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.

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.

17 thoughts on “Widen the Goal?”

  1. Obviously the issue demands deliberate and well-planned adjustment, like the elegant British scheme to switch to right-hand driving in stages (during the first week, the new rules would apply to trucks, then also to buses, and only when the professional drivers had adapted, after two weeks, to automobiles).
    If enlarging the goals is too much change all at once, what about widening them only on the left? Or ten centimeters every six months (what a nice job five-year development scheme for goal manufacturers!)? Alternatively, the goal could be widened only at one end of the field.
    Similarly, the offside rule seems to be stuck between a one- and two-defender standard, but a little imagination shows it could be changed to one and a half defenders, or the goalie plus his mother, an especially short, or lame, or blind defenseman, or a one-legged player.
    Come to think of it, a two-goal handicap for goalies over, say, five feet tall might even things up right away.
    Like so many problems, these yield to compromise and thinking outside the box; there's usually a way to satisfy both sides to some degree.

  2. I'm not an expert on soccer, or even a fan. But it seems to me that the argument against widening the goal (as against raising the hoop in basketball) is that it would destroy huge amounts of hard-earned human capital. Large concentrated windfall losses shouldn't be imposed without very strong reasons.
    Two suggestions about how to avoid deciding games on penalty kicks appeal to me, because they wouldn't otherwise change the structure of the game.
    The simplest is to play the overtime period with an empty net. A slightly more complicated proposal would be to start overtime with a full complement of players, but remove one from each side every (say) ten minutes. Either version would guarantee that a goal would be scored within a reasonable amount of overtime play.
    The objection to the empty-net option is that it would encourage a team with stronger players overall but a weaker goalie to play for a nil-nil tie, guaranteeing two boring halves of play. The sequential-reduction option doesn't seem to have any similar strategic impact.
    I'd be interested in thoughts on this from experts.

  3. I don't see a problem of having different goal widths for different leagues. Clearly the current setting is only a problem at the highest level.
    In other sports I'm more familiar with its quite common for various leagues to have their own variation of the rule and standards.

  4. Make the penalty area smaller: fewer dives for PK's, less room for the GK to use his hands and more chances to attack closer to the goal.

  5. Don't change the game, get rid of the penalty kicks to resolve ties. Penalties are really only a problem in tournaments as league play recognizes ties.
    Instead of 30 minutes of overtime, and then penalties; we switch to pulling the goalies in overtime. If no one has scored after 10 minutes. Both teams pull another player. Not only does it solve the immediate problem, but indirectly, it makes dismissals more expensive as I imagine it's even harder to play a man down with no goalie.

  6. How about using corner kicks taken as a tie-breaker? It would reward agressiveness, and drastically reduce ties with very little change in the game otherwise.

  7. I like Mark's idea (4:46 PM) of removing one player each 10 minutes of OT play. Unless the suggestion is to remove a player first from one team, then 10 minutes later from the other, and so forth, however, I don't see how this would guarantee a score, since the teams would remain evenly matched. But, as I understand the suggestion — 1 player from each team after 10 minutes, another 1 from each after 20, etc. — the game would get really interesting, esp. to those on psychedelics, after the 110th minute of OT.

  8. I don't understand Mark's concern about human capital. Play would be about the same with a larger goal (there's no important effect on field strategy, passing, etc.)and relevant skills would be the same, but more drives would score.

  9. I have never understood the offside rule. Mind you – given my lack of speed and my willingness to go after someone sort of relegated my youth to playing defense not offense, so I benefitted quite often from the offside rule when I was totally beaten by an opponent's blinding speed and my own stupidity. But why should that be? Why should it be that if my rare bit of cunning caused a successful run and shot on goal to go for naught? This rule disallowed quite a few apparent goals including what would have been Italy's 2nd in the final. And had Italy gone up 2-1, my bet is the French would have found a way to make it 2-2.

  10. The off-side rule is the key to all of soccer strategy. If you don't understand it you shouldn't be commenting about how to make soccer better. Soccer without the off-side rule would be a different game. Hockey in cleats, maybe.

  11. You actually have 3 officials — the referee's assistants serve to indicate the possibility of offsides, fouls, and whether or not a goal has actually been scored — the referee can accept their indication or not, but as a result you have 3 sets of eyes.
    In the two referee system used in many American games, especially at the high school and college level, there are no sideline officials. You are down to only two sets of eyes.
    And the offsides rule has been changed. It used to be (a) you had to have two people between you and the goalline at the time the ball was played — now the 2nd person only has to be even with you; (b) any player in an offside position, even if not involved with the play resulted in an offside call as soon as the ball was played forward – now it is a judgment as to whether the player in an offside position is involved in the play – the referee's assistant may raise a flag but the referee may make a judgment that the player in question is not offsides.
    I have played, coached and refereed. The issue of scoring can be addressed in other ways. Call the professional fouls as yellow cards automatically, and the number of times the start of an interesting play is brought to a halt near midfield will diminish greatly. The first time a player attempts to delay a restart give a yellow card — players – and coaches – will adjust. Do not tolerate any unsportsmanlike action. If a player takes a dive to try to get a call, warn both sides, and the next player gets either a yellow or if it is in the area and the player is trying to con a penalty kick a red. Crack down on the diving.
    The game is a beautiful game when it flows. If the referees will ensure that it continues to flow, then a lot of the problems will disappear.
    Oh yeah — FIFA should suspend coaches who encourage such unsportsmanlike conduct. The most egregious teams as far as taking dives from multiple players that I saw were Ghana, Portugal and Italy. In the games I saw those teams play, a total of 10, I did not see a single card for diving, even though it qualifies as unsportsmanlike conduct and as such is cardable. When multiple players persist in such behavior, there should be sanctions on the coach. That will stop that bit of idiocy.

