Thursday, July 06, 2006

Someone fix soccer, please

Soccer is known worldwide as the Beautiful Game. And truly, I can understand the appellation. Even though I've never been able to kick a ball with any accuracy or skill, I still enjoy watching soccer when played at a World Cup level. The anticipation and vision on display is incredible. Passes are threaded on angles created by well-timed runs and precise ball movement. The passion of fans, players, and coaches during the World Cup is simply unmatched on a global level.

I look forward to the World Cup every four years, and while I do enjoy it more when the U.S. doesn't suck so much, I still find myself involved long after the U.S. makes another ignominious exit from the tournament. But still, there is something horribly unsatisfying about the results of the game, if not the game itself.

Once you narrow the field to the world's best teams, the winners and losers are completely arbitrary. I don't mind watching low-scoring games with good defensive play, but when goals are at such a premium, luck plays a much bigger factor than it should.

The real culprit, in my blissfully ignorant opinion, is penalty kicks. Setting up twelve yards away to shoot at a goal that is 24 feet x 8 feet is simply ridiculous. The ball takes a full 0.3 seconds to hit the back of the net, so even the best goalies in the world cannot discern the trajectory of the ball and react to it in that time. They are forced to guess, yes guess where the striker will kick the ball and time their jump accordingly. This bizarre mess results in an 80% success rate for penalty kicks, and goalies studying game theory instead of improving hopelessly obsolete reactions.

Compare this to a penalty shot in hockey, where the success rate is ~30%, and the goalie has a chance to not only anticipate, but react to the skater's actions, and actually make a save!

I play hockey, but the odds of me scoring on a penalty shot against a NHL goalie would be around 1%, if that. Yet even a World Cup goalie could not defend an entire 24x8 net from someone as horrible at soccer as me, at a distance of 12 yards away. The goalie would still be forced to guess - left or right - and if he guessed wrong, even I would score at a decent rate.

Penalty kicks occur at two different times during a soccer game: 1) If 120 minutes of play ends in a draw, or 2) the referee determines there was a foul committed inside the 18. Of the four quarterfinal matches, two ended in draws and were decided by penalty kicks. Were Portugal and France clearly the better teams over England and Spain, or did they simply benefit from the arbitrary guesses of their strikers and goalies? In the semi-finals, France again won on a penalty kick, after the referree called a foul against Portugal (then failed to call a foul against France for a similar play). Considering how easy it is for a single referree to make a mistake, while watching a field of 22 players all diving and trying to draw this really how the greatest championship tournament in the world should be decided?

So here are my suggestions for changing the game, from someone who watches a handful of soccer matches every four years. These changes aren't to make the game more watchable - I love watching it as is - but it will allow skill to separate the winners and losers, instead of the randomness of guessing and referee error.

  • Get rid of off-sides. This is a goofy rule, allowing defenders to actually cause an offensive player to be off-sides, and there is too much room for referee error. It will open up the scoring dramatically...allowing highly skilled teams to shine, and allowing teams to occasionally come back from the dreaded 1-0 defecit.
  • Move penalty kicks back. I'm not sure where you'd move them back to - maybe the 18 - but find a spot where goalies can react to and save mediocre shots, but precise shots still score. Make this a contest of skill instead of guesswork. Make it a 50/50 proposition instead of a sure goal.

Then perhaps we could witness some back-and-forth games, some brilliant comebacks, and at the end of the tournament crown a true champion. The way it will end this year marks little distinction between the #1 team and the #7 team - they are only separated by the flip of a coin.


At 4:44 PM, Blogger millhousethecat said...

I've become hopelessly addicted to World Cup soccer myself, to the great disdain of my children, all three of whom find it boring, one of whom enjoys watching televised baseball games --- those aren't boring at all.

And I agree with most of what you said in your post. Soccer is exciting and intense, but disappointing when decided by a penalty kick. Nevermind the fact that I can't actually tell an offsides from a hole in the net.

Having said that, thank God these are our biggest complaints. Imagine if you were one of the unfortunate Somalis killed by radical Islamic militia fighters for simply watching one of those boring games.


"Hard-line Muslim fighters, who wrested control of the Somali capital from warlords in June, have forbidden people from watching television or movies in line with their strict interpretation of Islam."

Not only does Jesus want you to spend your hard earn money on glorified lawn ornaments, he also wants you to kill teenagers for watching soccer.

And people wonder why I'm not all in for religion.

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Sweet Tea said...

Oh Sherry, the offside rule is soooo's the explanation:

A player is judged to be in an offsides position if there are not at least two players between him and the goal he is attacking at the moment that the ball is played forward to him. Often, one of the two opposing players between him and the goal he is attacking is the opposing goalkeeper, but not always. Exceptions to this rule are when the attacking player is behind the ball, when the ball is being thrown in and during a goal kick.

Ah, the clean elegance of simplicity.

Shit-can the rule, it sucks and it forces judgement calls by the referree every freaking time the ball is played forward.


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