April 19, 2018

How Not to Fix Soccer

With the World Cup comes the quadrennial ritual in which Americans try to redesign and improve the rules of soccer. As usual, it’s a bad idea to redesign something you don’t understand—and indeed, most of the proposed changes would be harmful. What has surprised me, though, is how rarely anyone explains the rationale behind soccer’s rules. Once you understand the rationale, the rules will make a lot more sense.

So here’s the logic underlying soccer’s rules: the game is supposed to scale down, so that an ordinary youth or recreation-league game can be played under the exact same rules used by the pros. This means that the rules must be designed so that the game can be run by a single referee, without any special equipment such as a scoreboard.

Most of the popular American team sports don’t scale down in this way. American football, basketball, and hockey — the most common inspirations for “reformed” soccer rules — all require multiple referees and special equipment. To scale these sports down, you have to change the rules. For example, playground basketball has no shot clock, no counting of fouls, and nonstandard rules for awarding free throws and handling restarts—it’s fun but it’s not the same game the Lakers play. Baseball is the one popular American spectator sport that does scale down.

The scaling principle accounts for soccer’s seemingly odd timekeeping. The clock isn’t stopped and started, because we can’t assume a separate timekeeping official and we don’t want to burden the referee’s attention with a lot of clock management. The time is not displayed to the players, because we can’t assume the availability of a scoreboard. And because the players don’t know the exact remaining time, the referee gives the players some leeway to finish an attack even if the nominal finishing time has been reached. Most of the scalable sports lack a clock — think of baseball and volleyball — but soccer manages to reconcile a clock with scalability. Americans often want to “fix” this by switching to a scheme that requires a scoreboard and timekeeper.

The scaling principle also explains the system of yellow and red cards. A hockey-style penalty box system requires special timing and (realistically) a special referee to manage the penalty box and timer. Basketball-style foul handling allows penalties to mount up as more fouls are committed by the same player or team, which is good, but it requires elaborate bookkeeping to keep track of fouls committed by each player and team fouls per half. We don’t want to make the soccer referee keep such detailed records, so we simply ask him to record yellow and red cards, which are rare. He uses his judgment to decide when repeated fouls merit a yellow card. This may seem arbitrary in particular cases but it does seem fair on average. (There’s a longer essay that could be written applying the theory of efficient liability regimes to the design of sports penalties.)

It’s no accident, I think, that scalable sports such as soccer and baseball/softball are played by many Americans who typically watch non-scalable sports. There’s something satisfying about playing the same game that the pros play. So, my fellow Americans, if you’re going to fix soccer, please keep the game simple enough that the rest of us can still play it.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    How about just eliminating the “dive”? That would make it infinitely more watchable.

    • “Diving” without having been fouled is already banned, and is punishable by an automatic yellow card. Players do get penalized for this. If a player is actually fouled, and falls somewhat more theatrically than necessary, this does little harm.

      My sense is that people who haven’t played seriously tend to underestimate the force and intensity of the collisions on the field, and the amount of pain these collisions would inflict on a normal body. On television, player-on-player contact is typically shown either in a distant wide-angle view, or in slow motion. Both views tend to make the contact look less violent than it really is.

      • Those of us you hate diving aren’t talking about the plays where players actually touch each other. We’re talking about the unquestionably blatant dives. Are you telling me you actually think the Ivory Coast player was injured when HE ran into Kaka? what a joke. Or where De Rossi wasn’t even touched and fell over in agony? Its disgusting.

        • Obviously a pure dive, where the player is not even touched, is indefensible. Unfortunately this is difficult for referees to enforce in practice. I wouldn’t object to having a video review that imposes some post-game punishment on players who dive. This is still consistent with the scalability principle, because it does not change the rules or conduct of the game itself.

        • Anonymous says:

          Watch the videos about De Rossi incident again, Cáceres steps on his heel. Although De Rossi does put some extra there when falling down, I can assure you that when someone steps on your heel with studded boots when running in full speed, it hurts.
          That Kaita thing was totally different, and Fifa obviously should sanction him for that. Which probably will happen.

