[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 15, 2007 at 1:26pm] Trackbacks
Soccer Reform & Reforms:

Our political candidates might have us believe that nothing spruces up the country like a fresh coat of regulation, but rulemaking is of course far from a simple aesthetic matter of enacting "common sense" solutions. Even in the relatively rare cases where a problem is manifest and almost universally condemned, descrying its solution and then fixing it with new rules can be extremely difficult. And attempting to tinker with an already complex system, in particular, can easily exacerbate any original shortcomings.

Executive compensation readily comes to mind as one example. Although a few people think CEO pay is too low, I think it's fair to say that plenty of Americans are put out by the more obscene packages. Yet almost every one of the repeated attempts to regulate compensation has backfired: the taxing of golden parachutes in the early '80s popularized what had been a relatively rare perquisite; the cap on deductions for pay over $1 million quickly turned into a floor; and increased disclosure has allowed CEOs and boards to see what others are getting and to ratchet compensation even higher.

Soccer has its own delicate web of regulation, pieced together to patch over the evil ingenuity of players. For example, the current rule forbidding goalkeepers to pick up backpasses from teammates evolved to cope with chronic time-wasting. And the offside rule was intended to bar strikers from perching and poaching in the opposing goalmouth.

So should we adopt a Burkean approach to the matter and presume that our existing system is the ideal product of a century of footballing wisdom? I will allow that caution is warranted but won't insist on quite so conservative an approach as my esteemed compatriot -- I see the aforementioned rules as fairly good examples of how new rules can improve soccer.

And we are not dealing here with a revered constitution of football; the rules change regularly: the offside rule has been liberalized twice in recent years to switch the interpretation of "even is off" to "even is on" (i.e., an attacker level with the last defender is now onside as opposed to offside) and to allow for harmless error (i.e., players in an "offside" position may not be penalized if they don't interfere with play).

My motivation for proposing changes rests on my primary complaint that, in World Cup soccer especially, referees play too prominent a role. Because of the quality of the competition and the dread of losing on such an important stage, teams often play not to lose, so games are difficult to win through skill alone. Players are well aware that a referee can hugely alter a game by decimating one team with a red card or by awarding a penalty, so naturally (if regrettably) players attempt to fool the referee through chicanery.

My proposals therefore attempt to deal with two separate parts of this dynamic: first, the referee's ability to discern the facts accurately; second, the rewards and punishments that the players are so desperately attempting to cajole from their minders.

First, fact-finding. FIFA could readily increase the ratio of officials to playing surface, by adding more referees, just as many other sports have (e.g., basketball, football, and baseball, which increases the number of its umpires for playoff games). FIFA could incorporate greater use of post-game video review, at least to rule players in or out of subsequent games in a tournament. Finally, in-game video review could allow officials, before play continues

(a) to rule out goals like Maradona's:

and (b) to award red cards to players like Schumacher.

Even venerable old English sports like rugby (which is a free-flowing game) and cricket use this tool.

Players may be deterred from cheating if they believe they will be more readily caught. On the other hand, adding more referees would not obviously achieve the larger goal of reducing the role of referees in soccer.

On that topic, let's turn now to sentencing guidelines. FIFA could fine-tune its existing yellow and red card punishments by instituting a sin-bin to send players off for set periods, as in hockey or rugby. The existing rules against "simulation" (diving) and requiring "injured" players to leave the field could be enforced more rigorously. Referees might be forced to choose whether a given fouler or faker in a tackle deserves a card.

As for a system of more sensitive rewards (which are just more punishments against the offending team), penalties could be awarded only after a certain number of cards have been handed out (as with basketball's free-throw regime) or, of course, the spot could be moved further away from the goal. Given the amount of collectible data on penalties, FIFA should be able to use fairly simple empirical and statistical analyses to determine the distance that would achieve any given scoring rate they desire. With both of these suggestions, however, my fear is that the net effect would be to reduce the overall scoring in the game.

Again, my overarching belief is that more goals, not fewer, will do the most to make each individual decision by the referee less pivotal. I acknowledge that fractional or multivalue scoring is probably too significant a change to the game (as would be altering the size of the goal), but scoring could be increased through relatively innocuous means, such as by loosening the offside rules even further.

