Five Ways to Improve the World Cup

Back in the heady summer of 2002, I spent many late nights and early mornings chasing World Cup soccer games around Boulder County – the Cup was in South Korea and Japan that year. I found games at beerless bars and at various friends’ houses. I joined a gaggle of bleary-eyed soccer fans at a bar in south Boulder to watch the U.S. defeat Mexico in the knockout stage. In the next round, at a friend’s house, we watched as the U.S. outplayed Germany but lost 1-0. What might’ve been the equalizing goal on a U.S. header was saved with a hand ball by a German defender, but the ref didn’t see it.

In 2006, the U.S. didn’t make it out of the Group Stage. Ghana was awarded a penalty kick on a phantom foul that gave them a 2-1 victory (the U.S. would’ve needed a win to advance). In the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal, the U.S. withstood a bogus red card and penalty, and excessive time-wasting at the end of extra time by Brazil, to force a shootout, which the U.S. won.

I root for the U.S. teams, so I have retained some bitterness about the aforementioned transgressions, but U.S. teams aren’t particularly aggrieved by bad calls. Perhaps the most infamous no-call involved Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in which he punched the ball into the goal in the 1986 World Cup, giving Argentina a 2-1 win over England in the quarterfinal.* In the current World Cup, the Netherlands were awarded a penalty kick on a ticky-tack call against the great Mexican sweeper Rafael Marquez in stoppage time, which knocked Mexico out of the tournament.

None of this is to say that soccer referees are necessarily bad at what they do. It’s just inevitable that one person (or three if you count the linesmen) is going to miss things. The goal is to encourage the beauty and diminish the ugliness of the beautiful game. Diving, wasting time, feigning injury, and even shootouts take away from the spirit of the game. As good as it is, the World Cup could be better. Here are my proposals.**

1. Institute Instant Replay: Follow the lead of the NFL and allow up to three coach’s challenges per game. If a coach gets his first two challenges correct, he is awarded a third challenge. Potential scoring plays, fouls, and cards could all be challenged. In soccer, perhaps more than any other sport, one score has enormous implications. Beginning with the 2014 World Cup, FIFA instituted goal-line technology to definitively indicate whether or not a goal has been scored. That’s a huge improvement – why leave this up to the fallibility of humans when we can now tell within millimeters whether the ball has fully crossed the line? A red card, a dive, a penalty kick, or a missed call can have similarly dire consequences for a team – why not ensure that these are accurately called? With a coach’s challenge, the outcomes of the above games may have been quite different. Some may say that having coach’s challenges will impede the flow of the game; a challenge could have a limit of one minute, hardly much time out of the already-large amount of stoppage that occurs in games (see #4 below).

2. Discourage Dives: Nobody likes dives (or “simulations” as FIFA calls them) – when players, often comically, invent or exaggerate fouls. Even some of the worst offenders admit that diving is stupid (see Arjen Robben’s statement after the Dutch played Mexico this World Cup), but the reward is greater than the risk, so diving flourishes. One study examined 169 dives throughout European professional leagues – none of these dives resulted in punishment. Again, refs are fallible, they can’t see everything that happens. We get the benefit of slo-mo as we watch a forward who wasn’t touched go down, writhing in pain, with what seems to be an agonizing head injury.***

The simple way to discourage dives is to make the risk greater than the reward. One way to do this is to review every game and issue yellow cards to anyone who’s deemed guilty of a dive. This would add to one’s cumulative card total and result in possible missed games. A second way is through #1 above, wherein a coach is allowed to challenge whether a player was fouled – if it happens that there was a dive, that player is given a yellow and the free kick is awarded to the other team. If the dive occurs in the opposing team’s penalty area, the player is given a red card.

3. Discourage Feigned Injuries: Contrary to the American perception that soccer players are wusses (flopping around on the turf like fish on a dock at the slightest provocation), all this caterwauling and lugubriousness can actually be attributed to the same risk/reward analysis that goes into diving – we are simply animals responding to stimuli. Soccer’s current rules reward wolf-criers.

Players feign injuries for several reasons: to increase the severity of punishment during a foul, as part of a dive, to waste time, or simply to take a rest. While it’s impossible to eliminate thespianism when it comes to the post-foul stage, there are measures that can clip the wings of these erstwhile deceivers.

When it comes to exaggerating the egregiousness of a true foul, or inventing one, the post-game review with yellow cards meted out for the worst offenses should have some positive effects, as in #2. Likewise, if the coach can challenge what was in hindsight an overzealous yellow or red card, this could mitigate some of the histrionics.

Regarding the time-wasting or resting injury-feigning, FIFA could use time limits, stoppage time, and hockey-style penalties to dissuade this behavior. If a player goes down and play stops, the player has 10 seconds to get back up and resume playing. If the player can’t get up in 10 seconds, and/or the trainers have to attend to the player on the field (usually just by spraying some ostensibly magic water onto the wounded area), then the player must sit off for two minutes. All injury time should be added to stoppage time, thus rendering any time-wasting strategy moot. In addition to curbing the incidence of feigned injuries, these measures have the added benefit of revealing when a player is actually injured.

4. Codify Stoppage Time: I timed all stoppage time (all time when the ball wasn’t in actual play) in the second half of the Netherlands-Costa Rica game last week. All told, in the 45 minutes of regulation play, the ball was not in play for 20.5 of those minutes – almost half the time. In that game, the referee added five minutes of stoppage time. I’m not suggesting that every second that the ball isn’t in play should be added to stoppage, rather that there should be time limits for each type of stoppage, beyond which stoppage time accumulates. There is an average of 23 throw-ins, 12 free kicks, 6 corners, and 6 goal kicks in a half of professional soccer.