      • Jonathan says:

        Please, get real. I played soccer for 8 years and I can assure you that the vast majority of those reactions are faked. How is it that 90-95% of a time that a player rolls around in agony, he is able to get back up and keep playing like nothing happened? Why is it that at least 50% of the time, the player grabs a body part other than the one that was actually touched? How is it that soccer players take 3x longer to get up off the ground than rugby or football players – and don’t even start to tell me that rugby and football players aren’t hitting each other as hard as soccer players are.

        Diving is a part of soccer – a really, really stupid part. More referees and stricter enforcement would cut down on it.

    • Anonymous Australian says:

      I agree, diving is being abused and people are getting away with it because a single referee behind the players and the goal won’t have the best view in almost all cases. It’s not scaling up so does need some kind of change.

      Diving seems to be professional blight and doesn’t happen in non pro games IMHO because worse case you’re probably going to get a yellow if someone falls down. Even then I think in most cases it would be ascribed to general un-coordination; There’s much more leeway I think but then again most people are playing for the fun of it so get the benefit of the doubt.

      Maybe there’s a greater role for side line ref’s, for red cards they can confer and for professional leagues, some kind of instant replay. Rugby league and union to some extent are both scalable games but the professional league makes much more heavy use of replays, touch judges etc with the number of ref’s increasing as you go up. Touch judges can feed in what really happened and the controlling referee can use their judgement. Even school games for under 12 now play with three ref’s as standard so seems like a scalable solution for soccer. If play’s stopped I think a replay/challenge scenario makes sense and won’t affect the feeling of the same game too much. Seems ok for tennis, rugby …

      Some of the timing scalability issues you’ve raised have already crept into soccer. For example I’ve never played injury time but this seems to be quite common for soccer now and requires someone monitoring time with a stop watch.

  2. PommieBarsteward says:

    At last, someone that understands but is there hope for the rest of the US?

    P.S. I hate to think of the suggestions that could be made if the US ever discovers cricket

    • Many people in the U.S. understand and follow the game; but they’re not the ones writing about how to “fix” the rules.

  3. ok fine, but you didn’t explain why this “scaling down” is a desirable feature of a TV spectacle played by multi million dollar professionals.

    • My claim is that the spectacle is more engaging for the audience, because the audience plays the same game that the millionaires are playing. This has two main advantages: (1) the audience better understands what is happening on the field, and (2) some of the kids playing at small scale will be the next generation of professionals.

      • Anonymous says:

        Neither of those arguments make any sense.

        (1) the audience better understands…

        Are you claiming that American fans don’t understand the NFL, basketball, baseball or hockey? You need to provide some evidence for such an outlandish claim.

        (2) kids playing at small scale will be the next generation…

        Are you claiming that American kids playing a scaled down version of Basketball with only one ref and no shot clock don’t ever go on to play in the NBA? I can’t even understand what you are talking about here.

        • Even if the rules are primarily the same, the *presence* of referees, the professional-quality equipment and the high pressure of professional-level soccer makes it a world apart from the playground game.

          But even so, wouldn’t you agree that it’s the athleticism and essential parts of the game that draw fans in? The thrill of watching someone nail a leaping header into the goal is exciting period, and that’s the part that folks around the world can imagine themselves doing in a game. They don’t care that the player didn’t know how much time was on the clock when he did it.

          Same goes for US professional sports like football and basketball. Even if you’ve never played with a shot clock or instant-replay refereeing, watching someone nail a tough three-pointer or catch a tough pass in the end zone is still relatable.

  4. I’m an American who has learned to love soccer, including stoppage time and red cards, through the help of several international friends. However, there is one thing I will never learn to accept: diving. How the international community can sit back and watch people blatantly cheat is infuriating. From the Italian De Rossi to the Ivory Coast, teams cheat for the entire world to see, all the time, and get away with it. Diving can be easily wiped away with the use of simple risk vs reward economics. Simply review the video after the game and if anyone was found to dive (falling down without being touched, acting like they’ve been shot in the face when they haven’t been touched, etc), suspend them for 20 international games. Problem solved.

    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe you are not aware of it, but there is penalty for diving. The FIFA won’t let the Ivory coast guy go away with it.

    • Anonymous says:

      You may not be aware of this, but the referee’s subjectivity is integral part of the game. It is even on the rule book: All decisions of the referee are final. It is not an objective outside observer enforcing the rules. The referee’s interpretation of the rules are the rules, Louis XIV style.