I don't think we'll eliminate the last-minute penalty (see, e.g., Italy v. Australia) but there might be less sense of outrage and frustration if the score of the game at the time were 5-5 than if it were 0-0.

Tillman Fan (mail):
It looks to me like Maradona was offsides, as well, on his hand-ball goal.
5.15.2007 2:35pm
Here in America we have neatly sidestepped the whole problem by agreeing to ignore the game. The horse you're beating is an ex-horse.
5.15.2007 2:36pm
Peter Young (mail):
It looks to me like Maradona was offsides, as well, on his hand-ball goal.

An England player last played the ball and therefore Maradona was not offside.
5.15.2007 2:53pm
Peter Young (mail):
It looks to me like Maradona was offsides, as well, on his hand-ball goal.

An England player--Steve Hodge, if memory serves--last played the ball (back to Shilton in goal) and therefore Maradona was not offside.
5.15.2007 2:55pm
GW law student:
Your proposals are generally bad. In-game review would be awful.

Have you played soccer before? What seems to be missing from your argument is that there are many minor "fouls" committed during the game. The refs have discretion with these.

Last year's world cup was an anomoly. Refs were told by FIFA to be strict with the cards; they went overboard. Making proposals based on one championship (or one "hand of God" play) is like reforming the legal system based on the OJ trial.
5.15.2007 2:59pm
A few years ago, the US A-League (one division below MLS) received FIFA permission to experiment with two referees, but it didn't work as well as you'd hope.

The two refs did see and call more fouls, but they destroyed the advantage rule. Every time one referee saw a foul and chose not to blow the whistle due to the fouled team's retention of the ball and a potential goal-scoring opportunity, the other ref would invariably call the foul anyway. It was very frustrating for everyone involved, including both referees.

And if one of these canceled advantage plays happened early in a match, there was a very good chance that neither referee would call an obvious foul late in the match -- because both feared the other had signaled play-on.

The other US sports that use multiple referees don't have an equivalent of the advantage rule. In basketball, for example, each referee will immediately stop play for every foul.

As a fan, I thought that one skilled referee worked better than two, no matter how skilled they were.

I do like previously mentioned notion of a referee exercising the discretion not to allow a miraculously recovered player from returning to the game immediately after being stretchered off the field. That seems promising. Maybe an improvised five minute ban?
5.15.2007 3:42pm
It seems to me that the most efficient solution for minimizing the number of penalties awarded would be to decrease the size of the penalty area -- but for that limited purpose only. For example, create a third box, staked out at 12 yards, with any foul occuring inside that area declared a penalty.

The 18-yard box would remain for purposes of delineating the area in which the keeper is permitted to handle the ball.

This solution would have less of an impact on the game than, for example, creating a football penalty box. And it wouldn't require instant replay. (Which, frankly, I doubt would help much at all, given that many fouls are pure judgment calls.)

You would eliminate some of the more ridiculous penalties -- e.g., the one awarded to Ghana in the United States match.
5.15.2007 3:50pm
Sean M:
One thing that's interesting:

The NFHS (U.S. High School soccer body), uses and allows a 'dual' two-referee system (though FIFA obviously does not countenance it).

My sense is that it's not particularly good for the game, though it might be great for the refs who don't quite have to run so much, probably for all the reasons that neilalice mentions.

Any study of the NFHS system and its ability to do things "better" than the FIFA Laws?

(As a side note, the wonderful mailing list SOCREF mentioned this discussion this week. I'm sure it will bring a few people over with a great deal of knowledge.)
5.15.2007 4:10pm
Neilalice has an interesting post regarding the use of 2 referees. My question to him, though, is whether the two referees in the A-League had the little headsets/microphones you see the refs in the World Cup wearing to communicate with the other refs. It seems to me that the problem described in the comment regarding the advantage rule could be solved if the refs are able to communicate with each other so that they know when one has called the advantage - a simple shout of "Advantage", through the microphone and into the headset of the other ref might solve that particular problem.
5.15.2007 4:21pm
And we are not dealing here with a revered constitution of football; the rules change regularly

My problem with this post is the above statement. It is rather blithe.

