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[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 17, 2007 at 12:10pm] Trackbacks
Football Federalism:

If we believe that soccer could stand some improvement with a few changes here and there to the laws of the game, how would we go about testing new proposals? The ingenious system of federalism in the United States allows us, within certain limits, to wander into any willing laboratory to experiment with new regulations without heaving the whole system into chaos. The big challenge with sports, of course, is that unlike, say, parking meter policy, the playing and viewing public has a greater desire for uniformity. If we are to have a grand finale to determine the world champion at anything, presumably the world needs to play by the same rules.

On the other hand, different systems of baseball in the National and American Leagues haven't ruled out the World Series. Basketball and hockey also live with different sets of rules for international play and the North American leagues. So, it seems, a certain degree of variation in the rules can be tolerated.

Would it be a good idea to encourage various leagues to test-drive new rules and, if so, could we do it? FIFA comprises several regional football federations (UEFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, &c.), which in turn comprise all the national football associations, so we certainly have plenty of potential laboratories. But would it be a good idea?

Professor Michael Madison of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law points out that heterogeneity has its costs, citing the old North American Soccer League (1968-1984), which experimented unsuccessfully with several ways of increasing the number of goals in the game. Evidently, the American players brought up in such a system suffered at the international level for their lack of experience with the "real" rules. I agree that a country like America, which did not have a sterling football pedigree at the time, might not be the best place to create a soccer secessionist movement.

But perhaps Professor Madison's example suggests that footballing federalism should move down a level, to the lower leagues within countries. If a nation as a whole does not want to be handicapped in international competition, perhaps the experimentation should occur in places like England's League One and Two (which were the Third and Fourth Divisions before the authorities began subscribing to the accreditation inflation that afflicts resumes everywhere and the cup sizes at Starbucks). Or perhaps certain secondary tournaments (Olympics, Under-21 World Cup, &c.) could experiment with the new rules, which would subject each competing nation to the same level of inexperience and confine the scope of the experiment.

So if we have the desire and locales, could we do it? One additional limitation that soccer faces more than the North American sports is its comparative lack of statistics. Free-flowing games are inherently more difficult to measure and quantify. The joy, such as it is, of baseball, football, and (increasingly) basketball games being divided into individual plays of just a few seconds in length is that statisticians and advertisers can deploy their full talents. Soccer simply doesn't lend itself to the kind of dissection that would allow observers to measure the full effects of any experiment with the rules. Perhaps with the technological increases that some teams are beginning to use to track the specific movements of the ball and their players, the sport will develop a large statistical library in the future.

Comparisons between sports and other subjects can go only so far, of course, but it is interesting to consider how creeping centralization (antifederalism?) in corporate law is viewed in many quarters as an impoverishing, not an improving, development. With each passing corporate infelicity (Enron, et al., mutual funds, option backdating, &c.), new laws and rules regularly come down from our federal legislators and regulators. And one effect -- at least with respect to mutual funds -- is that the players (mutual fund advisers) appear to be playing more and more to the referee (the SEC) than to the audience (retail investors) by churning out ever more complex and lengthy prospectuses that no individual investor could reasonably read and comprehend.

Now, to conclude with today's visual entertainment, I include below a friendly rebuttal to Professor Madison on the quality of the NASL via one of the best goals scored anywhere (and I'm not just saying that because George Best is an Irishman):

baclaw (mail):
One word about that George Best goal -- Wow!
5.17.2007 1:26pm
Larry Dougherty (mail) (www):
Don't forget about Gazza in Euro 96

tp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3LB2b4Z83A
5.17.2007 1:44pm
dearieme:
Your federalism has been tried. I'm pretty sure that the Channel Islands tried out a proposed new rule recently - perhaps one of the imports from rugby.
5.17.2007 2:18pm
Peter Young (mail):
I'll comment later on the thrust of your latest post, Professor Birdthistle, but your boost for Best creates an opening for me to mention something else.

One of the drawbacks of international footbll organized on national team lines is that sometimes the greatest of stars never get a single match on the big stage--in the World Cup finals.