      I was watching a History Channel special on the world cup the other week. At the end they were discussing the role technology has in the game and how it has affected it. When in came to rule enforcement, though, the interviewees mentioned that FIFA is never going to add technological solutions to aid referee decisions. The errors that referees make all over the world spur a multimillion dollar industry: The Soccer Comment/Analysis Infotainment.

      • Anonymous says:

        “You may not be aware of this, but the referee’s subjectivity is integral part of the game”

        This is why America will never accept it.

    • Anonymous says:

      Di Rossi wasn’t diving, though. He was being fouled and he went down to get the call. That is a world away from what Keita did, which was obviously cheating.

      Think of a basketball player who pump fakes, gets his opponent in the air, and then jumps into him to draw a foul. That’s a legitimate play, and no one would accuse that guy of “diving”.

      Don’t jump in the air when someone pump fakes, or you get burned. Don’t grab someone’s shirt in the box, or you will get called for a penalty. Its pretty obvious.

  5. commenter says:

    First of all, I find sport boring to watch, so bear that in mind. However I think the most boring ever sporting fixture I went to was an American football match – constant stop-starting, seemed to go on forever, endless faffing about by officials – amazingly, even the commentators got confused as to when the match had ended. I finally understood that cheerleaders are an essential part of the game and not just eye candy; I just ended up watching them the entire time.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
      George Will

  6. Attempting to change the rules does require an understanding of the game and its history – I’m not entirely convinced by this version of the ‘rules scaling down’ argument, though. The primary factor that makes soccer scale down is that it’s possible to play a game substantially similar and as fun as what the professionals play with nothing more than a soccer ball. Most recreational soccer in the world, by far, is not played by the standard regulations. The kind of soccer played in parks, schoolyards and playgrounds across the world is not played

    on a regulation-sized pitch and regulation surface
    with regulation-sized goals
    in regulation time
    with a referee
    with an offside rule
    by regulation-sized teams

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t dispute that most games aren’t played that way. Most baseball games aren’t played on regulation-sized diamonds/fields, with a proper pitcher’s mound, with regulation-sized bases, with an ump, etc.

      The real point is that doing *any* of these things is relatively trivial, setting up a game can be a 10-minute affair, you need a ball, and four garbage cans (maybe some unused jackets) for goal posts, and between 4-11 people per team. You can play it on concrete, grass, wooden floor (i.e. basketball/volleyball courts) and even sand (on the beach).

      In other words, it’s versatile and easily improvised. Basketball? You need a backboard and a basket, and make sure it’s high enough so to not be too easy. American football? It’s a really hard game to improvise, and when it is, it is usually so stripped-down that it hardly resembles the original game. For example, fouling in American football is insanely complicated, and only experts on the game know the entire array of specific fouls that can happen, and how do determine their respective penalties (which are subjective, by the way). Even baseball is somewhat complicated because of the “strike zone” but this can usually be approximated by its players without the need for an ump.

      In short, I think the author is right on the money.

      • Anonymous says:

        How is it any harder to set up an impromptu baseball diamond than a soccer pitch? Like you said, you need four garbage cans for the four bases; likewise in soccer, you need four garbage cans to mark the two goals. At that point you are ready to go.

        You might want to set up some kind of boundaries, but in my pick up games we never bother. Throw ins just slow the game down anyway.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Doesn’t the offsides rule contradict this thesis? It requires 2 additional line judges to track player position.

    • Offside is an interesting case. The offside rule is the same with or without line judges, but the rule is difficult for a lone referee to enforce accurately. This is a case where the rules are trying to improve the game play at the cost of some imprecision in enforcement. Line judges don’t change the rules, only how well they are enforced.

      Interestingly, the (British) announcers on American television for the opening World Cup game seemed not to know the offside rule. They seemed to think (wrongly) that the offside line is drawn at the first non-goalkeeper defender, rather than (correctly) at the second defender including the goalkeeper. They must have spent ten minutes puzzling over a certain offside call, even when the FIFA video feed showed a freeze-frame with the line drawn according to the correct rule.

      • Anonymous says:

        Could you list out exactly which changes would violate this “scalability” rule? The only hockey-themed rule that I hear often is adding a second referee. How does that violate scalability any more than the side judges or fourth official do now?

        The other rule is using video replay for various things, such as punishing players later or correcting bad card decisions (such as the red against Kaka). But you say:

        “[Line judges don’t] change the rules, only how well they are enforced.”

