This is a pretty new blog, and at this point I am willing to say about anything to generate some comments. The headline is partially misleading. This is really about soccer and not horseracing. But there is an interesting juxtaposition of a sport that seems to be on the way up and one that is on the way down.
I think one of the marks of the successful horseplayer is an inner voice that is constantly saying, my opinion is solid. If you go to the window with no confidence, get ready to make a lot of trips to the ATM. In the case of soccer, even if you disagree with my opinion, I’m starting from the perspective I’m on to something here.
Every four years at World Cup time, sports pundits all over the country get soccer fever, and boldly predict soccer has turned a corner. They are right, but not for the reason they think they are right. They are right because American football will stop getting all the best athletes.
Football is like smoking was in the 60’s. The parallels are frightening. Smoking executives denied the link between smoking and cancer much in the same way the NFL downplayed the effects of multiple concussions. But just as 50 years later smoking makes you a pariah in restaurants, office buildings and other people’s houses, eventually the players in the NFL will be limited to the desperate who only see gladiatorial combat as a way out of their poor circumstances, or those who ignore the mountain of evidence on the physical severity of football. Most parents will not run the risk of watching their kids get permanently injured and at best will limit them to flag football. The best athletes will have to turn somewhere. Perhaps basketball and baseball will prosper more, but soccer will receive the boost the ruling bodies have predicted since the 70’s.
Soccer is thought of as “the beautiful game.” It is flawed in obvious ways, yet the soccer traditionalists believe they have achieved perfection. They can think of nothing that needs to be fixed, that is until they fix something.
Take the goal line technology. Soccer resisted the idea until England had a clear goal disallowed in the 2010 world cup, the second time England had been involved with a controversial World Cup call. When a sport thinks that wrong calls are just part of what makes the game beautiful, they are asking for rejection of their sport. Just ask baseball whether they thought replay was a great idea or they were backed into a corner by fans tired of bad calls affecting the game. Just ask Armando Galarraga his feelings on replay. Ask Cardinals fans what they thought of Don Denkinger’s call in the 1985 World Series. An overturned call here and there, and potentially history changes.
Let me emphasize this point. This is not about changing soccer to fit some model of what makes Americans play or watch a sport. It is about fixing the clear flaws. Here is my list of fixes that will bring soccer to greater prominence.
- Soccer has the same problem football does when it comes to concussions. I played soccer in high school, and I can tell you that when a high ball came someone’s way, you stopped it with your feet or maybe chest, but nobody was going to take a hit in the head. A high speed soccer ball to the head does no less damage than a sweet right cross. You can’t take headers out of the game, but perhaps you can develop some protective headgear that doesn’t screw up the game. Football, hockey, lacrosse were all helmetless at one point. Now they have headgear and face masks.
- Soccer fields are around 115 by 74 yards and are covered by one referee on the field and two “assistant referees” who roam the sidelines. Hockey rinks are about 200 by 84 feet (66 by 28 yards) and are covered by two referees and two linesmen. That’s one more official in a quarter of the area of a soccer field. There are four umpires in baseball, three officials in basketball and seven officials in American football. I’m a certified basketball official, and I can tell you that if I am watching one thing, I’m not watching the other stuff going on. But I can take comfort in the fact that the other officials do. That’s less likely in soccer. If the ball is moving up, the referee and an assistant referee have to ball hawk to watch for offsides and fouls. At best the other assistant referee has all the rest of the players. Three officials in a game that large and fast is absurd and the only thing adding a referee or three can do is make the calls better.
- I’ll admit it. The difference between a legal play, a foul, and an egregious foul can be maddeningly subtle. Not a game goes by when the commentators don’t criticize a a referee for missing a dozen calls. It is especially arbitrary in the penalty box where referees seem hesitant to make a call knowing it probably means a goal. And in soccer, one goal is the equivalent of five runs in baseball. It is a game changer. I like hockey’s rule. If a player is on a breakaway and gets fouled, you get the penalty shot. Otherwise it is just two minutes in the box. A penalty shot in soccer should only be given when a player is denied a clear scoring opportunity in the box, and not for just any foul committed in the penalty area.
