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?

Widen the Goal?

It is certainly the case that, as Mike points out below, scoring in World Cup games has gone down. This wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, except that the game ends up getting settled by penalty kicks, which is better than flipping a coin or playing rock-paper-scissors, but not much. So there certainly does seem to be room for thinking about how to increase the scoring in football matches, at least marginally. The problem is that many of the solutions have problems associated with them, and with a game that is still so loved as football is, we should avoid genuinely drastic changes that might have unintended consequences.

First up is changing the offside rule. This probably would lead to more scoring, but as one of our commentators mentioned, it would also change the whole structure of the game, in ways that are hard to predict. Would it just lead teams not to bring as many players up when their team is on the attack? Might that lead to less scoring? Maybe.

Second, and more serious, is Mike’s suggestion of increasing the size of the goal. This is a change that actually makes quite a bit of sense, since (again, as one of our readers pointed out) average heights have gone up considerably since the dimensions of the goal were set. I think this might lead to a very large increase in scores on set pieces, especially corner kicks, where it would be harder to defend against headers. It would also be harder to set up a wall that could effectively defend against set pieces from other parts of the field.

The problem with this is that, while changing the offside rule is probably a bad idea but relatively easy to do, changing the dimensions of the goal is probably a good idea, but actually quite difficult to accomplish. FIFA operates on the idea of having a single set of rules for all of football. But if you made this change, you’d have to pull down a hell of a lot of goalposts around the world, which isn’t a big deal in professional leagues, but certainly is for your kid’s weekend league. It’s also a hard thing for one league to experiment with, since you would have players who had become experienced with one dimension of goal having to play in international leagues (or if they transferred to other leagues) where another one was in use.

So I think the scoring problem is very tricky. I think dealing with the disciplinary issues is relatively easy. Right now, a yellow card has very small short-term consequences (although if it is combined with a second card, it has very large ones). But as Mark would be the first person to tell us, football players are probably hyperbolic discounters–they substantially discount long-term consequences. There’s a good argument for totally scrapping the yellow/red card system, and going to a variant of the rules used in hockey, where players have to go off the field temporarily for different penalties. You would keep the red card for genuinely flagrant fouls, but impose relatively short removals from the field for more minor fouls, larger ones for more serious ones, and maybe progressively larger removals for each additional team foul.

Second, I think getting it’s probably a terrible idea to have videotaped replay, on anything but determinations of whether a goal has been scored (which can probably be solved technologically anyways) and possibly offside when it causes a goal to be taken back or rewarded. But I don’t think there’s any argument for only having a single referee on the pitch. It’s a huge field, compared to many other sports, a hell of a lot of running, and a lot to keep up with. And here there’s no reason why top leagues couldn’t have two referees, while lesser leagues have one.

The Zidane Tragedy

What can one say about the vicious Zidane head-butting incident that marred the final of the World Cup other than that it was tragic. Here was a man who would have—even in defeat—guaranteed himself an indelible place in the history of soccer. No one—not me, not anyone—believed that France had a chance to go as far as it did in the 2006 World Cup. France’s team, and Zidane himself, was the football equivalent of a clapped-out old Renault, its decline reflecting that of the nation under whose flag it fought. And yet…with a remarkable victory over Brazil, and another over the (lucky just to be there) Portugese, everything was set for a remarkable shift in narrative. Zidane, suddenly recovering the powers that all had thought lost forever, takes his team to the finals. An honorable second-place finish would still have allowed Zidane to go into retirement, or perhaps a year or two in the MLS to bring his renown to our shores before hanging up his cleats forever. For France, either honorable defeat or victory would have given the nation a much-needed shot in the arm.

And then…it happened. Watching at home on television, I could barely believe what I saw. An attack wholly unambiguous, as vicious as any I have ever seen on a football pitch. Had he not been given the red card, it would have been a travesty. What could possibly explain such an outburst of naked aggression, at the very moment when Zizou’s place in history, and his nation, was assured. Surely he was tired, and frustrated by the inability of France, despite their dominance of a clearly leg-weary Italian squad, to put the ball in the net. Perhaps Materrazi said something to him, to go along with his relatively innocuous tweaking of Zidane’s chest, that was so beyond the pale that he thought that it simply could not be allowed to stand. Perhaps this sense of streetyard honor was this great hero’s Achilles’ heel. I am quite sure that we will never, ever really know.

All I can say is that, watching this replayed over and over again on television, I felt sick. Part of this was moral revulsion at the foul, which was wholly beyond the pale. But also, something else. I felt a sense of aching sympathy for Zidane. I am sure that at the moment that he drew his head back from Materrazi’s chest, he realized what he had done, not only to his team, but to his own legend. Every beautiful shot on goal, every gorgeous pass, every elegant weaving down the pitch, was suddenly sullied. No one could remember these moments and simply smile, remembering that he had seen one of the greatest men ever to grace the world’s greatest game. Now, every time one thought of Zidane, that horrible, senseless attack would be the first thing that came to mind. Zidane had done to himself what no other man on the pitch could do to him—transform him from hero to villain. I’m sure that, as he walked, deflated down into the locker room, he realized what he had done. He was brought down not by something outside himself, but by a defect of character that lurked within.