        You could just as easily say:

        “[Video replay doesn’t] change the rules, only how well they are enforced.”

        So what changes are going to make the soccer I watch on TV so radically different from the soccer I play in my park, exactly?

        • Here are two problematic rule changes that have been proposed. (1) Penalize fouls by sending off players for limited periods, as in hockey where players spend time in the penalty box. (2) Stop the clock whenever the ball is not in play, and display the remaining time so that everyone can see it.

          Both changes would make timekeeping too complex for a single referee to manage (along with his other responsibilites). The second change also assumes a scoreboard or some kind of display technology.

          People have proposed both of these changes to me in person, and I have seen them proposed in print as well.

  8. I usually hate it myself when people nitpick on this, but can you guys please start calling the game by the name that 95% of the people actually playing it do as well? It’s called football (or Fußball, fútbol etc.). Even the Aussies and Kiwis have cottoned on to the fact by now…

    So here’s my suggestion: Before you are trying to redesign a sport, at least learn what to call it first. Please….

    • The term is perfectly understandable by all English speakers and is unambiguous to American English speakers. Besides, it nearly as old as the game itself.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_football#Etymology

      Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of languages which have words for soccer that are not derived from or sound anything like ‘football’. So, yes, this particular avenue of nitpicking remains deeply silly.

    • I thought about what name to use for the game. I typically say “football” when talking to non-Americans. But my readers are mostly American, so I decided to use the American name for the game, rather than having to break the flow of the post by stopping to explain my terminology. “Soccer” is understood by everybody, even if some find it annoying.

    • Anonymous says:

      Football covers loads of sports, Association Football, Rugby Football, American Football, Gaelic Football, Rules Football etc.

      The first two, being English public school sports have associated slang names “Soccer” and “Rugger”, which define which one you’re actually talking about.

      Any of them are called football when you only play or talk about one, but when talking to other people who aren’t in the same monoculture, you can be more precise.

      If you don’t like the public school slang element, call it Association Football, which is its real name.

    • “Football” refers to any game you play on foot, with a ball. Association football, American football, rugby union, rugby league, Aussie rules, Gaelic football etc. can all be correctly called football.

      • Anonymous says:

        You can’t call an elliptical object, such as the rugby “ball”, a ball. A ball rolls, a ball bounces, a ball swerves and therefore is easy to kick. In rugby,an subsequently American football, the object is more suited to holding than kicking.

        • Anonymous says:

          Aussie Rules uses the same sort of shaped ball as rugby, and the primary means of getting the ball around is kicking. The ball still rolls. The ball still bounces – and the players specifically have to bounce the ball if they move while holding it. The ball still swerves – a master kicker can make it do some fantastic aerial feats.

          Your definition of what makes a ball is rather odd.

      • Anonymous says:

        I beg to differ. The origin of the name “Football” in American Football is because the “ball” is one foot long. “0.3-meter-ball” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily.

  9. transparency says:

    Soccer fans and players should demand more transparency in FIFA officiating. For example, FIFA allows a referee to call a foul without stating the reason or player who committed it. This is what made the USA-Slovenia call so appalling. Referees in any sport will occasionally blow calls, but at least we don’t have to speculate on what is the call. In the USA-Slovenia game, the referee may have just assumed (incorrectly) that on replay, some USA players would be spotted committing a foul, thereby justifying the bogus call.

    The lack of transparency is also one objection to the antiquated FIFA time-keeping mechanism. Why can’t the referee keep a stopwatch that counts down from 45 minutes, and stop it for injury time, bookings, goals, etc? When a scoreboard and appropriate technology are available (such as World Cup), display it for all to see; when they’re not, reveal it to the coach or captain upon request. The latter is how it’s typically done in many leagues already.

    • Not everyone can afford technology like a stopwatch. The sport must be able to scale down!!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    The thing which needs to change but does have to a club level is the ability for the referee in international and major football league to review a decision by video.
    This doesn’t need to scale down, it just used for televised sport.
    Rugby Union, Rugby League, US football, Ice Hockey, Tennis and Cricket all have video reviews but Football/Soccer does not. None of the blatant dives or bad decisions would stand after a simple review.
    I think like Union, the yellow card should be a sent off for 10 mins. Timekeeping 10 mins is not hard on any normal digital watch. That punishment would stop tthe fouls and cynical professional tripping that occurs now.

