[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 15, 2007 at 1:26pm] Trackbacks
Soccer Reform & Reforms:

Our political candidates might have us believe that nothing spruces up the country like a fresh coat of regulation, but rulemaking is of course far from a simple aesthetic matter of enacting "common sense" solutions. Even in the relatively rare cases where a problem is manifest and almost universally condemned, descrying its solution and then fixing it with new rules can be extremely difficult. And attempting to tinker with an already complex system, in particular, can easily exacerbate any original shortcomings.

Executive compensation readily comes to mind as one example. Although a few people think CEO pay is too low, I think it's fair to say that plenty of Americans are put out by the more obscene packages. Yet almost every one of the repeated attempts to regulate compensation has backfired: the taxing of golden parachutes in the early '80s popularized what had been a relatively rare perquisite; the cap on deductions for pay over $1 million quickly turned into a floor; and increased disclosure has allowed CEOs and boards to see what others are getting and to ratchet compensation even higher.

Soccer has its own delicate web of regulation, pieced together to patch over the evil ingenuity of players. For example, the current rule forbidding goalkeepers to pick up backpasses from teammates evolved to cope with chronic time-wasting. And the offside rule was intended to bar strikers from perching and poaching in the opposing goalmouth.

So should we adopt a Burkean approach to the matter and presume that our existing system is the ideal product of a century of footballing wisdom? I will allow that caution is warranted but won't insist on quite so conservative an approach as my esteemed compatriot -- I see the aforementioned rules as fairly good examples of how new rules can improve soccer.

And we are not dealing here with a revered constitution of football; the rules change regularly: the offside rule has been liberalized twice in recent years to switch the interpretation of "even is off" to "even is on" (i.e., an attacker level with the last defender is now onside as opposed to offside) and to allow for harmless error (i.e., players in an "offside" position may not be penalized if they don't interfere with play).

My motivation for proposing changes rests on my primary complaint that, in World Cup soccer especially, referees play too prominent a role. Because of the quality of the competition and the dread of losing on such an important stage, teams often play not to lose, so games are difficult to win through skill alone. Players are well aware that a referee can hugely alter a game by decimating one team with a red card or by awarding a penalty, so naturally (if regrettably) players attempt to fool the referee through chicanery.

My proposals therefore attempt to deal with two separate parts of this dynamic: first, the referee's ability to discern the facts accurately; second, the rewards and punishments that the players are so desperately attempting to cajole from their minders.

First, fact-finding. FIFA could readily increase the ratio of officials to playing surface, by adding more referees, just as many other sports have (e.g., basketball, football, and baseball, which increases the number of its umpires for playoff games). FIFA could incorporate greater use of post-game video review, at least to rule players in or out of subsequent games in a tournament. Finally, in-game video review could allow officials, before play continues

(a) to rule out goals like Maradona's:

and (b) to award red cards to players like Schumacher.

Even venerable old English sports like rugby (which is a free-flowing game) and cricket use this tool.

Players may be deterred from cheating if they believe they will be more readily caught. On the other hand, adding more referees would not obviously achieve the larger goal of reducing the role of referees in soccer.

On that topic, let's turn now to sentencing guidelines. FIFA could fine-tune its existing yellow and red card punishments by instituting a sin-bin to send players off for set periods, as in hockey or rugby. The existing rules against "simulation" (diving) and requiring "injured" players to leave the field could be enforced more rigorously. Referees might be forced to choose whether a given fouler or faker in a tackle deserves a card.

As for a system of more sensitive rewards (which are just more punishments against the offending team), penalties could be awarded only after a certain number of cards have been handed out (as with basketball's free-throw regime) or, of course, the spot could be moved further away from the goal. Given the amount of collectible data on penalties, FIFA should be able to use fairly simple empirical and statistical analyses to determine the distance that would achieve any given scoring rate they desire. With both of these suggestions, however, my fear is that the net effect would be to reduce the overall scoring in the game.

Again, my overarching belief is that more goals, not fewer, will do the most to make each individual decision by the referee less pivotal. I acknowledge that fractional or multivalue scoring is probably too significant a change to the game (as would be altering the size of the goal), but scoring could be increased through relatively innocuous means, such as by loosening the offside rules even further.

I don't think we'll eliminate the last-minute penalty (see, e.g., Italy v. Australia) but there might be less sense of outrage and frustration if the score of the game at the time were 5-5 than if it were 0-0.