There are legions of soccer haters in America, including some on this site. As I’ve said in the past, there’s nothing wrong with this. Many soccer haters know the game as well as I do and still can’t stand it. Others don’t know the game at all and hate it, which is illogical. Either way, the haters have their reasons and who am I to try and convince them otherwise?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news for the haters, but the World Cup has actually generated some interest in soccer. The ESPN broadcast of the U.S.-Ghana match drew a 7 share overnight, or 8 million viewers. By contrast, a usual broadcast of Monday Night Football draws an 8.6 share, or 9.3 million viewers. Somebody out there in America likes soccer and loves the World Cup.
But it is my belief that a few rule changes would go a long way to getting even more Americans interested in the game. Hopefully, these suggestions wouldn’t alter the character of the game, but simply make it more accessible to American audiences.
1. Injury, or “stoppage” time
The timekeeping problem in soccer is incomprehensible. Are the officials too stupid to keep accurate time? Why not stop the clock for an injury instead of adding on an indeterminate amount of time at the end of the half? (They’re rarely close to being right.) Why can’t they stop the clock after a goal is scored, or when there are long periods of time wasted on arguments with the officials? They rarely stop the clock, except in the case of very serious injuries.
There is nothing exact about timekeeping in a soccer match which is ridiculous in the 21st century. Either keep time or don’t. Add an official timekeeper as they have in football, basketball, and hockey. The ref can control when the clock is stopped and when it starts again. None of this nonsensical, subjective, inaccurate guessing about how much time was lost during a half.
No injury time. No stoppage time. Just 90 minutes of action. Isn’t that what they’re after in the first place?
2. A lack of precision on ball placement and out of bounds plays
How often do you see a foul called and, instead of the player placing the ball exactly where the foul occurred, he advances it 5 or 10 yards and puts it in play? Or you may have noticed when a ball goes out of bounds, the throw-in might eventually occur far from where the ball left the field of play.
The referee will occasionally blow his whistle and force the player to move the free kick back, or motion the player throwing the ball in to play to move closer to where the ball went out of bounds. But there’s no precision, no exactitude. (On throw-ins, I’ve seen players dance 20 yards down the sideline before putting the ball in play.)
It offends the American soul to see this demonstration of inexactness. It’s vaguely unfair. We’re used to games where precision makes a difference between victory and defeat. It can in soccer too.
I understand the attraction in not requiring the referee to handle the ball before putting it in play. It keeps the flow of the game going and maintains an advantage for an attacking team if they can quickly put the ball in play. But there are plenty of times when this rule is abused. Penalizing a team for abusing the practice by awarding a free kick to the opposing team should get players to be more exact in ball placement and out of bounds throw-ins.
3. Match penalty for diving
International soccer would be a lot more watchable if players weren’t diving all over the pitch every time someone tripped them or gave them an elbow. It’s positively nauseating. The histrionics are worthy of a Shakespearean actor. We’ve all seen it. The player gets tripped up, throws his arms out while diving through the air, and goes down to the ground writhing in pain as if he’s been shot. Two minutes later, he’s speeding down the wing going after the ball as if shot out of a cannon.
It’s got to stop. It’s an insult to the game and to the fans. The NBA now calls a technical for diving as well they should. FIFA hands out a yellow card — but refs are afraid to call diving because there are times when even minor contact can lead to very painful injuries.
A baseball player gets hit with a 95 MPH fastball in the middle of the back and saunters to first — a point of pride not to show the pitcher he’s hurt. A wide receiver in football gets absolutely walloped by a D-back and jumps up as if nothing happened. This is the American way, and soccer would do well to adopt it.
But the trend in soccer now — especially in the penalty area — is for an attacking player to seek out contact in order to get a penalty kick. There have been more games decided by fake or questionable fouls than need to be. A few match penalties handed out for diving will go a long way toward discouraging the practice.
4. Modify the offside rule
The offside rule in soccer is far more complex than it needs to be. In fact, a rule designed to make play fair is actually a detriment to the game.
The basic rule is simple enough: for a play to be onside, there must be at least one defensive player between the attacker and the goalie. But there are several permutations to the rule, and the assistant referees don’t always get it right.
When pro hockey eliminated the center-line offside, the game became much more exciting. The breakaway is the most crowd-pleasing play in hockey and with no center-line offsides, you usually get two or three a game.
Several times during World Cup games, offsides has been called less than 10 yards from the goal. Why is this a problem? You got all the defenders around the goal. If the attackers get lucky and the ball drops at their feet, good for them.
Don’t completely eliminate offsides, but limit it to balls kicked from behind the center line. Once over the center line, all bets are off and defenders better not let an offensive player get behind them.
5. Mandate that players for Brazil, Germany, and Argentina must wear 5 lb. weights on their ankles.
Not really, of course. But those three countries have almost all their players home grown. The citizenship rules in soccer are baffling, as are the rules governing what country a player with dual citizenship can play for. English should play for England. Brazilians for Brazil, etc. It’s kind of silly that Costa, Spain’s marvelous striker, is a Brazilian by birth. Spain has plenty of home-grown players, they don’t need to go poaching other country’s stars.
It’s almost as if the superannuated gentlemen who run FIFA don’t want the game to open up and become exciting.