    • Anonymous says:

      Everyone keeps talking about how US football and Hockey have video replay, but they way they do video replay would not affect any of the problems that people complain about in soccer.

      Take the NFL for instance. They only allow replays for rules that are not subjective, such as “did this guy step out of bounds before he caught the ball.” They do NOT overturn calls such as holding or pass interference.

      The diving and missed penalty calls in soccer fall under the holding/pass interference spectrum, not the “did he hit the ground with his knee before losing contact with the ball” side.

      The only thing they could really review is whether a ball crossed the goal line or not, or whether something should be a corner kick or a goal kick. Those things happen too infrequently (in the case of disputed goals) or are too unimportant (everything else) to bother slowing down the game for.

      • england says:

        The only thing they could really review is whether a ball crossed the goal line or not, or whether something should be a corner kick or a goal kick. Those things happen too infrequently (in the case of disputed goals) or are too unimportant (everything else) to bother slowing down the game for.

        I think England would beg to differ. This had to be one of the worst calls in World Cup history. A video replay of disputed goals would have quickly corrected this egregious mistake. That’s why the NHL reviews disputed goals – it doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, it is critical to get the call right and help restore the integrity of the game.

    • Anonymous says:

      I completely agree – IMHO, a retrospective video review would instantly “fix” soccer*.

      A bad decision made at an amateur level upsetting but the impact is relatively small when compared with the financial/national repercussions for professional teams and countries. The current situation favors those who cheat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eZhBCqh8l8, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZs0wbG-CoI

      There’s no need to change the structure of the game played over the 90 minutes. If the Referee had the power to book players on review of the video evidence, the players would soon learn to stay on their feet and actually try to PLAY THE GAME!!!

      Through fear of being banned from playing the next match – they might even admit that there was an “accidental hand ball”!

      * I’m Irish so football means something completely different to us:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaelic_football

    • Anonymous says:

      I have played high school soccer four years, and the rule about sitting out 10 mins for a yellow card is followed. It makes the game A LOT rougher, because the refs don’t like to pull yellow cards, so a foul just gets a free kick. There is no reason not to foul multiple times, unlike without the rule, when the ref will card you on the second or third foul.

  11. transparency says:

    In the US, there are a variety of different organizations with their own set of rules: NFHS for high school, NCAA for colleges, FIFA for professionals, and house rules for pickup games. For example, the NCCA mandates using a timekeeper with a clock that stops.

    http://www.nfhs.org/Workarea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=3381

    I think sports such as soccer and basketball are so popular because you can play 3-on-3 basketball or 7v.7 soccer and it “feels like” the real game, even if the rules are drastically different (e.g., half-court, no goalie, no officials). Playing baseball with 7 per side is not much fun. American football requires too much equipment. I think this better explains why so many Americans play basketball and soccer: not much equipment required and the sports are robust with respect to the rules.

    • Anonymous says:

      People don’t play baseball because the game really isn’t that fun unless everyone is really good at it. Either the pitcher is so good that no one can hit, or the pitcher can’t throw strikes.

      Softball fixes that problem, which is why there are softball games going on all over the US every night.

      People don’t play football because it hurts too much.

  12. Anonymous says:

    People who complain about others calling football, soccer need to get a life.
    The Americans didn’t invent the term, the English did, just as it was the English who laid down the rules of the game. In England both terms are wide usage.
    I have been attending matches, watching on tv and playing football/soccer/footie all my life and I never once heard a football player/fan object to the word soccer. Not even when I lived for many years in the game’s true heartland, Lancashire.

  13. Anonymous says:

    No more ties, that’s what really hurts the sport. American like for their to be a decisive outcome. PKs also seem like kind of a cop out. Stamina is important, so play until someone scores.

    • I’m ok with ties in the preliminary round (just like ties in hockey and American football are possible in the regular season, if less common). But when it comes to the knockout stage, let them play until they drop (like they do in the NHL playoffs). Does anyone want to defend using PKs to decide World Cup games?

      What other sports so drastically change the rules (in the elimination/playoff stage) to terminate the game? College football comes to mind.

    • wimbledon says:

      Wimbledon has it right – John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are tied at 59-59 in the fifth set, and will resume their epic battle tomorrow morning. Unbelievable!

