Fixing the beautiful game

Yes, soccer (football to most of the world) needs fixing.

Not the kind of fixing that Italian club owners, coaches and players are accused of, but a reform of the game so that the cynical soccer we have seen in this 2006 World Cup is not rewarded and the open, flowing beauty of the game is highlighted. One irony of this World Cup tournament: FIFA’s clumsy tightening of the officiating, much criticized, is an attempt to encourage more adventurous football by raising the cost of (currently) cheap fouls.

For all the talk of this being a great World Cup, remember that Italy made the finals after a scoreless game (scoring on two goals against Germany at the end of overtime) and France advanced on a penalty kick over Portugal, 1-0.

It is very likely that the final between France and Italy will end up with a penalty kick shootout, which means more than a billion watching around the world will not see the game at its best.

I’ve watched soccer at every level now for more than 35 years, and I remain convinced that many Americans are correct in one of their criticisms of the world’s game–although for the wrong reasons.

The charge, of course, is that there is not enough scoring in soccer.

That, however, represents a symptom, not a cause.

The underlying problem is how the game is being coached and played; low-scoring games can be artistic. What we have seen at the World Cup, however, is often soccer for results only and damn the aesthetic consequences.

Watch the reactions of the top defenders when a creative world-class striker, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, say, nears the box with the ball at his feet–it is to mug him in what the announcers call a “professional foul.” The cynical calculation has become: better a free kick than a run at the goal by Thierry Henry, Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo, or Andriv Shevchenko.

That is understandable–economists would applaud it as a rational tradeoff–but it makes for some ugly play and makes it very difficult to score.

Some have praised the Italian team for yielding only one goal in the tournament, and that on an “own-goal” against the U.S., but that should not be seen as a positive. Italy has played much of the tournament with only one striker and has consciously set out to win through clogging the field on the defensive end.

There were some great signs at this World Cup of coaches willing to advance the cause of attacking soccer, of “total football.” Brazil showed flashes (until the French clamped down with smothering defensive tactics); Jürgen Klinsmann had the Germans playing an aggressive and attractive brand of soccer; and Brazilian coaches Luis Felipe Scolari (Portugal) and Arthur Coimbra (Japan) imbued their adopted national sides with an offensive mindset.

The Americans (one goal in three games), British (an excess of one-striker caution) and Dutch (an ugly, foul-filled loss against Portugal with a bizarre benching of Holland’s tempermental striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy) all disappointed with their less than aggressive play; in contrast, Australia’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink worked wonders with the Socceroos by teaching and applying an appealing, wide-open approach.

What reforms would help?

Dramatic ones: a wider goal, a larger box (making more cynical fouls punishable by penalty kicks), an abolition of the off-side rule once the ball has entered the box, and a rethinking of the approach to overtime (perhaps beginning each overtime period with one less player per team?). These would all open up the game, allowing the artisans to dazzle and providing higher-scoring contests.

By all means accentuate what makes the beautiful game beautiful; for all the enthusiasm generated by football fanatics for 0-0 games, isn’t the idea to score? Shouldn’t the premier soccer tournament in the world feature offense and not defense? It isn’t hard tackles and flying elbows that we come to see…is it?

Those dreaded penalty kick shootouts

In American terms, it is “wide right,” the shanking of an easy field goal attempt in a crucial game (the stuff of nightmares for Florida State and Buffalo Bills fans).

Missing penalty kicks in a World Cup shootout haunts the faithful and often causes national introspection, and lingering recrimination. Italians still lament Roberto Baggio’s famous miss in the 1994 World Cup.

Like gallows humor? How about this from icWales:

HAVE you heard the one about the condemned man who was told he could chose his own method of execution?

Quick as a flash, the guy replies, “I’ll have a firing squad, with Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher shooting from 12 yards!”

You’ve got to laugh really, well, not if you’re a fan of the English football team, as once more they went crashing out of a major tournament via the dreaded penalty shoot out.

What about penalty kicks? Art or science? Should teams practice taking penalties? Or go with the flow?

Those national teams with poor penalty kick performances, such as the British, do have apologists who argue that you can’t prepare for a shoot out.

Injured striker Michael Owen has questioned whether England’s dismal penalty kick performance could be improved.

In training, you can bend them into the top corner but when you don’t know where your legs are – when you’ve got to look down to see your legs because you simply can’t feel them – it’s totally different. No amount of training prepares you for that. If you do practise, you’re not going to do yourself any harm. So if it does give you extra confidence, I suppose it’s worth doing, but I’m not sure it makes much difference. You can never remember what you did in training when you’re on the pitch.

Owen’s comments made me think of the controversy in Holland in the 1970s during the glory days of Clockwork Orange football over the question of practicing penalty kicks. The dispute is highlighted in David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, (one of the better books on soccer I’ve encountered). Holland’s premier player, Johan Cruyff, prized the artistic quality of play on the field over winning and was skeptical that penalty kicks measured anything; his disdain towards penalties translated into a fatalistic attitude towards shoot-outs.

There are strong advocates of a more scientific approach. Take former England coach Sir Clive Woodward; his views are worth quoting at length (if only to capture the level of emotion!):

The extraordinary message I keep getting from coaches is you cannot replicate match conditions on the training pitch, that you won’t create an ice-cool finisher from the spot just by practice. Rubbish!

Try telling Tiger Woods he won’t improve his putting by working on the putting green. Or Roger Federer that training is a waste of time.

Here’s my solution: After every Premiership match, teams should hold a penalty shootout and prioritise the use of England-qualified players.

Make it realistic. Bring in a sponsor, get TV involved, ensure it is competitive and rewarded. Seek and find the elite penalty-takers.

You’ll soon find out who can take penalties under pressure and who can’t. Even if those fans who stay to watch are very quiet — and it’s better if they are not — the players will not want to miss. They have pride and they won’t enjoy failing in public.

The British newspapers have been filled with arguments by proponents of a “scientific” approach to penalty kicks, including several academics who have spent years analyzing penalties. The New York Times ran a story on some of this research and offered this nugget of wisdom early in the tournament.

If Coach Raymond Domenech of France is looking for a penalty taker, he might want to pass on his captain, Zinédine Zidane. He ranked 21st out of the 22 kickers who took at least 30 penalties, with a 75 percent success rate.

Domenech must be an artist at heart because he ignored the statistics and chose Zidane to take the penalty against Portugal, which his captain buried to advance Les Bleus (now touted as the hope of French multiculturalists!) to the finals.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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