Sorry, world, soccer ... um, football ... needs more scoring
I like sports, but I'm not a "sports guy" - you know, the fellow who listens to so many sports-talk programs that he has opinions about the commentators, never mind the players. I generally keep it basic: Give me the classic duels of baseball, the high-speed chess of basketball, or the perfect Sunday afternoon of beer, pizza and football. American football.
But I'm enough of a fan that I'll give any sport a chance, especially when the best are competing. Olympics, Tour de France, Wimbledon, boxing, golf, extreme sports - I'm game. I've even tuned in to the occasional NASCAR race in an as-yet futile effort to figure out why people enjoy watching cars go around in circles.
So I watched several matches of the 2006 FIFA World Cup with genuine enthusiasm. And my verdict is: I think I'd rather watch cars go in circles. Football - soccer, to us clueless Americans - definitely is not my sport, for the usual clueless-American reasons: Too little scoring, too few legitimate threats to score.
But fear not - I can fix the world's most popular sport with three simple suggestions. And I think I can do it without ruining it for the rest of the world.
Consider the statistics. Only 147 goals were scored in the 64 World Cup games this year. That's an average of 2.3 goals per game - both teams combined. At least one team was shut out in 41 games, in seven of those, neither team scored. Thirteen games were decided by scores of 1-0. In only five games did both teams score as many as two goals; of the 44 teams that scored at least two goals in a game, only two lost. All the losing teams combined scored only 17 goals - meaning that scoring at all meant a team had a 77 percent chance of winning or tying the match.
In only six of the 64 games did the team that gave up the first goal to its opponent go on to win in regulation time (two teams that gave up the first goal tied the score in regulation, then won on penalty kicks). That means, not counting penalty-kick victories, the team that scored first lost only 9 percent of the time. That renders a football match more like an Old West gunfight: the first contestant to hit the opposing target almost surely wins.
I'm sorry, world - for all the sport's artistry and athleticism, that's simply too little scoring. So here are the three suggestions this clueless American recommends to make soccer - I mean, football - more exciting.
Change the off-side rule. Football needs something akin to the fast-break in basketball. But the rules prohibit an attacking player who isn't controlling the ball from being closer to the opponent's goal than any opposition player (not including the goalkeeper). This prevents a player from simply positioning himself near the goalie and waiting until his team can shoot him a long pass, creating an easy shot at the net. But it also bogs the game down mercilessly, preventing swifter players from gaining advantage over slower ones.
The change: Place a fixed off-side line or arc on the field to function as does the blue line in ice hockey. The line should be far enough from the goal to make a shot on goal from beyond it possible but difficult. Teams will be tempted to leave extra attackers on the opponents' side of the field in hopes of a "fast-break," but at the risk of having fewer defenders on its own side. Either way, more scoring opportunities should open up.
Employ a penalty box, as in ice hockey. For any foul that now results in a direct free kick for the opposition, give the opponent the choice of taking the free kick or sending the offending player to a penalty box for five minutes. Playing with a temporary numerical advantage would make for more exciting attacks.
Instead of penalty kicks deciding tied knockout games, use one-minute, three-on-three showdowns. One team will have a goalie and two defenders, the other, three attackers - but only two attackers can be inside the off-side line (see change no. 1) at any time. The attackers fail if they haven't scored in one minute, kick the ball beyond the end line, or if the goalie gains control of the ball. Each team gets five three-on-three chances, best of five wins. This would be far more challenging than boring penalty kicks.
There you have it, world. Now, if you'll excuse me, the second half of the baseball season is under way.
Robert Steinback is a former columnist for The Miami Herald, now on a one-year sabbatical.