As we continue to count down to the kick off of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, we should expect to be treated in the coming weeks to different versions of the obligatory everybody-righteously-hates-soccer-in-real-america story. Here is a pretty good example from the 2006 iteration (I think from Youngstown, Ohio, but it is not obvious precisely what “valley” they are the voice of).
But there really is no body of evidence you can look to (other than, apparently, trolling bars in Youngstown) and conclude that the World Cup has enjoyed anything other than a meteoric rise in popularity as a spectator sport in this country since 1990 (when the US first qualified for the modern era World Cup).
The 2006 World Cup final game got US television ratings functionally equal to those of the contemporaneous NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four and MLB World Series, each with roughly 16-17 million viewers. Don’t even talk about the NHL. The highest-rated 2010 NHL playoff games in any given week get about half as many US TV viewers (500K) as a random Sweeden v. Spain game in Euro 2008 (800K).
The fact is that World Cup games this summer will simply dwarf the ratings of all regular season professional sports in the US except NFL football. Somebody is watching, and many of those somebodies don’t routinely watch any other soccer.
Which brings me to the real point of this post…World Cup soccer is to normal soccer as NBA playoff basketball is to regular basketball. It is not really the same game. The players are so good, the stakes are so high and the lights are so bright that the game takes on a different character.
Everything is tighter. The flow of the game slows down. Guys just plain try harder and push, kick and punch each other more. The split-second cost benefit analysis that goes on in a player’s head before undertaking a brutal foul or a cynical dive is just different when every game matters this much.
Dreams are made. Legacies are forged. Honestly, I don’t think anybody in Argentina really cares that Diego Maradona cheated on the Hand of God Goal. They beat England and WON THE WORLD CUP! He is a legend (his repeated freakish behavior notwithstanding).
All of this punching and shirt-pulling and diving and faking in the World Cup can be very frustrating to watch, especially for the casual fan. Eric Cantona’s “Attention Shirt Pullers” ads leading up to the 2006 World Cup had it spot on, but peer pressure from King Eric won’t do the trick. Soccer really needs precisely five rule changes to make the beautiful game much more beautiful on its biggest stage.
Before getting to the specific rule changes, we should note that soccer has been down this path before in very recent history. The 1990 World Cup in Italy ultimately deteriorated into an orgy of time-wasting back passes to the goalkeeper. At one point the Irish goalkeeper kept possession for six consecutive minutes against Egypt by dribbling the ball around and picking it up over and over.
FIFA acted swiftly to fundamentally change the rules of the game by prohibiting the goalkeeper from fielding intentional backpasses with his hands or repeatedly dropping and picking up the ball. Problem solved. In case you don’t remember or believe the immediate impact this had on the game, our friends at Nippon Sports Science University have done all the figures.
Truth is, the game has always changed. German coaching legend Sepp Herberger is oft quoted as having said something like, “The ball is round; the game is ninety minutes; that much is fact. The rest is theory.”
Like everything, the game must continue to evolve if it is to continue to thrive. Here are five easy places to start:
- Stop Fake Injuries – If play must be halted because a player has indicated to everyone through word or deed that he is injured, that player must leave the field for not less than 5 minutes before he can return. Don’t ask referees to determine whether someone is faking injury. Just let them sit out for a bit. If they are really hurt, the rest will do them some good. If not, the rest will do them some good.
- Stop Diving, Shirt Pulling, Rabbit Punching, Etc. – Use real-time, in-game video enforcement for egregious conduct. It is easy to forget that head referee Horacio Elizando never saw Zidane’s incredible head-butt in the 2006 World Cup final. The fourth official reported the incident to the referee through his radio headset, play was stopped and Zidane was sent off. Why can’t they do the same thing with a fifth official watching video. They won’t need to use it much after the first few times.
- End the Guessing Game on the Goal Line – FIFA steadfastly refuses to employ any video replay or other technology to determine whether the ball has actually entered the goal. Sepp Blatter says that “football is not tennis,” as if that somehow settles the issue. This is simple stuff. The ball doesn’t appear to have possibly gone in the goal all that often. You don’t even need to think about any of the whiz-bang stuff with sensors in the ball and the like. Just get a camera, mount it on the goal, watch replay, repeat. They’ve been doing this in hockey forever, and it works fine. Can you imagine what would happen today if the World Cup final came down to something like the Geoff Hurst phantom goal of 1966?
- Put Some Life in the Shootout – While we are on the subject of hockey, switch to a hockey-style penalty shootout. The problem isn’t that every World Cup seems to end with a penalty shootout. The problem is that it ends with a boring and unwatchable penalty shootout. Put the ball at the top of the 18-yard box, put the goalie on the line, give the shooter a running start at the ball, and have at it. Fun stuff will happen. Goalies will risk life and limb. Cheeky back-heels will be attempted. Trust me.
- Retire the Mystery Clock – BY FAR the most frustrating thing about watching the World Cup for the casual fan is the mysterious arrival of the end of the game. People who watch soccer all the time have largely gotten over this, with the limited exception of occasional outbursts about “Sir Alex Time” at Old Trafford. But somehow every other organized sport that relies on timekeeping has managed to affix a modern clock to a structure and use it to mark the beginning, middle and end of the game. The new fifth official ought to be able to easily run the stadium clock when he is not watching video replays of Eduardo diving. When the head ref wants to stop the clock, he can wave his arms over his head like they do in the NFL. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Soccer moms happy to watch soccer.
Any one of these simple changes would help. Not one is nearly as fundamental as the 1992 backpass rule changes. The World Cup will be great to watch anyway, but I would personally contribute to the Sepp Blatter bribery fund for the injury stoppage rule.