Dr. Jay Saves Soccer

Let me not be the last I never played the game North American pundit to step forward with some Golden Bull to save le foot from itself. Shoot, five billion people aren’t necessarily always right.

The Jim Rome Show normally saves its most juvenile smack for ridiculing the game North America forgot. “How very soccer of you!” is Rome’s favourite word of dismissal for any example of mob violence, shameless fakery or terminal dullness in sport. But the sportswriter John Feinstein was a guest host on the Rome radio show this week, and he actually has some intelligent regard for the game without being blindly attached to its traditions. He had a couple of interesting suggestions to make if FIFA ever decided it wanted to appeal more to North American audiences.

First, he said, eliminate the offside rule entirely. Or, follow the dearly departed NASL with its 35 yard lines that marked attacking zones within which offsides are allowed. Second, whatever you do, Feinstein argued, you can not decide a championship-calibre soccer match with something other than soccer. (You don’t decide a baseball series with a home run derby, or the Super Bowl with a field-goal competition. And now the Bus. Jerome Bettis once kicked a field goal in junior high, and now he’s doing it for all the marbles…) Feinstein was a bit vague on how you’d solve the Game Without End phenomenon, except to suggest that teams knowing they have to score to win will, well, try to score. There’s some truth to that.

Dona and Paul and I watched the 3rd place game, Germany/Portugal, together. I pay occasional attention to international soccer news, but almost never watch anything in between World Cups. What a pleasure to watch with these guys – one from Haiti, one from Togo – who know and love the game so well. (Good practice pour mon français, aussi!). Starting at halftime, I tried out Mr. Feinstein’s ideas, and a few of my own. No offside? My buddies just grinned. Silly idea. (The game would get all stretched out of shape, the beautiful buildup would dissolve into full-pitch dump ‘n’ chase; hockey with no icing, only worse. I could see that.) But what about no offside once a team has crossed midfield? They still weren’t too keen on the idea, though the 35 yard “freedom zone” seemed to intrigue Dona, at least briefly. Hey, would a 4-3 game be so bad?

No life and death by penalties? The guys had cautious agreement with the idea of deciding the game by playing the game, but how to do it? To my surprise, Paul and Dona were interested in hockey’s regular season (partial) solution, opening up the ice by going 4 on 4 for the overtime period; they also hesitantly admired the post-season “however long it takes” approach to deciding tied games. We kicked around the idea of removing a defender in extra time, the need for freer substitution, or at least a greater number of allowed changes. (By the way, how would you like to be Guy Number 23 on a World Cup squad, knowing that you’ll get 10 match minutes – if you’re lucky – in a month-long tournament?) But beyond all that, I also argued that the mentality of the game would change. If teams gotta score to win, then they’ll score. Or give up a goal in pressing to get one. Clearly, the Italians were content to go to penalties, even with their disappointing history in games decided by them. In a way, the penalty lottery ends up being an escape from risk, even though it is such a nervous affair.

Hey, how about simulation scoring? You know, if a guy’s going to dive, he should be scored by the judges. I’m like a lot of North American sports fans in finding the “simulation” of fouls and injuries bloody disgusting. If FIFA goes to two on-field officials, maybe that will help, but so would a video replay panel. Not during the match, mind you. The flow that FIFA maintains by refusing to allow commercial timeouts is a marvellous blessing. (I’m a basketball guy, but the TV timeouts, in addition to the strategic ones teams are allowed, makes the pace especially of pro ball infuriating.) Athletic matches complete in under two hours. WOW! How wonderful is that? No, here’s my plan: a team of judges watches match video, including replays. They count the number of times players are caught, as replays so regularly did, trying to draw a penalty by diving, writhing in badly-acted agony when there was NO CONTACT. Then the scores are made public. In yesterday’s match, Germany’s Michael Ballack received a mark of 3 from the simulation judges. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo still holds the single-game high, with 7 certified dives. I suggest that 2 dives in any match equals an automatic retroactive yellow card. Or a scarlet letter on the match jersey. ‘D’ for ‘dishonour’, ‘S’ for ‘shame’, ‘W’ for ‘wuss’. I’m not particular.

In contrast to the worst of the football world’s fakery, all respect to Thierry Henry, star striker of the French side. He plays through fouls, still trying to score. “He never dives,” Dona told me during the championship game today. Alongside his strong anti-racism efforts, here was the Man of the Hour for me. And here, Fédération Internationale de Football Association and soccer lovers everywhere, are one Canucklehead’s prescriptions for what ails your sport. There’s so much right with the beautiful game – its simplicity, its universality, its accessibility to the poor, the often-genuine sense of fair play that is such a contrast to the blot of diving – that I can’t help throwing my suggestions your way. (You’re welcome!)

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