Sure, SOME rule change from time to time, but they are generally minor tweaks, such as a passive offside. Many of Birdthistle's suggestions are MAJOR CHANGES: i.e., the addition of a sin bin. This is completely unrealistic. As I said on the last thread (I think), the addition of another referee seems like a realistic proposal, since other sports have done similar things (and, as I mentioned on the other thread, such a change has been studied as to the effect on number of fouls called, with the results contradictory).

We can propose all sorts of rule changes to add more scoring (hey, now we can use hands!). Birdthistle should stick to proposals that don't change major parts of the game, which are unlikely to be changed.
5.15.2007 4:26pm
Sean M:
Probably the core problem here is not having more officials. Soccer has been steadily adding officials, with, most recently, the 4th Official.

It is, instead, that there should be only one "whistle," one person who gets to stop play, card people, point to the penalty mark. Everyone else can give factual information ("I saw this") or flag his /opinion/ of what should happen, but the referee can ignore that advice or wave that flag down. Assistant referees (linesmen) assist, not insist, as the saying goes.

The one whistle philosophy is for two reasons, as far as I can tell:

1) So many fouls are "in the opinion of the referee" and the associated Law 5 mandate that the referee shall not call fouls that are "doubtful or trifling." What is doubtful or trifling? Well, that's in the opinion of the referee. And opinions differ.

2) Relatedly, then, the referee is a match condition like the pitch or the weather. Have a referee who calls a tight game, you play different than one who is looser with his foul calls.

So if you put in two whistles, two people who can call fouls, the players can't adapt or change their style of play to the referee on the field. And there is no consistency. At least one referee can be consistent -- what was a foul then is a foul now, and vice versa, but with two whistles, you may be dealing with referees who see fouls in different ways. And that means fouls depend on what side of the field you're on, and that can't be a good thing.

This, I think, is the primary argument for keeping the one whistle system and not adding anymore referees.
5.15.2007 4:31pm
Why can't the rules mandate that a certain number of players must remain on the offensive side of the field at all times? Couldn't you create a situation where the offensive side always had a one or two person advantage?
5.15.2007 5:14pm
ur_land (mail):
Sean M.: NFHS (U.S. High School) not only uses a dual system (with two referees), but also a three whistle system where the ARs (linesmen) step onto the field, use a whistle instead of a flag, and have (in theory) more responsibility to call fouls.

In practice, this usually serves as a crutch to the older and (on average) less fit older referees who are available to referee most high school games that occur during or just after the normal work day. I have no way to compare well-run three whistles with a well-run FIFA mandated DSC (diagonal system of control), since I have so rarely seen a three whistle system run at top form!
5.15.2007 5:23pm
Triet (www):
If more than one referee makes it impossible for players to "adapt or change their style of play to the referee on the field," then how do players do it in basketball?

Everyone agrees that some bball games are called more tightly than others, and players DO change accordingly. They change in relation to the aggregate, and that would happen in soccer.

Now, the hitch of multiple referees slowing down the game--stopping flow--is genuine. Adding another referee would change the fluidity of soccer, and that preference must be taken into account when modifying the rule.

However, one way basketball tries to increase continuity is by clearly delineating a referee's responsibility. Ref's divide the court into three areas, and the referee for that area has responsibility for calling fouls, making out-of-bounds calls, etc. When he can't, then he looks to another referee for help.

Soccer could add two referees and clearly delineate their areas of responsibility. For example, one referee has control over one half of the field, and vice versa. When play, like a corner, happens predominantly in one half of the field, the other could stand at mid-pitch, and serve as a "check man" for the referee in the middle of the half, should he need a second opinion on something. As play crosses midfield, the refs' roles switch.

An arrangement similar to this would allow another pair of eyes on the field, and bypass the ref conflict issue that slows down games.
5.15.2007 5:28pm
Ronb2 (mail):
I like the two referee idea, recognizing that many issues raised here would have to be worked through. However, I believe the key issue is that scoring is too difficult. It seems that any high-stakes game (e.g., World Cup Final, Champions League Final, etc.) inevitably ends in penalties or a 1-0 result. Why? It's far, far too easy to keep a similarly-skilled team from scoring. When the stakes are high, players focus on avoiding mistakes instead of playing aggressively for goals. Since scoring is so difficult, allowing even one goal can mean defeat.

