Changes to the game: For better or for better

I am a soccer nut. I love the game, I love the strategy, I love the drama, I love the international scope, I love the fact that size is not an inherent factor in the quality of players, I love the work that must be done to develop the skills needed to play the game at ever rising levels, I love the fact that the mental side of the game can be as important as the physical side. BUT, there are aspects of the game that I do NOT like. There are parts of the game that, to me, are detrimental to the “good game”. There is a negative side to soccer that is unsportsmanlike, runs against the nature of “fair” competition and produces results, on occasion, that have nothing to do with the game at all. It is these parts of soccer that I would like to see changed. And it wouldn’t be very difficult to do so.

As an American, one grows up watching “our” games change their rules often. The NFL changes some rules virtually every year. Basketball has a different set of rules for each level, with the international rules actually differing the significantly from the our professional, college and high school rules, which are different from each other. However, in soccer FIFA is the world standard and with the exception of American schools and some American youth leagues, FIFA’s rules are world-wide. And FIFA tends to be very tradition-oriented! In order to understand this, it helps to understand the perspective of those across the Atlantic, who have the largest say in soccer rules. Once, when traveling in England with a team of high school age boys, we visited Aston Villa’s ground in Birmingham. The question was asked of the team official who was escorting us,” How have you done recently?” He replied ,” Since 1900 we have a rather respectable record!” The boys looked at each other- they thought the question was ,”recently!” But, lets face it, when there are stone fences in your yard that are 1,000 years old, 1900 IS recent! So there is a reverence for history and FIFA looks at that history of the game and makes changes to it VERY slowly and VERY carefully.

So….I am not expecting any of these suggestions to be enacted any time soon or perhaps any time at all. But , even a soccer nut like myself sees the need for upgrading the experience of the game. By the way, the amount of scoring is NOT one of my issues. Oh, I know about the millions of Americans who view 1-0 matches as an excuse for a good nap. However, there are also millions of Americans ( and more everyday) and many more millions around the world,  who appreciate the drama of a low-scoring game and the kind excitement that a goal can produce that is unmatched in any other sport. There is a reason why Andres Cantor started shouting ,” GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!” and found himself famous ( he actually copied that call from an earlier Latin American commentator) . In my opinion ,the only real consequence to the number of goals scored is the fact there is a significant number of draws. Comments about kissing close family members aside, a draw is not necessarily a negative result. It is considered acceptable in soccer EXCEPT in competitions when a victor is needed and THEN we get stuck with the most ridiculous method of determining that victor. So in that regard a few more scores would help. More about that in a few paragraphs.

Timewasting……….the largest drawback to the game. Sooner or later, in so many matches, one team begins to find ways to loiter. I’m not talking about passing the ball around without intent to score, at least that is playing the game. I am referring to the players lying on the ground supposedly injured; slow-motion goalkeepers taking goal kicks; substitutions that put everyone to sleep while players take slow ministeps off and on the field. Sometimes it actually starts at the beginning of the game. The method of adding time to the game is inaccurate and obviously doesn’t deter the slowdown in game action. Rarely does the amount of time added equal the time taken by non-game activity and sometimes the amount of added time makes no sense at all. Plus, the constantly running clock can create crazy situations. Last season during a Champions League match one team scored a late goal but still trailed. Of course, the scoring forward ran into the goal to retrieve the ball for a quick restart, however the keeper tried to prevent him from doing so. A wrestling match ensued in the goal, as the keeper attempted to stop any fast resumption of the game…it was ridiculous! What is frustrating is that all that is needed to correct the situation is a stopwatch. Stop the time whenever 1) the ball goes over the endline….so on goal kicks, corner kicks, after goals…..the clock stops! 2) whenever play is stopped by the referee on the field….injuries, cards, substitutions. Its simple……we do it here is the USA for “our” sports and even for some forms of soccer…..where is the problem with this? 90 minutes of PLAYING time and that’s it.