George Best was one; he played for Northern Ireland at a time when it did not qualify for the finals of the major competitions. He had to satisfy himself with making a monkey of Gordon Banks of England (cheekily stripping him of the ball, although the ensuing goal was disallowed, improperly I think), and playing for Manchester United in the European Cup final of 1968 at Wembley. In those days when the American media rarely covered soccer, I remember rushing to the Harvard Square newsstand to get the next morning's New York Times, which I hoped would at least carry the result of that final. It did; just the bare details: Manchester United 4 Benfica (and Eusebio) 1, but only after extra-time. If any player ever symbolized an age, it was Georgie Best in the Sixties. You can see a lot of his brilliance, including the Banks trick and his European Cup final appearance (wearing the unfamiliar blue strip), on this video tribute.

Alfredo di Stefano, in my book neck and neck with Pele as the greatest player I ever saw, is another who never got an appearance at the World Cup final tournament. He played for Argentina, when it refused to enter some World Cups, Colombia, when it had a renegade league and thus was not recognized by FIFA, and Spain in the late 1950s and early 1960s (before the single country rule came into effect). Spain did not qualify for the World Cup 1958 finals. In 1962, di Stefano was injured when Spain went to the World Cup finals in Chile. And so he had to be satisfied with Real Madrid's five straight European Cup victories between 1956 and 1960, the last of which, the 7-3 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in Glasgow, is widely regarded as the finest match ever played. Here he is scoring one of his three goals in that match.
5.17.2007 2:40pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
If the "laboratories of democracy" theory actually worked, then gambling and prostitution would be legalized everywhere, based on the Las Vegas lab's success. I wish a locality could legalize heroin to see what would happen, but no matter the success of the result, the rest of the country simply won't follow its lead. Greed, power, and religion always overcome experimentation in liberties. There are no laboratories of democracy in America, nor will there ever be. Can anyone give me ONE example of a unique law which was passed at the local/state level, proved to be a success, and based on that success was adopted at large?
5.17.2007 2:46pm
Peter Young (mail):
Your federalism has been tried.

Yes, IFAB and FIFA have sponsored lots of trials for changes at various youth competitions and in various minor leagues. As I recall, at one competition they tried out using kick-ins instead of throw-ins. The Football Association in England has sponsored trials of certain changes in the lower leagues. I remember reading about them, but can't remember what they were.

I believe you have to get IFAB/FIFA approval before experimenting with such changes. But I think IFAB/FIFA have been fairly open to looking at changes which speed up the game and make it more free-flowing, although remaining fairly conservative when it comes to huge changes which might alter the nature of the game. That IFAB/FIFA approval is required is a good thing, in my book, because otherwise we already would have had larger goals in U.S.A. domestic football.

The NASL ran into trouble with FIFA over its unilateral adoption of the fixed offside line and, if memory serves, eventually gave in. There may have been talk that the reason the NASL gave in was U.S.A. players having trouble adapting to a different offside law at the international level, but that, I suspect, was just for purposes of saving face.

The NASL adventure really was a comedy of errors. I remember the very first time ABC televis4ed one of its matches. There was poor Jim McKay of Wide World of Sports fame having to cope with a network, ABC, that insisted on airing commercials during play. One goal after another--nearly all of them--went in during commercial breaks and there was no instant replay. So we missed the goals entirely, all but one of four or five, I think. McKay couldn't believe his rotten luck; the expression on his face said it all. So much for the attempt to sell NASL soccer to the U.S.A. public.

Even so, I loved the NASL. It gave me a chance to see many stars playing live that I never would have otherwise, even if they usually were slightly past their bast. Some, of course, were considerably past their best. But enough weren't to make it thoroughly enjoyable.
5.17.2007 3:05pm
David Drake (mail):
I'd vote to try each proposed rule in a small number of international friendlies. Trying a rule change in a limited number of matches involving sides from various parts of the world would permit the players, referees, etc to see the rules in play but without becoming so accustomed to them as to affect everyday style of play nor in a situation where the results mattered. They could also comment on how the new rule worked or didn't work without being influenced by whether or not it helped their side.