  12. Until just a few days ago, I hadn't realized that the most successful sport in the world was broken.

  13. I don't think the worlds game is in need of change:
    From Yahoo:
    Massive audience projected for World Cup
    July 7, 2006
    BERLIN (AP) — Sunday's World Cup final is expected to draw a worldwide audience of more than a billion, organizers said Friday.
    "The TV rights have been sold to 200 countries," said Wolfgang Niersbach, vice president of the local organizing committee. "I think 207 contracts have been signed. That's more than the U.N. has countries."
    The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the current world population at 6.5 billion. The United Nations, meanwhile, has 191 member countries.
    The 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea drew a cumulative TV audience of 28.8 billion in 213 countries with 1.1 billion watching the final, according to FIFA. That was down from 33.4 billion at France '98, no doubt due to the time difference in the Far East. The cumulative audience is expected to exceed 30 billion this time.
    FIFA sold the TV rights for the tournament for $1.22 billion.
    Niersbach said there will be more than 3,000 journalists at Olympic Stadium to see the final between France and Italy: 1,800 print, 1,000 TV and radio, and 300 photographers. There will also be 66,000 fans at the game.
    In the United States, ESPN is drawing a 1.9 rating, or 2,287,000 viewers and 1,735,000 households per match.
    Tuesday's Germany-Italy semifinal delivered a 4.1 rating (3.74 million households), making it the highest-rated non-U.S. game ever on ESPN and the third highest-rated World Cup game ever on the network. The Portugal-France semifinal on Wednesday got a 2.6 rating (2.38 million households).
    ABC is averaging 3,845,000 viewers and a 2.6 rating, while ESPN2 has averaged 1,147,000 viewers and a 1.0 rating. Overall, 90 million people have tuned into the World Cup on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2, up 15% from the 78 million people who watched the World Cup on the three networks through the same point in 2002.

  14. As far as instant replay goes, no, nO, NO!
    The reason I like to watch soccer in person OR on the tube is that the TV cameras don't distort the game. I used to love to watch football in person. I still enjoy going to HS games. I hate going to NFL and Division I games.
    The game stops every time the ball changes hands, and sometimes when it doesn't. What the NFL (and now the NCAA in D-I) have done is to change the game for television. Have to get those commercials in. The result of that change is that the game has no pace. It's fine if you're watching at home while working a crossword or a cryptogram. When something interesting happens you can divert your attention and see what it was. When the commercial breaks happen you can go do whatever it is that needs doing.
    But when you're in the stadium it's a dreadful bore. I've always felt that real people should take priority over virtual people. I wish the NCAA would take the approach FIFA has — we'll sell you the game rights, BUT we won't stop the game so you can break to commercials. I'd even be willing to let televised games have the halftime extended 10 minutes.
    As far as officiating goes, there really are four officials in top level matches. Linesmen are well positioned to manage the sidelines and offsides alignment for the referee. They also serve as additional eyes on the field. The fourth official manages time, substitutions and other administrivia for the referee. If the officials are communicating well (and even with FIFA's change to single-country officiating teams, they didn't always in this cup) there's no need for more officials. That's especially true if the price of another referee is the loss of the linesmen.

  15. How about unlimited in and out substitutions throughout the whole game. Not on the fly, like in hockey, but only when play is stopped.

  16. As someone has pointed out, you can't just get rid of the offsides rule. Guys would just stand in front of the keeper all game, and defenders would not continue to play the offsides trap without an offsides rule. You can't just assume that all the current offsides plays would become scroing chances.
    Unlimited substitutions would be terrible, lest the game become as obscenely over-coached as US sports are. I actually think the game as gone too far down this road already. (Didn't it used to be illegal to yell isntructions ffrom the sideline?)
    Instant replay should only be used for ball-across-the-goal decisions. Has instant replay lessened controversy in the NFL? You've got to be kidding me. All its done is make the arguments more legalistic and semantic.

  17. Field hockey is on the right track.
    They changed the offside rule a while back so that
    you can only be offside in the last quarter of the
    field (instead of anywhere past the halfway line).
    They also have two umpires, each has priority in
    his own half of the field but when necessary can
    whistle for offenses in the other half.
    The game is tactically quite similar to soccer,
    so the same rule changes would appear to be

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