A contentious and disconcerting World Cup has at least produced a Final worth anticipating. Italy is the tournament's best team, I think. They score brilliant goals and their defense seems impenetrable. The Zidane-French revival exhibits similar characteristics, although weakness at the back in the form of Barthez and Abidal enhance the Italian's edge. I'll be rooting for one more moment of magic from the French on Sunday, but I'm expecting the efficient Italians to prevail.
After a solid month of football, there is plenty of discussion now about tinkering with the rules of the game, with the usual "can't touch this" backlash from traditionalists. I'm with the tinkerers. Indeed, if you think for a moment, you'll realize that FIFA is among the tinkerers too.
The problem is the decline in scoring. The reasons for the decline are somewhat murky, and the remedies even less clear. But the decline is obvious in the data, particularly in the knockout stage of the tournament, which has yielded just 23 goals in 13 games. At Knowledge Problem, Mike Giberson notes that scoring throughout the tournament is running about 1/4 goal less than in 2002, and is lower than every year but 1990, the year of negative tactics.
FIFA's new ball was supposed to fool goalkeepers (and presumably the public), with it's more random flight adding incrementally to scoring. As Mike argues, that was one tinker that went wrong. The ball, rather than fooling the keepers, is screwing up the kickers. I've been watching corner kick after corner kick wondering why they've been so ineffective. Sean Ingle's observation at The Guardian explained it for me:
Generally the shooting has been poor and the crossing substandard: if the ball doesn't crash into the first defender it usually flies about 10 yards too high.
My take is that the players are having trouble managing the height of crosses. More than the normal fraction of corners have soared over everyone's head in the box, so players have been firing them low, hoping to get a lucky bounce or two.
Ingle states that "football's delicate balance between attack and defence has spun increasingly out of kilter." He suggests that FIFA consider using "sin bins," which would add a marginal policy tool to deter fouling, widening the goal a bit to combat the increased size and athleticism of goalkeepers, and stopping the clock for injuries. The cynic in me notes that there is a commercial opportuntity in the last proposed tinker, which increases the likelihood of its adoption.
Addendum: I'm pleased that FIFA did not give their young player of the World Cup award to this guy (h/t to normblog). By the rules - which include sportsmanship - German striker Lukas Podolski was indeed the better choice.