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The Fan Protection and Watchable Soccer Act

June 21, 2010
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As I said last week, I like soccer.  I do despise soccer snobbery, though, which is one of the main reasons I consider myself a quasi-crusader for comprehensive soccer reform, along with the whole I-want-it-to-be-fun-to-watch thing.  I was thus delighted to see this piece from Richard Epstein at Forbes on rules reforms that could improve the game without radically changing it.  Unfortunately, I found myself disagreeing with some of the proposed modifications.  I do agree, though, that soccer can learn a whole lot from the post-lockout NHL.

Epstein is dead-on with respect to penalty kicks.  He points out that oftentimes the handballs and fouls for which penalties kick are awarded are highly questionable (in the game I’m watching right now, Spain was just awarded a penalty kick due to a huge flop in the box), and winning a match due to a goal via a penalty kick is almost as grossly unsatisfying as the game’s ending in a draw (just consider losing said game).  Epstein’s way of fixing this, though, is gilding the lily:

It does not have to be that way. Soccer instantly becomes a much better game when it awards two points for a goal and one point for a penalty shot. It should take its cue from basketball, which awards one point for a free throw awarded after a foul. But it also awards two points for any field goal from inside the arc: In an inspired refinement, teams earn three points for field goals beyond the arc.

Changing soccer scoring would better the underlying competitive realities than the current rules. After all, not many hand balls and tackles actually prevent goals. In addition, that extra point spread reduces the likelihood of ties, especially after overtime. It thus reduces the need for that dreaded penalty shootout. What’s not to like?

Penalty kicks play a much smaller role in soccer than Epstein implies here.  Even though there’s usually dubiety, frustration, and bellyaching when it comes to PKs, they don’t happen literally every game, and they very rarely happen twice a game.  This rule fix would indeed decrease the probability of a draw in a game, but not by much—my guess would be around 5%.  With regard to ending the draw, this would be the equivalent of pissing on a bonfire.

The draw is obviously not easily jettisoned.  If it were, the NHL would have ditched it long before the ’05-’06 season.  Games that end in what used to be draws still end weirdly in hockey, though, since, if a tie cannot be resolved, things still end in the chance-laden and non-sequitir-esque shootout, but the NHL has made some improvements.  If regulation ends with the score tied, an overtime period is played 4-on-4 instead of 5-on-5, which opens the game up for more scoring chances.  It seems impractical to apply this to soccer, since the field is already too bloody big, but anything that can resolve a ridiculous tie—whose one-point-award actually encourages less-talented teams to pursue loathsome zero-zero outcomes in matches against greater foes—without going to an almost-as-equally ridiculous shootout is something that’s worth giving a shot.

The real problem with penalty kicks in soccer, and with fouls in general, is that there aren’t enough officials on the field.  Soccer fields are four times as long and six times as wide as a basketball court, and yet basketball games have three officials, while soccer has just one, with two “assistants” who can only call off-sides and possession when the ball goes out of bounds.  Soccer fields are bigger than football fields, and football uses seven.  Hockey, too, uses four.  Why does soccer only have one official who can call fouls, the most controversial and most officiated aspect of the game?  How is the ref supposed to tell the difference between a flop and a foul when he is twenty yards away from the action?  How is he supposed to see what’s going on when there are ten guys between him and the ball?

An idea of Epstein’s that I really like is instituting an NHL-type penalty system for soccer.  Yellow cards seem too arbitrary to carry the significance that they do, and red cards only increase the odds that a team will shoot for a draw since it is down a man (Switzerland played with ten men for an hour today and only lost 1-0 to a heavily favored Chile team).  The card system should be replaced by a hockey-esque system wherein fouls are penalized by relegating the fouler to a penalty box for three or four minutes for minor fouls and seven or nine minutes for major fouls.  These fouls, of course, would have to be monitored by, again, more than one official, because the relaxed rules would only encourage the sole official to call more fouls, which would of course encourage flopping, one of the worst things about soccer.

I’m not ready to give up on soccer.  These problems can be addressed.  Of course, the snobbery involved would never allow American ideas like mine or Epstein’s to be considered, so I might as well give up.  Oh well, at least I still have the NFL, MLB, college basketball, college football, NHL, MMA…

P.S. The title is a pun on PPACA.  Ha ha, right?

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