  14. Antonio Touriño says:

    One simple way to make soccer/football more exciting, or at least give some more incentives to the teams to attack, is to simply not give points for 0-0 draws. The 0-0 draw is the biggest problem in soccer/football in my mind. This scales well as it’s a simple rule for leagues. I put together a simple site to gain some traction for the idea. http://nilnilnopoints.info. Cheers!

  15. this whole article is bizarre. i like soccer, but this whole scalability argument is nuts. baseball is the one american sport that scales? i would say it’s the one that scales the worst; you simply can’t play baseball without bats, balls, mitts, a fairly large baseball-field-shaped field, bases, etc. the game that kids play is so far removed from the big leagues it’s ridiculous, most notably in the role played by pitching and relievers, maybe the single most important thing in today’s professional game. which is not to say that kids don’t scale it down anyway, but it gets changed enough that we start changing the name (stickball if you’re from brooklyn).

    soccer is the most scalable sport, but that’s because the equipment required is almost nothing (a ball) and the rules that add complexity are easily discarded without losing all that much (like basketball).

    i agree that soccer doesn’t really need fixing, but that’s because there’s not much wrong with it, not because of some made-up argument about americans failing to understand how it scales.

  16. Joseph Bonneau says:

    First, as mentioned above, the offsides rule contradicts most of your argument because it’s incredibly difficult to call correctly (even with two extra officials) hence doesn’t scale well, and this shows because in my experience in years of friendly pickup games in Senegal, France and England, people rarely want to deal with it and normally just ignore the whole rule except in egregious cases, which deviates significantly from the pro game. In more competitive games I’ve played without pro referees offsides generates ten times more arguments than things like the ball going out of play, because it’s so difficult even for players on the field to know what really happened.

    Ice hockey and water polo have both solved the offsides problems with a very useful simplification: instead of an imaginary line based on where moving defenders are, you draw a permanent zone where attacking players can’t go until the ball/puck has entered. This achieves all of the aims of the offsides rule, but is suddenly extremely easy to call correctly and see as a player, errors are rarely made and the rule is uncontroversial in both sports.

    Football could quite easily adapt a similar rule, but they are very unlikely to. This brings up the second, deeper problem with your argument, which is that none of the properties of soccer regulations are intentional by FIFA. It’s an organisation run by old and extremely conservative white men with a deep sense of entitlement who want to change nothing. Exactly like the people running the NFL, NBA, or pro baseball. There’s no special logic underlying soccer’s rules or any other sport, and it’s a mistake to assume intentional design and stewardship. I might even buy that soccer’s tendency towards scalability has contributed to its growth in the past hundred years, but this is just survival of the fittest against other incompetently run sports.

    The only exceptions I really know of are rugby and ice hockey. They have made relatively substantial tweaks to rugby rules continually over the decades to simplify the game and improve safety, and the sports’ governors seem relatively forward thinking. The NHL as well has made a few changes five years ago, dropping the two line pass rule and adding shootouts despite anger from the old guard. Both sports have really only changed because they were in bad shape financially and had no choice.

    FIFA has a near complete monopoly sanctioning leagues around the world and the sport remains compelling, so the only changes they’re likely to make will be out of political necessity (banning racist comments) or marketing opportunities (continuing to introduce pointlessly expensive and over-designed balls which hurt scalability.

    I love your scalability argument, it’s a great frame to compare sports. We’re just lucky football is scalable, because FIFA certainly won’t be actively preserving it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I don’t buy your argument. Playground soccer is nothing like world cup soccer — we don’t need to burden the referee with clock management because THERE ISN’T A REFEREE IN PLAYGROUND SOCCER!

    Rugby (AKA “football” :P) has made the transition to the fourth official and the stopped clock completely painlessly, and is the better game for it. It’s time to drag soccer into the 21st century.

  18. dwallach says:

    Tennis and other related sports (racquetball, badminton, squash, handball, ping-pong) have excellent scalability, by your definition. Technology has only modestly modified professional tennis by helping adjudicate whether serves are in bounds, which is less of an issue when mere mortals play the game. In squash, the official rules have a bit to say about when an interference (“let”) results in a do-over or in an awarded point, which is handled by a referee in a proper competition, while in non-refereed play these sorts of things inevitably become do-overs unless one party clearly concedes the point. Still, it’s very much the same game all around.

