Soccer is now showcasing its twelfth World Cup event in my lifetime; this is the first one that I’ve watched. I confess that I’m no expert in soccer. However, as a lawyer with more years of experience than I’d care to remember, I am an expert on rules. I know bad rules when I see them, and soccer’s got plenty of them.
I realize that I’m writing in futility since everything I’ve read about FIFA describes it as a lumbering bureaucracy that moves at the speed of erosion. Worse, reports are that FIFA is enjoying the controversy, happily viewing all of the talk about bad officiating through the prism of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.
FIFA’s wrong. Soccer can’t grow in such an environment. New fans won’t put up with games being decided by referees. Also, soccer, unlike baseball, does not need publicity through controversy, scandal, and conflict. Soccer can keep its world-wide popularity on the merits of the game alone, that and the fact that soccer’s so cheap to play. After all, to start a soccer game, all you need is a field, a ball, and a ridiculous set of rules.
I also understand that FIFA won’t change the rules until Adidas, McDonald’s, Budweiser, and Nike tell them to. But in the wake of the worst refereed major sporting event since Wrestlemania, perhaps it’s time for discussion about new ways for soccer to be officiated. I have a growing appreciation for the game, particularly it’s sudden action and speed, the latter being an element that still eludes American professional sport and its break-in-the-action pace.
Despite my growing appreciation for the game, however, the 2010 edition of the World Cup has lead me to the conclusion that soccer is a great sport but one not living up to its potential due to betrayal by its rules, officials and governing body. Watching FIFA and the referees smothering soccer’s untapped potential is as frustrating as watching a jockey choke out a great thoroughbred.
As the kettle of game-altering bad calls gets added to with each round, followed by the inevitable shrug of the shoulders by fifa55, it’s hard to know where to begin reform. My vote is to start on the field of play. And the best place to start there is to change the rules so that they ask less of the officials and return the games’ outcomes to the athletes.
1. First and foremost, change the damn offside rule. The offside rule in soccer stands as the single most absurd rule to have ever appeared in organized sport. The problems with the rule are myriad. On a conceptual level, it is the only rule where one team can control a boundary on the field. Incredibly, the defending team’s players can actually make an opponent offside by simply running forward when the pass is made. This defensive “play” fails to exhibit any athletic skill, ends real scoring chances that are precious in soccer, and looks foolish. Boundaries on a sports field should be fixed and immovable.
Practically speaking, the offside rule requires the referee’s assistant to watch too many events at one time, events that are separated by distance and which occur in a split second. For a typical pass into the penalty area, which is where the most controversial blown calls occur, the official must see the passing player pass the ball and simultaneously see the location of the receiving player and compare that position (at the time of the pass) with the position of defending players. Since the offside boundary is constantly moving, the official often has to make this call while himself moving, a further complicating factor. If the official happens to be up field or down field from this moving line, his ability to accurately make the offside call is severely compromised.
Since there commonly exists distance between the passing and receiving players, it is physically impossible for an official to see both simultaneously. To call the play correctly then, the official would need independently operating eyes, a benefit not yet conferred on us by evolution. Thus, the existing offside rule can only be called reliably by lizards, horses, or Marty Feldman. Little wonder that replays consistently show the call on the field to be incorrect.
The solution? Borrow from hockey. Soccer should create a fixed line on the field. Draw a line ten yards out from the top of the penalty area. Once the ball is advanced over that line, the offsides rule would cease to apply. All passes would be legal. For passes started beyond the line, the offsides rule would still control. This rule would be much easier to call thus reducing critical blown calls. The rule would also increase the excitement of the game through more scoring chances, particularly on sets into the box from out wide.
2. Allow replay on goals. There is nothing more frustrating for a fan than watching a blown call on a score. In soccer, a blown call on a goal is game-changing. Such blown calls strain the patience of hard core fans and turn off new ones. FIFA’s stubbornness and complete unreasonableness on this basic issue only exacerbates fan frustration and anger. People support athletics to be entertained by great athletes, not outraged by bad officiating. If you put on a sporting event and the fan comes away feeling cheated and angry, you’ve failed as a governing body and started the clock on your sports demise in prestige.