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Changing the game

Next to pasta and pizza, Italy's 3rd largest export is cynical soccer. The Italians are not the only practitioners of the dark arts of the beautiful game, but they are certainly past masters, and Grosso's flop for the game-winning penalty vs. Australia will replenish their reputation. To add injury to insult, Italy's corruption scandal nearly claimed a life at Juventus yesterday, in what is reported to be a suicide attempt of a former member of the national team.

FIFA's quest to improve the game has brought controversy over tightly called games in this World Cup. It is thus doubly ironic that the best-refereed match of the tournament might have been turned in yesterday by Roberto Rossi, a referee from... Italy. Rossi reffed the match between France and Spain, and didn't book a player until Viera hacked down Fabregas in the 68th minute, which must be a record for this tournament. Unfortunately, Rossi proved once again that carding is an infectious disease, as the 68 card-free minutes were followed by 22 in which he pulled out 3 cards, with superfluous bookings to Puyol and Zidane.

Both Italy and FIFA have much work to do if they are going to clean up the beautiful game. Fixing what is on display in Germany, with some of the world's best (allegedly) referees to work with, might be feasible. Both the referees and the teams have received multiple directives about what will be carded in the tournament. Everyone has been warned.

There are two problems with this initiative, however. First, player behavior doesn't change overnight, and injustices such as Pope's sending off vs. Italy, and Materazzi's sending off vs. Australia result from calling the game a bit too tight. A slight error in what has been to now a routine play can result in an enormous cost to the team, particularly of the referee doesn't stop to think, as was the case with Pope (see minutes 21 and 46 here). Second, I can't fathom how knucklehead refs in league play will be able to control a game while adhering to the new, stricter guidelines. If this policy gets transmitted down to the leagues, as FIFA presumably desires, the controversy could escalate.

I'm not the only one hashing this out. Reader Andrew Rosen sent this analysis of the problem, which developed over arguments with fellow soccer nuts:

The logic of game theory applies here, best understood from the perspective of each player in this game: the referee, and the players on the field.

Ref's Perspective: Once FIFA asks refs to control the game tighter, and holds a ref accountable for his performance by allowing or disallowing him to the next round, a Yellow Card no longer becomes a big deal. ...[T]hose who have been more conservative (but not to the degree of the Russian Valentin Ivanov, or in the US v. Italy match, the Uruguayan Jorge Larionda) end up issuing a Yellow Card to try a control the game, but once that doesn't work, he has established a weak standard for a Yellow Card, which he now has to uphold for the rest of the match. A weak standard then spirals out of control, to the point of the 16 yellow cards and 4 red cards of the Portugal-Netherlands match. But the entire time, the Ref (assuming he isn't corrupt) feels he is doing the job asked of him by FIFA.

Player's perspective: If you're a player in a do-or-die match, you're not sure what the standard is, and the ref is calling a tight match but moreover is quick to give the Yellow Card, would you play it more conservatively or would you flop more in order to get more penalties on the other team? Clearly, it's been the latter case - there were an extraordinary number of flops in the Portugal-Netherlands and Italy-Australia match. But also, players cut (and are taught to cut) corners where necessary, and unless brazen (which should include magic recoveries after being carried off the field in a stretcher and being sprayed with the "magic" spray or bottle), these cut corners shouldn't be punished with cards - as in the unnecessary 2nd Yellow to Portugal's Anderson Deco for the pick-up that resulted in his red card. So the referee, by applying a stricter standard, has incentivized players to flop, which in turn has resulted in more Yellow and Red Cards, which in turn has directly affected the results in each match and subsequent rounds, when teams lose their best players (as in the case of the US (Eddie Pope, Pablo Mastroenni), Ghana (Michael Essien), and Portugal (Anderson Deco)).

This is the miscalculation of Sepp Blatter. Blatter assumed the standard was too weak, and more cards needed to be issued. But it's absurd to think that a team isn't punished in the World Cup after it has committed a foul - fouls committed before the 18-yard line are still punishable by direct and indirect kicks. In this World Cup, we have the best of the best taking these kicks. Fouls against Brazil, the Netherlands, England, and France near the 18 yard mark have all resulted in goals - and Brazil has 3 weapons in Kaka, Ronaldhino, and Roberto Carlos.

I generally agree with this point of view, but differ with Andrew on two points. First, strict treatment of time-wasting and delaying of an opponent's taking a free kick makes sense. If the rules are clear, Deco won't pick up the ball to take away an advantage which is due Holland. He'd been warned, and he paid the price. Because of this approach there was very little of this niggly behavior in the France vs. Spain match, and the spectacle improved as a result.

Second, I think Blatter was out of line in criticizing Ivanov after Portugal vs. Holland. First, Ivanov was following Blatter's instructions. Second, the match was nasty from the very beginning. The Dutch wasted no time taking whacks at Ronaldo (a prima donna I deplore). A red card could (and arguably should) have been issued to Boulahrouz as early as the 8th minute for planting his studs firmly into Ronaldo's thigh. But would a red card have eliminated the mean-spirited play that followed? I doubt it; given the approaches of the two teams, I don't know if there is a referee on the planet who could have controlled that match.

This is a tricky problem. FIFA is right to be concerned, and can probably reduce the simplest transgressions by drawing a stricter line. That will help to reduce cynicism and restore character to the game. But when it comes to determining if a challenge from the side is legit or harmful, the grey area is significant. Strict interpretation here risks eliminating players from the tournament such as Viera and Zidane. We watch because these guys are special. It doesn't make sense to take them out of the game for one or two minor fouls.