Soccer: The Confounding Game

Every four years I avidly follow international soccer, a/k/a the World Cup, and conclude with a desire to watch the sport again…in four more years. While I am watching I pick a team to root for – generally based on hairstyles and uniform colors, thus putting Germany at the bottom of the pack – and spend the rest of my time counting the faults of the game itself, which were on full display this year.
Let’s start, and in a way end, with the refereeing. To my mind, the smaller the role played by the referee, the better the sport. This is the cardinal problem with basketball. With physical contact on every play, what is or is not a foul is totally in the domain of the referee, who can, and often does, decide a close game by either blowing his whistle or swallowing it. Was it a charge or a blocking foul? Was the shot cleanly blocked, or did the defender hit the shooter’s hand, or body? What is traveling? Carrying the ball? Is the game called the same for the star and the rookie? For the home team and the visitors? The role of the referee in making all these subjective calls is simply too great.
At least, however, the court is small and the three refs used in the NBA can see everything. The soccer field is much bigger, and one referee covers the entire pitch and 22 players, not 10. Yes, he has two assistants, but they are on the sidelines and don’t seem to have equal authority or voice. So the chances of a missed call, as with England’s non-goal and the U.S.’s phantom foul, are greater.
The bigger problem, though, is the relative importance of the referee’s decisions. A foul call in basketball can result in two, or on rare occasions three points; and in maybe half those situations two points would have been scored anyway, absent the foul. So one referee’s decision will affect approximately one percent of a team’s scoring. In soccer, in contrast, a foul call in the penalty area may result in 100% of the scoring for the entire game! A foul outside the penalty area will still result in a “set piece,” and an inordinate number of goals in the World Cup came from such set pieces.
With the stakes involved in creating a foul so high – and this is not even counting the unrelated value of getting an opponent yellow-carded or red-carded – players uniformly resort to the most extreme play-acting whenever a potential foul occurs. The sight of a player writhing on the ground in agony, only to continue running full speed a moment later is a universally recognized blot on the game; but again it is caused by the undue impact a referee’s foul call can have.
Hockey, the clearest comparative sport, has a penalty shot, too; but it is awarded only when an offensive player has a clean breakaway and is unfairly deprived of a good opportunity to score. This is occasionally the case with a soccer penalty kick, but more often the player fouled was not about to score. Moreover, a penalty kick is far easier to convert than a penalty shot in hockey and almost always far easier than the chance the fouled player would have had without the foul.
A goal that is scored off the “run-of-play” – i.e., after a series of passes such as the Argentines and the Spaniards excelled at – is indeed a beautiful affair, worth celebrating. But it is worth no more in determining the victor than a goal off a corner kick, a set piece or a penalty kick, and those goals require no more than one lucky strike or a head in the right place. I don’t know the statistics, but it seemed, especiallly in the opening round, that as many goals were scored off set pieces as in the run of play; and whenever that happened you had little confidence that the better team was being rewarded.
The foregoing issues all come down to the difficulty of scoring through regular play in soccer. This is also a problem in itself: a 0-0 or 1-0 game may have moments of tension, but Americans in general and myself in particular prefer to see more beautiful plays, more celebrations, more scores, even more great saves. There is also the problem that once a team gets ahead, it can simply play defense the rest of the way, which takes the flow out of the game. Worse, if a team goes ahead by two goals, the game is basically over. The great comebacks that occasionally enliven a baseball, basketball or football game are exceedingly rare in soccer.
None of these problems seem to matter to the international soccer fan. Referees’ bad calls are considered an integral part of the game. Ditto for the fact that the better team may lose on a penalty kick or set piece (Switzerland beat eventual champion Spain in the opening game, despite being outshot about 20-1, and the world didn’t end). And a nil-nil draw is perfectly acceptable.
If someone were to ask for my suggestion, however, I would improve the game simultaneously in two ways by modifying (not eliminating) the offsides rule. First, the offsides call stops the game dead in its tracks. Second, it encourages defenses to stop attacks not by defending the opponent but by tricking him into being offsides. But most significantly, it interferes with many of the best scoring opportunities, exciting plays that would make the game more vibrant. And more goals, in addition to being more fun to watch, would diminish the exaggerated importance of the referee’s whistle and, one hopes, the players’ whining and acting.
One last related complaint: removing a player from the game for two yellow-card infractions also sets soccer apart from American sports. Given the dubiousness of many yellow-card calls (see referee’s problem, above), it can be a wholly undeserved penalty. But in no case is there justification for changing the entire nature of the contest as a result, which is what happens if one team has fewer players the rest of the match. In basketball a player is ejected for accumulating excessive fouls, and in baseball a player may be thrown out of the game for arguing,but in both cases he is replaced by a substitute. In hockey, again the closest comparison, a penalized team must play shorthanded, but in general for only two minutes.
In short, someone versed in the experience of American sport (and I haven’t even gotten into instant replay), could make some tweaks to the rules of soccer and turn it into a truly beautiful game. But I don’t think the world is looking to America for leadership in this field, alas.