  19. My problem with soccer is that the typical scores in the professional game are too low to be statistically significant. If you imagine two teams that are matched as follows:

    A playing B:
    A will score on average 2 points during the game time
    B will score on average 1 point during the game time

    This is a simple exercise in Poisson statistics, and you’ll find that there is still a pretty good chance of B beating A. (I don’t have time to work it out right now.)

    OTOH, imagine the comparable discrepancy in basketball:

    A will score 100 points in 4 quarters
    B will score 50 points in 4 quarters

    There is virtually no chance of B beating A. In fact, it will virtually always be crushed.

  20. Anonymous says:

    The big problem that some want to “fix” for US is really not about the game itself.
    It is about making money.

    One game that takes 90 minutes, has one single short break, and has the incentive to continue
    fast if interrupted, is very “unproductive” because you can’t really squeeze any commercials in.
    Stopping the clock would allow for longer breaks, making more money from advertisement.

  21. Anonymous says:

    this argument is pure BS.

    kids don’t play the same game — the way the game is played
    by professionals is SO MUCH DIFFERENT than how kids play it.
    think of the speed, the headers, the style and tactics, the brutality.

    further, when you are a kid playing basketball in the US, nobody
    thinks “well, I just wish we played 48 minutes like the pros! then
    it would be the real thing!”. it is close enough, and nobody much
    thinks twice about it. most playing of any kind is without a ref anyhow,
    on the field with friends.

    the reason the way soccer is played in the world cup gets US
    fans upset is because the RULES ARE STUPID. they are ancient
    and badly in need of update. there is STRONG INCENTIVE to
    flop, and little chance of being caught, EVEN WHEN THE VIDEO
    SHOWS CONCLUSIVELY THAT YOU FAKED IT (see the recent
    Brazil Kaka incident). worse, the way time is managed encourages
    all sorts of dawdling, and the substitution rules guarantee that
    most players are exhausted at the end, increasing the chance
    of poor play and injury.

    The only good thing about soccer as is: there is no way to sneak
    in more commercials. now that is something US sports can learn from.

  22. Your bias is showing. It’s a black mark against basketball that it uses multiple referees, yet baseball somehow gets a free pass on that front? Likewise, ‘special equipment’ includes a scoreboard… but not baseball gloves?

    You also seem to be getting a little confused between playgound games versus casual leagues. Playground soccer doesn’t play by the rules of professional soccer just like you accuse the other sports of failing – games do not go for specifically 90 minutes (plus injury time), nor do they range over a full-size pitch (usually), and if they’re using garbage cans for goalposts, there’s no box drawn, no free kicks, so on and so forth. They’re not played to the same rules. Somehow basketball is not ‘scalable’ because playground games don’t go for the professionals’ 48 minutes, but soccer is ‘scalable’ even though playground games don’t go for the professionals’ 90. Somehow playground basketball gets nudged because fouls aren’t formally counted, but playground soccer is left alone even though there’s no red cards.

    Casual leagues, on the other hand, usually have a venue with that specialised equipment – regardless of the sport. The casual basketball league I played in had only three significant differences from the pros – halves, not quarters, no shot clock (some leagues do have them), and no dunking (because they’re not made of money to keep replacing the rings). The only purpose of the shot clock is to provide motivation to make a play in the pros. In the amateurs, the motivation to make the play is because you want to play. If you hang back and ‘run out the clock’, you’re only robbing yourself of fun – the reason why you’re playing in the first place. It gets back to what you were saying about understanding the sport you’re criticising.

    The whole piece reads as though you like Sport A and Sport B, thought you’d found a way to puff them up over others, and shoehorned them into a theory they don’t really match, conveniently ignoring the bits that don’t fit.

  23. marcelo says:

    As I watch Germany-Ghana, I answer to this post that it makes no sense at all. Soccer is a sport. There are several competitions around the sport, some are under FIFA and have different rules. For example, Futsal, beach footbal, and World Cup. The rules are designed per competition, though when the sport is played in the standard 11 vs. 11 setting, the rules do not vary that much. The are the evolution of the professional competitions that’ve been on for more a hundred years. When you play between friends, you’ll probably forget about yellow/red cards, technical fouls and other stuff. Scale has nothing to do with all this.

