One of the stranger things about soccer is that it is rarely, if ever, considered as a whole. There are, of course, endless discussions of its myriad details, from tactics to head dress, from simulation to offside calls ... but when was the last time you heard of a serious seminar on The State of the Game? The whole game, that is, all of it.
In medical terms, soccer never receives holistic treatment. If things go wrong with it -- and they do, we know that -- they are patched up with a little local treatment, frequently no better than the much derided band-aids, a slight tweaking of the rules here, a memorandum to referees there, or -- these days -- simply a shallow public relations statement pointing out that soccer is now a global industry making tons of money, so it is obviously in good shape.
I am referring now to the pro level, the cutting edge of the sport, which controls, or at least influences, all the other levels. The major American sports, I think, handle matters well. Football, baseball and basketball all pay attention to the balance in their games. They know the importance of maintaining a balance between offense and defense. Too much offense cheapens the sport with easy scoring, while too much defense turns the sport into a bore.
I would be delighted to report that this is an attitude with nothing but the "good of the game" in mind. That is not the case. Behind the attitude are the demands of the market place: to maintain the product's popularity. Keep the fans coming, keep the television companies interested, or the money will run out.
To many, that is still unforgivably sordid, applying the profit motive to sports, but that is obviously the reality at the pro level. That has to be accepted -- and it is not necessarily a bad thing, just as long as it has the desired effect of allowing the sport to flourish in its purest, most exciting shape.
Bluntly, so long as the sport does not allow monetary interests -- meaning, mostly, TV -- to distort the game. For soccer, the worst-case scenario is to imagine the sport morphed into a mixture of roller-ball and kick-boxing, because a survey of TV viewers has established that is "what the fans want."
While pro sports should be ever alert for signs of undue TV influence, we are not at, nor any where near, that stage. As far as soccer is concerned, things are almost the other way round. It is TV that brings fresh, updated ideas to the sport, while the game's authorities -- in particular FIFA -- resist change.
I'm not at all sure that anyone at the top level has ever thought this through, but the accepted wisdom seems to be that the sport will take care of itself, that it will automatically adjust to any adverse influences, that it has a built-in ability to resist distortion.
I like that. It is an admirable theory. But is it true? I don't think so. The test case here is balance. Is soccer a sport that has got its offense/defense balance right? A question that implies a more important one: The soccer we see today -- is this the sport at or near its best?
From where I'm sitting, the answer to both those questions is an unhesitating No. Based on one simple fact -- that goalscoring has been in decline for decades. The World Cup stats make this clear. In 1954, the average number of goals per game was 5.38. Something of an exaggeration for sure. So let's start with 1970, when the average had already sunk to 2.97 -- and it's been pretty much downhill since then. The all-time low came in Italy in 1990, with 2.21, but 2010 was not much better with 2.27.
Much excitement was generated in Brazil this year because the average actually went up, to 2.67. Whether that represents the beginning of an upward trend, I doubt. We have been here before -- the average was also 2.67 in 1998, after which it went down for the three subsequent tournaments.
The overall average for the past five World Cups (those featuring 32 teams) is 2.47. One goal every 36 minutes. Is there a top level sport that has less scoring than that? I do not see why that figure is acceptable.
But the soccer authorities -- even though they crow because of the rise in scoring (you can read the FIFA Technical Report on the 2014 World Cup to establish that) -- do very little to alter the balance, to tilt the game away from the ongoing defensive dominance.
More frustrating is the attitude of those who refuse to acknowledge that defensive play has a grip on the game. The English soccer columnist Patrick Collins, writing in the Mail On Sunday laments the shortage of good defenders. He has a point. Because defensive soccer these days is not about skillful tackling and clever interceptions so much as packed defenses plus the sport's acceptance of inexpert tackling. I will not say "referees' acceptance" because I believe the attitude of the referees to be a mirror of what the sport -- meaning, largely, FIFA and the coaches -- find to their liking.
There is a feeling in England that, this season, three of the top teams have, defensively, gone soft. Liverpool and Arsenal are guilty of having "a soft center", while a heading in The Times chastised ManU for lacking "men of steel." There is plenty of evidence to support the charges. But where these critics get it wrong is in suggesting that the "soft" clubs, and soccer in general, need to give more importance to the defensive side of the game.
That attitude will not produce better defenders. It will only result in teams becoming more defense-minded --- i.e. they will add more defenders, and not noticeably good ones, to their lineup, and they will adopt ever-more defensive tactics.
But both The Mail On Sunday and The Times see defensive play -- and they clearly mean better defense -- as a necessity for the game. The Mail warns that good defenders are now hard to find. Again, true enough. But why should a player go to the trouble of learning how to tackle properly if he knows that lenient refereeing will allow slapdash tackling to be just as effective?
This is pretty much where we are now, and it is why The Mail's ominous talk of "a furious flood of cheap goals" is so much hogwash. Last Saturday, I was keeping track of five EPL games with a simultaneous kickoff time. After 18 minutes (i.e. 90 minutes of soccer) only three goals had been scored. Lousy defending was doing OK.
I have no argument against the call for better defending. But it must be considered within the framework of the offense/defense balance. Better defenders will be needed if the bad defenders are consistently penalized for their poor play and their rough-house tackling. When that happens, maybe there will be cheap goals to be had. And the hope would then be that the quality of defending would improve, and a new balance established -- one that allows us more than that starvation ration of fewer than three goals per game.
If that improved balance does not arrive naturally -- and given the way that crude defending has been allowed to hijack the game over the past four decades, I am not hopeful -- then the sport's bosses should do what they have never before done: Take a holistic view of the sport and work out what measures are necessary to give us a version of soccer in which it is the positive quality of goalscoring that rules, not the negativity of defensive play.