And, of course, if publicized far enough in advance, it would give people some reason to watch international friendlies.
5.17.2007 3:07pm
Peter Young (mail):
I've read Professor Michael Madison's piece, and I fail to see how any of the changes to the game in the NASL--the fixed offside line, the shootout at the end of drawn games, the standings factoring in goals--would have noticeably hurt U.S.A. players at international level.

The offside law change is probably the one that they had the most difficulty coping with. But the fact is that the U.S.A. team of the NASL era--which I saw play many times--was simply terrible in terms of the prevailing international standards. It had a few half-decent professional players--Ricky Davis was one--but the rest were an assortment of college players and amateurs and, eventually when the NASL folded, indoor soccer players. The reason they had trouble adjusting to the international game was that they weren't very good.

In fact, when the U.S.A. hosted Brazil, Italy and England at the Bicentennial Tournament in 1976, it was decided that any team that the U.S.A. could put together would be so weak that it would be an embarrassment. Instead, a Team America, composed of NASL stars of many nationalities (Pele was one of them), was cobbled together and its matches in the tournament were generally (although not uniformly) regarded as unofficial.
5.17.2007 3:29pm
Mike Madison (mail) (www):
Thanks for the link. Even so far past his prime, George Best was a spectacular player on a miserable Earthquakes team. I was actually in the stands at Spartan Stadium that evening (July 1981, Quakes v. Strikers).
5.17.2007 3:40pm
Justin (mail):
The problem with that goal was that if Best tried that today in a real league, or even in MLS, he'd just have lost both legs and the ball. At most, a foul 30 yards from the box, if not a whistleless turnover.

Entertaining, but poor defense and a theory of soccer that has long since passed.
5.17.2007 4:53pm
Peter Young (mail):
The problem with that goal was that if Best tried that today in a real league, or even in MLS, he'd just have lost both legs and the ball. At most, a foul 30 yards from the box, if not a whistleless turnover.

Entertaining, but poor defense and a theory of soccer that has long since passed.


You could say, with the same accuracy, precisely the same thing about Maradona's brilliant goal against England at World Cup 1986 at the Azteca Stadium. You could say any one of a number of English defenders could have taken him down. But they didn't even try, either because England's national team at that time did not resort to professional fouls or because the English were still in shock from the Hand of God goal scored just a few minutes earlier.

But one of the beauties of both Maradona and Best was that they could consistently lure defenders into the delusion they could stop them without fouling. They did it over and over again with the same defenders. And even with fouling it was difficult to stop either one; they weren't where the defender thought they would be when the defender eventually made contact, and even if they were caught, they both had tremdendous balance and an uncanny elusiveness. They both had fantastic acceleration and an almost unbelievable body swerve and feinting abilities. Even if today's players might stop them more, it would be at a considerable cost in yellow and red cards. Either one would be the brightest of stars today.
5.17.2007 5:51pm
Peter Young (mail):
I've taken another look at Best's San Jose goal. There was only one opportunity to take him down outside the penalty area; the defender tried and failed; Best eluded him. The rest of the opportunities to take him down all came in the penalty area, where, of course, taking him down would have resulted in a penalty kick. So, Justin, I think you're stretching things in your effort to denigrate the quality of the goal.
5.17.2007 6:06pm
Peter Young (mail):
Sorry to dominate things here, but I cannot resist one more comment in defense of Best. He played when hard men were hard men. In England at the time, the most physically brutal tackling was allowed, studs-up, two-footed, from behind, whatever. Virtually nothing was whistled if there was the slightest possibility it could be imagined the defender was trying to get the ball. Best survived all this; the most brutal defenders in the world--and at that time English defenders were also regarded as the best in the world--could not stop him.

What makes you think, Justin, that today's defenders, with their relatively namby=pamby tackles, could not only stop him but have both his legs and the ball. You haven't the slightest idea of what the game was like when Best played. I bet you're under 30.
5.17.2007 6:35pm
Mark Field (mail):
There are plenty of recent goals which provide evidence against Justin's argument: Messi's goal which duplicated Maradona's is a classic; Michael Owen in the World Cup; Giggs against Arsenal. I'm sure there are more.
5.17.2007 8:24pm
Peter Young (mail):
There are plenty of recent goals which provide evidence against Justin's argument: Messi's goal which duplicated Maradona's is a classic; Michael Owen in the World Cup; Giggs against Arsenal. I'm sure there are more.