- The red card thing is far too harsh a penalty. Sure there are things that should get a player ejected. Football has a death penalty, hockey has a game misconduct, and in baseball you can get ejected for saying “good evening” with an attitude. But ejecting a player and not allowing a replacement gives referees too much power to decide the game instead of the players. I know the counter argument. If that was the case, scrubs would be sent into a game to knock out the other team’s star. But it doesn’t happen that way in football and hockey, and to suggest it would in soccer just confirms the weakness of the game. Hockey players know if you come after my star, we’ll come after yours. Even football players say, I’m not going to hurt a man on purpose because what comes around goes around. You mess with YOUR livelihood when you goon it up. So maybe do it like hockey – play down a man for ten minutes. That should make the point.
- Speaking of replacements, three substitutes a game? I was watching a game where they thought a goalie has dislocated his shoulder and since the team had already used its substitutes, the option seemed to be putting a goalie jersey on one of the other players on the field. If you really think a team would risk pulling its number one goaltender by feigning an injury, you’ve never been part of a team. The rule that once you’re off the field you can’t come back on is fine. I believe you should be able to substitute for the goaltender once for any reason, and you should be allowed at least six other substitutions. The way to deal with the numbers is to limit active rosters. If you only have 18 active players (16 field players and two goalies) you can’t make more than the seven allowable substitutions. Pretty much the same as baseball. Once you’ve used all your bench personnel that’s it. Or basketball. If players have fouled out and you had to use all your bench players and one gets hurt, you play down a man.
- Fake injuries. I know soccer has tried to deal with this issue by dealing a yellow card for floppers. But it is rarely applied. I think a lot of the fake injuries are to get a clock stoppage to rest or to break the other team’s rhythm. In a play that would have been comical if it wasn’t so egregious, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez bit an Italian player, and Suarez hits the ground and starts howling that Chiellini hurt Suarez’s mouth with his shoulder. My solution is the same as for the basketball games I referee. If you have to stop the game for an injury and the attending personnel come on the court, you must remove that player as quickly and safely as possible and start playing again. None of this, “I’m ok now that I’ve rolled around on the ground for ten minutes like I was shot”. Stop the game, and you leave the field and you don’t get back on until there is an appropriate stoppage.
- Stoppage time. I guess it is six of one, half dozen of the other, but if you don’t dawdle for injuries and you stop the clock after a goal to allow for celebrations that make Chad Ochocinco look as pumped up as a Southern Baptist at church, you can stop a half at the 45 or 90 minute mark. None of this, add five minutes to the half. And why is it always a whole number? What if it was really three minutes, 32 seconds? Seriously, if it isn’t really 45 minutes a half, then what is wrong with a stop clock? Wouldn’t that make it less arbitrary and more accurate?
- Finally, my biggest complaint. The offsides rule. I get that you need some sort of offsides rule in most of the field. In hockey the players can’t precede the puck into the offensive zone. But when the guy with the ball is six yards from the goal line and the defense jumps up to put the guy three yards from the goal line offsides, all you’ve done is reward a team for not playing defense. Can you imagine in basketball a guy with the ball standing at the foul line and the defense all taking a step up so the guy standing next to the basket is ineligible to catch and shoot? I know. It sounds absurd to me too. The old NASL (Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer on one team) experimented with a 35 yard offside line, meaning when the ball was inside that line there was no offsides. It was great for the game, but the stuffy grumps at FIFA pushed the NASL into abandoning it. The NASL offside rule accomplished a lot of things. It opened up the game. Teams could no longer safely sit on a one goal lead. It extended the careers of players because they didn’t always have to come up past the midfield line every opposing possession. It emphasized the skill of the better players. Look, the game has changed. The players are faster and run more than when the current offside rule was adopted. This rule has been changed a few times in the past. The game has evolved. So should the rule.