How to increase scoring, thus reducing the value of any individual goal?

A sin bin won't work because, unlike in hockey, the team down a man can very easily stall the time away without seriously risking giving up a goal. Boring. Fewer men on the pitch would lead to strange end-games with overly fatigued players. A second referee can help clean up play, but that won't directly impact scoring, at least not enough.

I believe increasing the size of the goal is the best answer. Radical, perhaps, but I believe the problem to be very significant. Increasing the goal will make longer shots more effective, forcing the defense out. This opens up more room in the box for passing/dribbling. Will teams just bring back more players in defense? Maybe. But this will be no worse than today and increasing the success rate of any shot will increase scoring and reduce the likelihood of games ending in penalties.

One last idea, inspired by a lacrosse rule (GO BIG RED): How about a 35 yard line, behind which the defensive team can only have 8 (9?) players? Would keep teams from packing it in.
5.15.2007 5:30pm

I don't think they had microphones and that might help with advantage. Still, although I was in favor of the experiment, I'm skeptical about the notion of having two refs for many of the reasons Sean M identifies.

But I confess I know nothing about how the high school system works.
5.15.2007 5:37pm
Joe Gator (mail):
How about allowing for more liberal substitution? Wouldn't this help eliminate the action-less extra periods that precede Penalty Kicks?
5.15.2007 5:46pm
Mark Field (mail):

I believe increasing the size of the goal is the best answer. Radical, perhaps, but I believe the problem to be very significant. Increasing the goal will make longer shots more effective, forcing the defense out. This opens up more room in the box for passing/dribbling.

This has always seemed like a good idea to me. In conjunction with this, I'd consider expanding the penalty area, perhaps bringing it out to 20 yards (no change in the width); defenders do foul much less when they know they're in the box. Another easy change to implement might be moving players in the wall from 10 yards back to 12.

Obviously, there should be experiments with various combinations of these or other proposals in college or reserve games or even at the youth level before instituting them in the professional game.

In my view, any change has to consider the aesthetics of the game, not just the scoring. Changes should result in more teams playing like Arsenal, Barca, or Spurs, not more teams like Bolton.
5.15.2007 5:59pm
I agree with Triet that Sean M's objections are unconvincing. All other major US sports have more than one referee, and they all seem to do fine and do not really suffer from the problems Sean M identifies.
5.15.2007 6:38pm
It's too bad this debate isn't next week, after the FA Cup final. Considering how slack Chelsea have looked at the back with all the injuries, and how Manyoo basically relies on its seemingly unlimited ability to score goals, it could be a multigoal thriller. And then what of the not-enough-goals argument?
5.15.2007 8:29pm
Peter Young (mail):

Re proposals for changing the size of the goal and the penalty area, good luck at the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is composed of four members from FIFA and one each from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and which is quite conservative in addressing the Laws of the Game.

The nightmare of a great many fans and much of the media abroad is the prospect of U.S.A. backing proposals which would alter the very nature of the game, like these, and IFAB—pushed by FIFA bureaucrats more interested in wealth than the health of the game—succumbing to the promised lure of U.S.A. dollars pouring into football if only the Laws were changed.

The larger goals proposal is repeatedly cited abroad as an example of why U.S.A. influence on the game must be minimized at all costs. U.S.A. proposals for changing the game have become a bugaboo abroad. They are the source of much hostility to the U.S.A. in the footballing world.

I like goals. I also like sound defensive play, although I like goals more. But the reason I like goals so much is because goals are so difficult to score. The difficulty of scoring places a premium on creativite play, one of the game's most attractive features. That it also might increase diving and surreptitious fouling is an argument for stricter enforcement of the laws against diving and fouling and finding better ways to enforce those laws, not for changing the nature of the game.

Actually, I think larger goals wouldn't have much effect on the incidence of diving or fouling. An increase in the size of the penalty kick area might slightly reduce fouling in the portion of the pitch added to the penalty kick area, although it might also slightly increase diving in that same portion. But it's remarkable that when Professor Birdthistle asks for proposals to lessen the huge effect refereeing can have on match results, one response calls for a larger penalty kick area. Surely that would give the referee more opportunity to alter the course of the match.