Yes, and if Justin's point is that Best did this against poor NASL defending, let him look at the video I linked to in my first post above, which shows Best doing the same thing over and over again against top English and Continental European competition, including several brilliant displays for Northern Ireland against England,which was then assuredly at the top of its game.

I think the overall level of football has improved dramatically since the 1960s, but I'm far from convinced it has improved very much at the very highest level among the very best teams, and I'm positive the stars of the 1960s would be stars had they played today.
5.17.2007 9:08pm
Mark Field (mail):

I think the overall level of football has improved dramatically since the 1960s, but I'm far from convinced it has improved very much at the very highest level among the very best teams, and I'm positive the stars of the 1960s would be stars had they played today.


I'm less sure about your suggested lack of improvement at the highest levels. I'd note two related developments. One is the mixing of various national styles in the more important European leagues. That has forced a development in style and spurred greater competition at the top. The other is integration. There were few black players even in the 70s. Today the teams are pretty fully integrated.
5.17.2007 10:09pm
Peter Young (mail):
I'm less sure about your suggested lack of improvement at the highest levels.

Not quite what I said; in fact not at all what I said, and therefore I don't think we necessarily disagree. What I did say was "I'm far from convinced it has improved very much at the very highest level among the very best teams." (Emphasis supplied.)

Racial integration and importation of foreigners as well as, for example, better tactics, better coaching, better training, better conditioning, better medical care, better shoes and balls, better pitches and better diet have indeed improved the overall quality of play at the highest level. That, by the way, is what I meant when I said "I think the overall level of football has improved dramatically since the 1960s." (I don't follow football below the highest level so I can't speak about the lower levels, although I suspect the same is true there.)

But--and this is what I said--the very best teams at the highest level are not very much better than they were in the Sixties. And I'd add to that the Fifties, Seventies and Eighties and maybe even the Nineties. Among club sides, I'd compare Honved and Real Madrid of the Fifties, Benfica of the early Sixties, Manchester United of the mid to late Sixties, Ajax and Bayern Munich of the early and mid Seventies, Juventus of the Eighties, AC Milan of the late Eighties and early Nineties with any of the best club sides of today. (That's not meant as an exhaustive listing.) And I'd match the very best national sides of the Fifties through the Nineties with any from today. Indeed, I'd say some of those old club sides and national teams were better than the best of today.

What I was really defending was the proposition that the very best players of those days would still be among the very best were they to play today. But I would also say there were players performing at the highest level in the old days (albeit not with the very best teams) who would not get a look-see today.
5.18.2007 5:52am
itshissong:
The problem with that goal was that if Best tried that today in a real league, or even in MLS, he'd just have lost both legs and the ball. At most, a foul 30 yards from the box, if not a whistleless turnover.

Entertaining, but poor defense and a theory of soccer that has long since passed.


As someone pointed out, this goal that I linked to in the last soccer thread disproves your point. This is Messi scoring versus Getafe in a Copa Del Rey match. Unbelievable.
5.18.2007 9:45am
Mark Field (mail):

But--and this is what I said--the very best teams at the highest level are not very much better than they were in the Sixties.


I'm not sure I'd agree even with this. I think the best teams today are superior top to bottom. (I'm a confirmed modernist when it comes to all sports.) I do, however, agree that "the very best players of those days would still be among the very best were they to play today."
5.18.2007 12:23pm
Peter Young (mail):
I'm not sure I'd agree even with this.

You once called my efforts heroic (when I was writing under a pseydonym against requiring voter identification cards). Now you know what you meant was stubborn.
5.18.2007 3:46pm
Mark Field (mail):

You once called my efforts heroic (when I was writing under a pseydonym against requiring voter identification cards). Now you know what you meant was stubborn.


I take it you were a defender, then? :)
5.18.2007 4:19pm