How Not to Fix Soccer

Every four years when the fans of the USA actually watches soccer, they complain about the rules. I am guilty of this as well. I know that my knowledge of the game is very shallow compared to people who have watched it their entire lives, but I still believe that the game has problems that need fixing.

Ed Felten also sees this, and he provides an explanation of why the rules of soccer are the way they are.

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.

How Not To Fix Soccer

As I have already admitted, my knowledge of the game is very shallow, so while I may be able to recognize that there is something broken in the game, I know I am not highly qualified to make a specific suggestion to fix it. However, I am qualified to say that this excuse of keeping the game scalable is a very poor excuse for keeping broken rules.

Yes, let’s have the winner of the World Cup be decided based on a bad call by a ref because if we change the rules, then kids will not be able to play by the same rules as the pros. Seriously? That’s your reason to keep the rules broken?

First of all, kids are not playing soccer by the same rules as the pros. They have smaller fields and smaller nets. They don’t have offsides judges. They use different balls. Some don’t play for the same 90 minutes, or have the same limitations on substitutions. Already the argument falls apart.

Also, do you think it really matters to kids that they are playing the same exact game? I mean, I guess it’s kind of cool when you’re a kid to think that you are playing just like the grown ups. Still, it hasn’t been a problem for little league. Kids aren’t complaining that the game is six innings instead of nine. College football players aren’t complaining that they don’t have identical rules to the NFL. College basketball players don’t care that it’s not exactly the same as the NBA. So what makes this a good reason we should allow this most important sporting event to be ruined by bad rules or bad officiating?

When it comes to professional sports the stakes are very high. There is a lot of money at stake. There are the emotions of millions of people which will change according to the result. There are many thousands of ticket holders who paid money to see a game, and if there is a flaw in that game, they have effectively purchased a defective product. If FIFA were selling defective widgets instead of soccer games, they’d be dishing out a ton of refunds.

With amateurs playing, the stakes are low. If the rules are broken, or adjusted, it’s not really a big deal. The players don’t really care all that much. If they do, it’s not a big deal. If a team loses the World Cup because of a bad rule, then that’s a huge fucking deal.

From my perspective there are three obviously broken things in soccer. One is the off sides rule. The second is bad officiating. The third is timing. I can tell you why the off sides rule is broken, but I don’t have a fix for it. The other two rules I do have fixes for, and you don’t need to be a soccer scholar to see why.

The off sides rule exists in many sports. The one I am most familiar with is ice hockey. The purpose of this rule is to prevent camping. Without an off sides rule, an offensive player can just stay right next to the opponent’s goal. Then they can receive a long pass from all the way across the field of play, and score. That makes a game quite boring and easy. You want to force players to skillfully play the ball or puck down the field, instead of just making one big pass.

The off sides rule in soccer does prevent this from happening, but unlike hockey, it also has false positives. Say I am five yards from the goal. I pass to another player on my team who is three yards from the goal. It is possible in this circumstance we will be called off sides, and not be able to score. We marched the ball down the field legitimately all the way to the goal, but we’re still off sides. How can that possibly be a good rule? I have some ideas for fixes to this problem, but they are all flawed. Still, I am confident that a better rule can be made, even if a perfect one can not. Maybe a pass between players both in the penalty area can not be called offsides? I don’t know.

The second major problem in soccer is bad or inconsistent officiating. Everyone can plainly see that some referees in the World Cup throw out yellow, or even red, cards as if it were going out of style. Other referees hardly ever show the card, for similar offenses. The obvious solution is to have replay with one set of judges for all games. The NHL has people at NHL HQ watching replays of all games. A referee can call them if necessary to get the official, consistent, ruling from the highest authority.

This is something that applies to all professional sports. There is no reason no to replay absolutely everything that needs replaying. That’s not to say you should replay every single moment of every game. Then games will be slow and take forever. You should replay any play that has a significant consequence, or has anything that is questionable or debated in any way. The replay can be done very quickly if there is someone in a video booth with access to every camera angle. They watch the entire game, and can replay any part. They should be able to make a decision as quickly as fans watching replays at home make the decision, if not sooner. Every sport should have this, no excuses.

For soccer, replay would contribute to an already existing problem. That problem is timing. The game consists of two halves of 45 minutes each. Unlike other sports, the clock never stops. The result is that the actual time of play is very loose. The referee arbitrarily adds a few minutes to the end of each half to make up for it, but it is far from precise. In any sport, even one second can make all the difference in the world. It can make even more different in a low scoring game like soccer. There is no excuse not to have precise timing in a professional league.

Look at a sport like Formula 1. They have timing systems that are precise down to thousandths of a second. Yes, it is a sport in which time is far more important, but the point is that the technology exists. I’m not saying the clock should stop in soccer. I’m saying that we could easily develop a timing system which calculates how much time should be added to the end of each half that is precise to the second. It could even continue to add seconds to the end of the half if any stoppages occur during the additional time. Therefore every half of every game will consist of exactly 45 minutes of actual play.

When it comes to sports, too many people are purists. They have sentimental value attached to the rules. They don’t want change of any kind. They want every sport to be played the way it was a century ago. The fact is that over a century, we have made huge advances in athletic training and sport strategy. We’ve beaten all of our games. The only way for these games to remain fair and entertaining is to modify the games such that they are still competitive in an era when they are, effectively, played by supermen. We need to make all sports far more difficult, and have consistent rules enforcement.

People are always wondering why the citizens of the US never become big fans of soccer. Perhaps part of it is because sports fans here are used to the NFL. The same NFL which gladly changes its rules and makes extensive use of replay. We have a strong sense of justice and fairness in the US. The imprecision of soccer is definitely one reason, among many, why the sport can not gain traction here.

The most famous moments in sports in the US are almost always amazing plays, great feats of strength and dexterity. The miraculous escape and catch in Super Bowl 42 is a recent example. The most famous moment in soccer, that even a US citizen like me is aware of, is a bad call. The hand of god. How appropriate.

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