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Some Modest and Not So Modest Proposals

The World Cup Finals are unique as far as team sports go. It draws, literally, from a worldwide pool of participants. It stages a month long spectacle of skills and drama. Yet, the competition has its downside -- particularly to me the play-acting, the refereeing, and as Skip writes today, the decline in scoring. Here are some ideas on fixing these problems:

1. The diving and exaggerating of contact has long been one of the black marks on soccer, especially at the World Cup. It's especially distasteful to the American sports palette, which likes its heroes to shrug off real hurts in the mold of Willis Reed rather than playing up fake hurts. Now even some of the greats are calling for action -- See Beckenbauer Calls for Summit to Stop Play Acting. Soccernet's Steve Wilson offers a remedy in "Their Cheating Hearts"

If we, the viewing public, can see such unambiguous examples of outright cheating played out in a loop on rolling sports news channels each day then so can the authorities. Sanctioning players that bring the game in to disrepute in this fashion - with serious, lengthy bans - through trail by video would tip the balance back in the favour of the honest professional. If the risk of being caught and punished starts to outweigh the possible reward of a penalty or the sending off of an opponent then players will be dissuaded from chancing their arms.

We may need to recruit Steve for the Sports Economist with that kind of talk. The English FA tried to put in this kind seemingly modest proposal post-match review forward only to be blocked by Sepp Blatter and the FIFAcrats who seem to have a secret love of Italian theater (See my Weird Politics). Another modest change along these lines would be to require a minimum time (say 5 minutes) off the pitch any time play must be halted for an injury that requires the trainer to come on the field. This would help stop the "I'm dying, I'm dying ... okay, I'm ready to play again" nonsense.

2. Maybe several factors have contributed to the decline in scoring -- ironically, a topic that I investigated some yesterday also. The decline may be even more pronounced in the knockout phases. The amount of physical contact permitted almost certainly grants major advantages to defensive players. Even casual observation of matches from the 1980s and prior indicates that the penalty area has become a wrestling arena compared with these earlier periods. It is very similar to watching the evolution of basketball -- at one time, bodies rarely made contact. Now, it is a virtual "Texas Cage Match." As long as you don't leave your feet as a defender, almost anything goes. This trend has continued in spite of a large number of cards being issued. The problem is that the card-issuing and foul calling takes place in the areas of the field where the scoring threat is the least. It is akin to strictly enforcing speed limits between Odessa and El Paso only to permit any kind of driving behavior in rush hour Dallas.

The penalty for fouls in the penalty area is so extreme that officials rarely call them. As a result, their application mirrors the death penalty -- akin to a lottery draw applied arbitrarily to a small number of cases that has little deterrent value. My not so modest proposal here is for differential penalty spots. The current one could be used for taking on guy down in front of an open goal or similar scoring threat. A new and more distant spot (maybe at the top of the 18 yard box) would apply for fouls in less threatening situations.

3. As for improving the consistency of refereeing, the preceding point would apply by providing officials with something more than the current all-or-nothing penalty for fouls within the box. My other not so modest proposal would be to include two more on-the-field officials. The sideline assistants would call only offsides (a tough enough job by itself). Yes, yes, I'm aware of the issues of crime v. enforcement and adding more cops doesn't, by itself, solve matters and may even create new problems (See Point #2). Still, a field of 8000 square meters poses an enormous and even impossible job for a single pair of eyes and legs. Beyond the distances involved, one person cannot position himself so as to provide the critical angles for observing certain situations accurately. The problem of getting "straight-lined" (caught trying to look through people) is rampant (See John Feinstein's conversations with referees in A Season Inside). On critical calls, such as penalty kicks, a lead official could have the final say.

Proposals 2 and 3 are just "pie in the sky." Proposal 1 is very doable. Let's hope the Beckenbauer's put enough pressure on FIFA to make change happen.

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