Even More Football Rule-Tinkering

Judging by the comments on the football rule-tinkering discussion, there is a surprising amount of interest on this blog in the issue. Who knew? One reader pointed out that FIFA does allow for some variation, allowing club games to be played on fields with different dimensions than in high-level play. So it may be that changing the dimensions in professional games, where the costs of changing goals could be more easily absorbed, wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Given that I’m a temperamental conservative, I think that changing the size of the goal might be a reform that could be seen as “changing to keep everything the same.” Given that the size of players has gone up, it makes sense to change the goal to keep the proportions between the size of the keeper and the goal constant. So, sign me up. Another reader, rightly in my view, sniffed that those who suggested scrapping the offside rule don’t really understand how fundamental it is to the game. I agree.

The other point here is that the decline in scoring may be a cyclical, rather than a secular phenomenon. That is, it may be that teams have figured out how to make it very hard to score, at least when teams are at rough parity. But it may be that this is a temporary phenomenon, and that over time there will be compensating innovations that will eat away at this defensive advantage. For example, the great, sainted Klinsmann started training the German team in a very different way, trying to improve their fitness and speed. Perhaps a few teams will start to put a much greater emphasis on speed as a way to compensate for the defensive strategy of squads like Italy. In fact, I think this would be a logical approach for countries like the US that lack a dominant national style of play, but that have substantial resources available for training. I was very impressed, for example, with the team speed of Ghana, and think they might have gone further with better coaching, and had Essien not been disqualified for the game against Brazil. I wonder if there’s a chance that Klinsmann, who has an obvious preference for living in Los Angeles, might take over the US squad from Arena for 2010.

The mistake that reformers often make is to assume that existing trends will only be continued in the future. But there are often counter-forces in competitive environments that can cause trends to stabilize or reverse. Is this such a case?

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

6 thoughts on “Even More Football Rule-Tinkering”

  1. What about getting rid of the goalie? It would increase the scoring and be easy to implement everywhere without much expense. Of course, it would radically alter the nature of the game as well. So there's that.

  2. There's no need to get fancy and complicated to prevent penalty shoot outs – the need is only to make the teams score. If there is an incentive for them to score they will try – e.g. Italy's semifinal against a team that has only ever lost one penalty shootout.
    So, forget half an hour of extra time – following regular play the teams must simply play on until the first team scores. My guess is that they won't go hyper attack, but nor will teams sit on defence. Remove players every five minutes if you must, but the teams get to choose who goes. If they keep playing until it is goalie on goalie, so be it.

  3. On your second point, that was the idea behind Floretino Perez's "galacticos" at Real Madrid–if you had the best offensive players in the world (e.g., Zidane, Ronaldo, and Figo, and, later, Beckham) you wouldn't have to worry too much about defense because you would smother the other team with goals. It seemed to work for a while, at least through 2003, when Real Madrid was dazzling and won a bunch of trophies, but the wheels came off in 2004, and they haven't won a major tournament since. Perez resigned in February of this year, and the galacticos experiment seems to be over. (John Carlin's book, "White Angels", is quite good on this.)
    Roman Abramovich at Chelsea is trying something similar, though he understands you need defensive "galacticos" too, for those days when your attackers aren't playing well. Obviously, this sort of strategy only works if you've got piles of money sitting around.

  4. I'm glad to see agreement in favor of keeping the offides rule. Those who want to scrap it seem to think that defenders would continue to play the offides trap even if there were no offsides rule.

  5. I was originally in favor of the bigger goals-due-to-bigger-goalies thing, but then it occurred on me: Goalies may be bigger, but aren't the balls a lot lighter so the the players can kick them a lot faster?
    I think a player's chances for a goal on a given shot are probably greater now than they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago, notwithstanding the bigger goalies.

  6. A rules change(s) would be one way that a sport like soccer could increase offense. Tweaking the size of the goals and/or field would be a good start to the discussion, since there is nothing sacrosanct about the dimensions of either, but I think it's generally true of all sports that over time, without a significant rules change, defense tends to predominate, and that as extremes between the best teams and worst narrows, as we saw at this World Cup, the number of goals allowed goes down. The other thing that might create a sudden surge in offense, the adoption of a tactic or strategy previously ignored that gives its user a clear and decisive edge (home runs in baseball in the 1920's, or the passing game in football in the late-70's), is bit more unpredictable, and may take decades for the right situation to come about.
    My own suggestion would be to reduce the size of the penalty area, thereby creating a disincentive for diving at the offensive end, as well as shortening the available area for the goalkeeper to handle the ball.

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