It's much more realistic--in terms of what might be acceptable worldwide--to talk about better ways of enforcing the Laws of the Game against diving and fouling. Most of these would not require any changes in the Laws of the Game or, at most, minimal changes. Here I offer some very tentative thoughts. I do not know how they would work out in practice. Rigorous trials in one of the lower leagues would have to take place before any changes are adopted.

In the World Cup 1986 quarterfinal match which is the subject of the first video above, Argentina won, 2-1, on their way to victory in the final and England were eliminated. Although Argentina did have the advantage in play through much of the match, only goals count on the score sheet and thus it is fair to say Maradona's Hand of God goal was decisive in the match. This hand ball goal is the best argument for instant video replay examination and/or one or more extra officials stationed somewhere up in the stands with the power to consult with the referee.

The main objection to consulting either video replays or extra officials in the stands is, of course, the danger that it will turn football into a game of rapidly repeated stops and starts. Football's free-flowing nature is perhaps its most attractive quality; certainly it is an essential quality. So the question becomes which plays should be subject to re-examination by either of these methods.

The one thing I would not do is allow the teams, the coaches or their players the right to insist on re-examination of a play. That would lead to abuse and ruin the game. Only when the referee, an assistant referee or an extra official in the stands raises a question should re-examination be allowed. In other words, re-examination would discretionary with the officials.

When the referee already has stopped play, there is little reason to oppose examination of video replays provided it is done quickly because the free flow of the game is not disrupted. Thus when the referee has stopped play to award a goal, a penalty kick, a yellow or red card or even an ordinary free kick and one of the officials raises a question as to the propriety of the call, I would not oppose video replay examination if it could be done immediately. I have seen ice hockey games in which video replay examination took ages. That would not do in football. If re-examination cannot be done instantly, it should not be done at all.

Video tape re-examination would, as I have said, be discretionary with the officials. Thus, even if an official thinks an error might have been made in a call, he might waive a replay if he is not sure about the error or if he thinks the error will probably not be costly to one of the teams—as, for example, when an ordinary free kick is awarded against the attacking team in the other team's half. The stoppage in play before a free kick is taken is usually very brief, and so perhaps there should be no videotape examination available for ordinary free kicks, although many direct free kicks taken within, say, 35 yards of the goalkeeper do result in goals and thus do change the course of the match.

A more difficult question is raised where the referee allows play to continue—failing to award a goal, a penalty kick, a yellow or red card, an ordinary free kick—and yet one of the other officials believes a mistake has been made. I would oppose halting play to examine the videotape in these situations. If the tape could be consulted quickly while play continues, with a halt in play called if the conclusion is that the referee was mistaken, I might support that, at least in the case of a goal improperly disallowed, although I do not know what would happen if one of the teams scored another goal while the tape was under examination.

I would guess there are probably very few occasions in an average match when a referee's calls might profit from videotape examination. I suppose there is a danger that referees would begin to rely on videotape examination as a matter of course or at least overdo their resort to them.

The objection is often made that video technology should not be used because all football matches are played according to the same set of laws and not all levels of football can afford the equipment necessary for videotaping and instantaneous videotape replays. The answer is that not all levels of football can afford immaculately groomed pitches, either. The increased accuracy in calls resulting from videotape technology is certainly no more unacceptable than the increase in arbitrary bounces of the ball on an uneven pitch.

Controversial calls and noncalls should certainly be subject to post-match review with players either disciplined for offenses that went undetected during the match or having a red or yellow card withdrawn when discipline was unfairly or improperly levied during the match. Provided the sanctions are stiff enough, post-match review might well cut down fouls and unsportsmanlike play. And post-match review will reduce the number of unfair player suspensions for red cards or yellow card accumulations.

Electronic equipment will eventually be available, if it is not already, to determine reliably whether the ball completely crossed the goal line or whether a player is in an offside position. In the offside determination, however, human judgment as to whether the offside player is interfering with play will still be necessary. No electronic equipment can make that determination. Nor will it ever make the determination of whether a card is proper or whether a foul should be called.