If FIFA allotted five seconds for a throw-in, 20 seconds for a free kick, 20 seconds for a corner kick, and 10 seconds for a goal kick, this would be an average of 9 minutes per half of sanctioned stoppage (additionally, penalty kicks and goals could have a set stoppage of 30 seconds). This time would not be added to stoppage time. Anything above the set time for each stoppage would be added to stoppage time. So, if a team takes 8 seconds for a throw-in, 3 seconds would be added to stoppage time. Any injury time or substitution time above the set time for the stoppage that may have precipitated the injury or substitution would be added to stoppage time. So if a player is fouled, the team is awarded a free kick, and after 20 seconds runs off the clock, if the player is still being attended to for another 33 seconds before the free kick is taken, that 33 seconds is added to stoppage time (and the player has to go take a two-minute break, according to #3 above).

Each game should have an official timekeeper that tracks all stoppage time, thus relieving the head ref of a burdensome responsibility. Once stoppage time is determined (to the second), a countdown clock would be initiated, which would automatically stop for additional periods of non-sanctioned stoppage. For example, if stoppage time is 5:33 at the end of the second half, a clock will begin counting down from 5:33 at 90 minutes of play, the clock will continue to run for 5 seconds for a throw-in (or 10 seconds for a goal kick, etc.), then stop until the throw-in is completed. This codification has the effect of dissuading time-wasting, which would improve the flow of the game (no reason to waste time, might as well play soccer), as well as removing subjectivity from the referee – and knowing exactly when a game will end would add some last-second excitement as players try to hit buzzer-beating shots. (It wouldn’t keep players from wasting time while the ball is in play, by, for example, dribbling to a corner flag and holding the ball, or passing back to the keeper who then keeps the ball until challenged, but at least the other team has some control over this kind of time-wasting.)

5. Eliminate Penalty Kick Shootouts: As exciting as shootouts can be, they have very little to do with which is the better team. On the other hand, if a game goes on too long, the game may not have much semblance of actual soccer as the players become more and more exhausted. Instead of 30 minutes of extra time followed immediately by a shootout, why not have overtimes with rules that make it successively easier to score? This would be more likely to lead to a win by the team with the best complete soccer skills, rather than narrowing it down to only shooting, goalkeeping, and luck.

One idea is to have three overtimes of 10 minutes each. In the first overtime, no rules change, and if at the end one team is ahead, they win (no golden goal). In the second overtime, three players are removed (coach’s choice), which should lead to more scoring opportunities. If the score is still tied, the goalies are pulled for the third overtime – a player can still remain in goal, but cannot use hands. Finally, if the game is still tied after all three overtimes, each team could have five set plays (corner kicks or free kicks outside the penalty area) with the full team (including keepers) back on the field – as with penalty shootouts, the team with the most goals out of five wins, and if it’s tied after five, it goes to the first team to score when the other team misses.

There are, of course, numerous other ways to increase the odds of scoring that could be incorporated into extra time: eliminate offside, limit the number of players allowed in their own half or in their penalty area, prohibit the goalkeeper from entering the goal box, etc. The point is to come up with the best way to break a tie that generally benefits the team with the most complete soccer skills.

I‘d like to see a few other changes, as well. Yellow and red cards are far too subjective; should arguing with the ref really have the same consequences as a dangerous foul? Half the time something that merits a card in one instance doesn’t in another. Perhaps there should be some objective review after each game to determine whether cards should or shouldn’t have been given in specific instances (of course, objectivity is the hard part). The coach’s challenge would help here, but more could be done. And a suspension for two yellow cards over five games seems excessive. Maybe there should be a suspension for two cumulative yellow cards in the Group Stage, then a clean slate for the Second Stage, with another suspension if two cumulative yellows are received in the first two games of the Second Stage.

There will always be some ambiguity and uncertainty in any sport. These measures don’t propose to end this, only to curtail it. The beautiful game is one with flow, amazing passing, ridiculous individual skills, uncanny team communication, tight marking, hard tackling, acrobatic goalkeeping, brilliant tactics, and of course, stunning shots and goals. The best team doesn’t always win in soccer,**** but they should at least have that opportunity without leaving so much to chance or cheating.


*Soon after the “Hand of God,” Maradona went on to score a real goal, one of the best of all time.

**You traditionalists out there may object to these proposed changes – then again, maybe your great-great-grandparents also objected when the forward pass became legal in the 1860’s.

***The NBA is also experiencing a scourge of ridiculous flops. Maybe they should enact some of these proposed changes themselves.

****This is another discussion altogether. Because of soccer’s low scoring, the winning team can often be the one with far less possession and scoring opportunities (as would have been the case if the U.S. had scored in stoppage time against Belgium at this World Cup). Whether this detracts from the game or adds to its excitement is another question. A boxer can take body blows for most of a fight, but one knockout punch can end it in his favor.



2 thoughts on “Five Ways to Improve the World Cup

  1. Great meeting you and I’m excited to check out your other entries along with this one. How do I sign up to know when you post something new?

    • Nice to meet you, too, Heather. Thanks for pointing out the subscribe issue. Now there’s a button that makes it easier to subscribe.

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