Football is, in and of itself, meaningless, a remarkably silly thing for grown men and women to spend so much time occupying themselves with. What transforms it, what makes it something much more, is narrative interwoven with morality. We watch soccer not just for the beauty of the sport, although beauty there certainly is. We also watch it because of the moral drama that is played out among twenty-two men. Today, in Germany and across the world, we saw possibly the saddest such drama that any of us will have the bad fortune to witness. I do not envy Zizou’s effort to find sleep tonight, or in the nights to come.

World Cup and Doing the Right Thing

I wash my hands of World Cup soccer. Half the games from the quarterfinals on, including the championship, were decided by penalty kicks that have nothing to do with the game, mostly because with all its wonderful qualities, soccer has a fatal design defect: not enough scoring in regulation play. The result of this is that the game score has almost nothing to do with which team played better: you might just as well cut cards. Make the goal an extra meter wide and games would have total scores of a dozen or so, enough so that penalties and random luck wouldn’t determine outcomes unless everything else was really close (and a 0-0 game under current rules may have been close and may, as happened repeatedly this year, have not been close at all).

Of course reform is paralyzed by knee-jerk traditionalists who only know “it’s always been like this.” To whom I would say, would you get in an airplane if you found its operator’s maintenance motto was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and add, “anyway, it is broke!.” If the outcome of a scored competition isn’t well-correlated with the performance of the competitors, why bother? Soccer scores (including amateur scores) have such a low signal-to-noise ratio that the whole idea of a championship is just silly.

The final featured a remarkable self-inflicted wound for the French. Zidane is a great player but had a very bad record of gratuitous violence coming into the game. Obviously, he’s been indulged rather than corrected as long as he delivered on the field, and this time the sky fell on him and on the team. Without him, red-carded in the second overtime for an open-and-shut battery, France was doomed. He ends his career a goat instead of a hero – with how many zillions of dollars worth of endorsements up in smoke? – because no-one in the system cared to teach him right from wrong as long as wrong was still ringing up at the cash register.

Contrast the Pepsi executives who dropped a dime on the guys trying to sell them stolen Coke recipes last week. In the same context, I recall a GM executive sent up to the Kennedy School many years ago to plead for less regulation of the auto industry, especially relaxation of the CAFE mileage standards. We asked him, “why don’t you just sell the cars you want to sell and pay the [rather small] fines?”

He said “that would obviously be the smart business move, but because they are fines (punishing violations of law) rather than fees, we didn’t think it would be right to do that deliberately.”

Without Zidane, as might have happened if he were really incorrigible and the management had any principles, France would not have been in the final. The lesson here is absolutely not that one shouldn’t cheat because you’ll get caught and lose. It’s not true that cheaters never win: sometimes Lorenz Hart is wrong, and the going isn’t easy when you do it the hard way. But the right way is still the right way.

Eight-one Freaking Points


A couple of years ago, I went with my brother to a Lakers game against Memphis, and Bryant scored 56 points in three quarters before being taken out of a blowout. I told my brother, “remember this, because you won’t see it again for a while.” So much for that.

Sports is an area where hyperbole comes so fast and furious there is a reasonable tendency to discount it. But Bryant’s 81 last night was history-making. One could make a decent argument that it was more impressive than Wilt’s 100. Bryant (81 out of 122) had a higher percentage of his team’s point than Wilt did (100 out of 169). It was a higher-scoring era back then. And Wilt was basically the only 7-footer who didn’t trip over himself; he had a unique comparative advantage that Bryant does not.

I’ve been a Laker fan since I was six, and so I qualify as an old-timer in this field. (If you can say who was the Lakers’ center in between Wilt and Kareem, how the Lakers got him and what his uniform number was, then you qualify. Don’t try this at home.). I’ve never been a huge Bryant fan outside of the fact that he plays for my team, but you’ve got to say that the decision to let Shaq go and keep Kobe is looking better and better every day. The Lakers are 22-19 at the break, which won’t make anyone forget Showtime, but the Heat are only 24-17. Put another way, neither of these teams is going to win the title, but Shaq looks old. He’s just not the player he used to be. He always turns it around come playoff time, but he’s very much on the down side. Can you imagine if the Lakers had kept him, and he had to carry the team without a Dwayne Wade playing alongside of him?

It’s silly to try to assign blame for who was at fault for the breakup; let’s just say that these two monstrous egos couldn’t keep playing together. If that’s so, these last few weeks seem to show that the Lakers did the right thing. I can’t see a way that they get back to championship level for a while, but it will be a fun show in the meantime.