  24. Jeff Bigham says:

    I thought for sure you were going to address the off sides rule. I hear people complain about this more than anything else — why can’t a player who has committed no other violations be passed the ball with only the goalie between him and the goal? I assume this must break something…maybe we don’t want to require the defense to hold someone back to guard against such an attack? Does this have implications for scaling down?

  25. Jonathan says:

    There is so much fail in this analysis. First off, more Americans play basketball than soccer OR baseball – so that sorta kills your whole theory of “scalable vs. non-scalable” sports.

    Second of all, playground baseball and playground soccer are just as different from the professional thing as playground basketball is. The same goes for rec leagues – do you realize that rec league (and even elementary and sometimes middle school) baseball and basketball games usually use single refs, but the pros use multiple?

    Third, diving isn’t a problem on the playground – it’s almost never a problem even at the high school level, because most high school boys spend their time trying to prove how tough they are. You don’t see nearly the diving in an average high school and college game in the US that you see in a World Cup game.

    I feel like the author just made up a hypothesis, then randomly pulled things out of thin air to justify it.

  26. Anonymous says:

    They ruin everything, don’t they?

    Create everything, too…

  27. I agree with a previous poster that the offside rule is where the scalability argument really falls down. The rule is already enforced differently in a world cup match than in one with a single referee, so the idea of technologically verifying it isn’t heretical. That train left the station when you added linesmen to some matches but not others.

    FIFA alleges that subjectivity is an integral part of the game. That’s fine, but offsides isn’t subjective. A regular foul is, but it can be empirically determined whether a player was past the second to last defender when the ball was released.

    I think one of the reasons American football and basketball are more popular in the US is because these sports have decided that getting it right is truly most important, and have allowed technology to be used to prevent obviously blown calls. Replay isn’t perfect, but its use in these sports prevents obviously blown calls (Argentina v Mexico anyone?) making the whole sport more credible.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Well, for not having to do much….these referees sure are blowing a multitude of calls.

    When games stop evolving…..they are in their death throws…..

  29. ..scale down. I’m a Handball referee (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Team_handball) and coach – and we do the oh-so-complex things you describe in youth games with 10-12yo players (10 in the field, 2 goalies) and referees of just 12-14y. They manage.
    We do have a complex system of personal penalties and a referee has to take up to 10 times more decisions than a referee in a soccer game. BUT: We do play on a much smaller field (20x40m) – the game is faster, but you can actually be close to the action, even if you referee alone.
    That’s probably one argument in addition for the simplified rules: The distances.

  30. The fixing of Soccer should be done by FIFA itself. If in the World Cup they can not see more Refs are needed since they can not see a simple goal (England) when ball crosses the line then it is time to change. When a player tries a backward bicycle kick (US vs Ghana) in the box then looks back from the ground to see where the ball goes and who gets it and then goes on to wry in agony (pure fake) just to waste 3 minutes of time. It is time to have more REFs. When a player is allowed to waste time costing maybe a more deserving team from a win then it is time for more REFs. When as I stopped and started time to cover the Ghana game in the second half, almost 7 minutes of play was wasted while in the end the Ref added 3 minutes onto the game. The size of the field and the number of players (having to catch fouls) simply means more Refs. In the end of ANY GAME it should be the motto “just get it right”, sometimes this means Refs (multiple Refs have to come together from their different angles of a play) come together talk and get the call right. Would anyone want to see a blown call like England game mean the crowning of a team World Cup champions who actually was not? Teams, fans and coaches should all know when the exact game will end – for final plays and tries. It should never be arbitrary where a Ref has added 3′ to a game yet it is 3:25 past regulation and the Ref has not blown the game yet due to a team taking a corner kick. The end of the game is the end of the game – a team should not get a chance to score just because a Ref feels like it, the players play hard and the end should be the end and everyone should know when that is and will be. Lastly, as long as Soccer has players pretending to be in agony like their leg was sawed off and then jump up and run back into position it will not catch on in the US. Either a Ref calls a foul or not, and either a player is hurt or not but all should be serious and if no foul play continues without players flopping on the ground stopping action trying to sway the Ref. Either the Ref saw a foul as it happened and in which case flopping will not matter or he did not and if he did not a player flopping to the ground should get automatic Yellow or he leaves the game for the remainder due to his supposed injury.