I was watching a Confederation Cup match on tv a couple weeks ago with a granddaughter in Maryland. She had played lacrosse but admitted that “I know nothing about soccer”. As I  how elaborated on how wonderful the game was, one of the players slid another from behind… hard. She exclaimed,” wow, that was tough!”. The ref pulled out a yellow card and I explained…..she asked,” so how many minutes in the penalty box?”. When I informed her that there was no penalty box, she was incredulous,” so everybody gets a free hit?” Of course, its not that simple, there are penalties for accumulated yellows over time and there is always the risk of a “straight red”, but when one considers the aspect from the perspective of a single game, she was right-everybody gets a free hit. And they are used…..frequently…….far too frequently……to the detriment of the game and often to the detriment of the player getting hit. My granddaughter was right, there should be penalty box. 10 minutes off the field with the offending team playing short during that time for any player getting a yellow card. “Unsporting behavior” , the definition of a yellow card offense, should not be merely a caution with no consequence other than a greater penalty the next time. The game is too valuable for players to get “free hits” to use to injure opponents and disrupt play.

A player using his "free hit".

A player using his “free hit”.

As we know, one of the common sights on the field, is the player writhing around as if he has broken his leg, or ruptured a spleen or perhaps suffered a heart attack. Amazingly, within minutes, he is perfectly ok and ready to resume, having delayed the game or interrupted the rhythm of the opposition. Once in a loooooong while, a referee will have the guts to issue a yellow for simulating a foul, but that is a rare circumstance indeed. Once I was coaching a team of under-10 boys who watched lots of soccer on tv and started imitating their heroes.They rolled around on the ground with every bump, scaring their moms to death and causing me to get far more exercise than I wanted what with constantly sprinting out onto the field , only to discover that they were “all right in a second”. So we instituted a team rule….any player who caused the game to be stopped because they were “hurt” came off the field for a minimum of 5 minutes. Suddenly everyone was ok and my players became much tougher. I propose the same policy at all levels of the game. Any player who stops play for an injury must come off for 5 minutes and their team plays shorthanded until they return. Of course, the reader will say that this policy would encourage more fouls in order to force opposing players off the field. However, if the previous change that I proposed was in place, players would have to think twice before taking opponents out. An infringing player who gets a yellow gets 10 minutes off in order to get a player from the other team off for 5 minutes? Not a smart trade. But as for the “nothing” hit; the imaginary strike that puts too many players down so that they may waste time and try to evoke sympathy….no more.

Finally, here is the last but most controversial and major change that I propose.

Can you, the reader, imagine lining up to take foul shots to decide the NBA title? How about “Home Run Derby” to name the World Series champion? Worse yet, let’s kick field goals to decide the Super Bowl! Absolutely ridiculous! But penalty kicks to decide soccer championships ? That’s ok. NOOO , it’s NOT! Well, as they say in FIFA13,”it’s imperfect, but no one has come up with anything better.” Look here, I have an idea!. At least let’s play soccer and let’s reward the better team, the one that creates chances, one that is forward thinking and not negative. During extra time, we award 5 points for a goal, after all scoring goals is the objective of the game. However, we also award 1 point for every corner kick earned when the defensive player who last touched the ball is entirely inside the penalty area. So, no running to the corner of the field to force a corner, a team must go to goal. Think of the possibilities. Does a keeper automatically push a shot over the bar, knowing he gives up a point? Perhaps he waits to see what the ball will do first. Do teams play back in extra time, knowing that while a goal is fairly easy to  prevent, a corner may not be so easy to stop? Once a point is scored the losing team has to push up, thus opening up the game.  Once a team does go ahead, do they fall back, risking giving up points and losing their lead?At present, most extra time periods consist of neither team wanting to concede a goal and PK’s are inevitable. Certainly it’s an intriguing process, far better than the dice throw that is penalty kicks.

This decides championships. Really?

This decides championships. Really?

Please notice that not one of these changes involves the rules of PLAY. Yes, I propose to change the way the game is timed, is enforced and ( in extra time) is scored. But I do not propose any changes to the way the game is played, nor the number of players, or the field or goal measurements. I imagine a flowing game with few stoppages, even fewer dirty hits or professional fouls and one that is accurately timed. In cases where extra time is called for, I imagine teams thinking that the time to attack has come, that good soccer will win out. None of these changes are difficult for FIFA to put in order, if they could forget history for a while, and think of the good of the game. What do you think?



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