Perhaps some consideration should be given to a fixed 25-yard offside line, which, if memory serves, the old North American Soccer League had for a few seasons. I believe an offside law is still needed to prevent attacking players lurking in front of the opposition's goal throughout the match. The fixed offside line would help open up the middle of the pitch since defenders no longer could advance safely as a unit into the opposition's half in reliance on an offside trap, and it would make offside calls considerably easier. This, of course, would require a change in the Laws of the Game.
5.15.2007 9:12pm
Mark Field (mail):

But it's remarkable that when Professor Birdthistle asks for proposals to lessen the huge effect refereeing can have on match results, one response calls for a larger penalty kick area. Surely that would give the referee more opportunity to alter the course of the match.

Agreed. I believe the additional proposals were based on aesthetic considerations, namely more scoring and/or more free-flowing play, rather than trying to reduce the impact of the referee. I generally agree with the rest of your post, but it's a shame the rest of the world has such an automatically negative reaction to US views.
5.16.2007 12:46am
Triet (www):
I also agree that increasing scoring would probably be most effective at decreasing the referee's impact (and questionable calls). Yes, changing the Laws of the Game isn't easy, but in this case it might be well warranted.

Before you do so, look into hockey. The NHL faced a similar --albeit not identical-- situation. In this case, the problem was scoring, and low scoring meant low viewers/ratings. Now that the NHL cut down on goalie pads and changed the lines, scoring is up. It would be interesting to see some comparisons before and after. Has viewership increased? Have penalties decreased? Have penalties that directly influenced the outcome of a game (i.e. in the last minute of the 3rd period, or leading to the final goal scored, etc.) decreased? This info would help people predict what an increased goal size would do to soccer.

Also, although I agree with increasing the penalty box size (as a player, I always thought it was too small...but then I was a striker), another route to look at is the "goalie pads." Perhaps forbid goalies from wearing gloves? That might make it harder for them to hold onto the ball and create more goals and second chance opportunities. It also might be less objectionable to purists than changing goal sizes since it deals with clothing.
5.16.2007 1:58am
Peter Young (mail):
it's a shame the rest of the world has such an automatically negative reaction to US views.

It may be a shame since some proposals coming from the U.S.A. might have merit or at least be worthy enough to warrant consideration rather than curt dismissal. But it's also largely the U.S.A.'s fault.

Proposals for huge changes have come from people who make few bows to protocol and diplomacy. These people are viewed as Johnny Newcomers barging in and trying to remake the game to suit their own purposes. There's already enough hostility abroad to what is viewed as U.S.A. arrogance in other areas--military, political, economic--and this kind of behavior in the football world only reinforces that perception and the consequent hostility.

The U.S.A. has become a whipping boy of sorts among fans abroad. To cite one example, although the English invented the term "soccer" (a contraction of the formal name of the game, Association Football), and although the English themselves commonly referred to the sport as "soccer" as late as the Fifties and Sixties (the 1963 Football Association book commemorating the centennial of its founding was entitled "A Century of Soccer: A Centenary Publication of The Football Association"), the vast majority of English fans seem to blame the U.S.A. for trying to change the name of the game to soccer.
5.16.2007 9:23am
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
Here's an idea, why don't we leave the rules alone and use better, fitter refs. The biggest problem with the single ref is that they are often out of position because they are out of shape. In the Hand of God goal the ref was 15 meters outside the box and screened from the play by 7 or 8 players.

Ref's at every level also allow themselves to be bullied by the players. Most games you will see a confrontation between a player and a ref that includes the ref getting manhandled. Have you ever seen that in American Football or Basketball? Major league baseball has a clear rule that you touch an umpire and you are gone. That would be a rule that I could support. Another would be- you take a dive and recieve a yellow card, second instance red card. These are already within the Ref's discretion so we don't need rule changes, we need the ref's to do their job.
5.16.2007 1:01pm
Hey (mail):
Any discussion of soccer is irrelevant. As the English say, it is a sport for gentlemen played (and watched) by thugs. Thus it should be ignored as the fascination of a bunch of yobs, chavs, and shiftless foreigners.

Cricket, rugby (union), (real) football, and hockey are better sports both in terms of the quality of people who play and watch as well as the intrinsic quality of the game. Let the rabble do what they want on the field and in the stands - the riots and murders are Darwin at work.
5.17.2007 1:22am
Peter Young (mail):
Any discussion of soccer is irrelevant

Then why are you discussing it, bozo?
5.18.2007 8:34pm