penalty area, offside should not be called. The reason is simple: inside the penalty area it’s too small for any “cherry pickers” to gain much of an advantage, plus there isn’t a whole lot of room in there for which to cherry pick. This will result in a lot more goals being scored off deflections and one-on-one goalkeeper battles, and will ensure that the goalkeepers are just as alert as their defenders. Perhaps the rule could be even bolder by having a line stretching the width of the field extending from the top of the penalty area or a few yards above it where, if the ball precedes the attacking players, offside cannot be called. It’s similar to the offside rule in hockey and should help maintain pressure in the attacking zone because the attackers can “hem in” the defence, although this could also lead to crowding. A benefit, though, is that potentially a three-on-none break could occur in front of the opposing goal and create a bona fide scoring chance, forcing the defenders to be extra alert. There are those who might say that scores may become ridiculous because of changes like this and they may be right, but I will say that being one-on-one with a goalkeeper isn’t as easy as it looks and, as it stands now, soccer’s counterattacks are rarely as thrilling as they are in hockey or basketball because they always have to deal with a wall opposing them, and that helps suck a lot of goals out of the game.

There we have it- four bona fide rule changes that would help The Beautiful Game. Yes, some are radical but after watching what should be the world’s most exciting tournament turn into a snooze-fest, it’s within soccer’s best interests to open up the game a little more. The best club teams can produce lots of thrilling, open-ended games- the come-from-behind 2-1 win by Barcelona in the Champions’ League Final with Arsenal is a splendid example- and it is something FIFA can learn from. The World Cup is supposed to feature the world’s best teams, but most of us would agree that this has been far from a world-class tournament.



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