Soccer: A sport handicapped by its own lack of vision

UEFA has ditched the away-goals rule. Good news or bad news? Neither, really. Simply a matter of facing up to the facts. Not for the first time in this handicapped sport, what looked like a good idea has not worked out.

The good idea was always, at least partially, misrepresented. In the home-and-away games, the away team was now being encouraged to score goals.

A positive message that masked a more negative aim: simply to stop the away teams from playing a heavily defensive game, determined not to concede any goals. A 0-0 tie might bore everyone to sleep, but it was still a good result for the away team.

The stats -- at least the ones that I’ve read about -- make it clear that the away-goals rule did not bring about a glut of away goals. If anything, away-goals seem to have slightly diminished. That might well have been because the home teams played more defensively to prevent away goals -- is there any deluded soul left anywhere who fails to grasp that the sport actually favors and rewards negative soccer. Or it might have been because goalscoring in soccer has anyway been on a downward curve for decades now.

In the first paragraph of this column I used the phrase “this handicapped sport.” I do consider soccer to be handicapped, a sport held back, and therefore a sport unable to deliver its full promise.

Sad enough, but doubly, and triply sad when the truth dawns: this crippling handicap is self-administered. It comes from within the sport itself, from the very top levels. From FIFA, ultimately responsible for every aspect of the sport, but more specifically from IFAB -- the International Football Association Board, whose vital job is to ensure both the integrity and the relevance of the game’s rules.

I have heaped plenty of criticism on IFAB over the years. Suffice to say that IFAB was created over 100 years ago, in the 19th century, and has had great difficulty lumbering into the 20th. Forget about the 21st.

For most of its regrettable existence it has considered itself the “guardian” of the rules. Not a bad role, that, but IFAB turned it into a disaster for the sport by giving it the narrowest possible interpretation. IFAB adopted the miserly view that its job was to preserve the rules, to resist change. Thus the rules became increasingly divorced from the reality of a changing game.

Oh yes, changes were made, but they were invariably minor, and often a decade or so later than they should have been made. The impression given was that IFAB was very much asleep at the wheel.

My specific gripe in this column is that IFAB -- by inaction -- has allowed the sport to drift into a low-scoring game dominated by defensive tactics. A game in which the increasingly frequent 0-0 tie can be hailed as “fascinating” or “intriguing” because of its tactical complexities.

When the glaring truth is that a 0-0 tie is usually a colossal bore.

Did IFAB even notice that goals -- the very lifeblood, the red corpuscles, of the game -- were disappearing? I’m not sure that it did. I don’t think that IFAB ever considered that it should take notice, or that it had a vital role to play -- with intelligent alterations to the rules -- to make sure that soccer did not allow the defensive side of the game to dominate the attacking side.

U.S. sports do much better, knowing when to rein in either pitchers or hitters when they become too dominant, or to beef up protection for quarterbacks -- in the name of maintaining a lively, entertaining and balanced sport.

IFAB has never bothered about such matters, so soccer has become the game recently on display in the Olympic games. Where both men’s semifinals went to overtime, giving us four hours of supposedly top level soccer ... and just one goal.

Since then, I’ve watched Spurs and Manchester City, two of the Premier League’s top teams, both struggle to score -- another far-from-riveting 1-0 game.

If the news hasn’t reached IFAB by now, then it never will. The sport is dangerously unbalanced -- to the point where there are not enough goals scored to decide games. So comes the ultimate indignity, the introduction of the tawdry, cheap gimmick known as the shootout. In which fake goals are scored to decide real games -- even the World Cup final itself.

Throughout this whole melancholy slide into scoring sterility, IFAB has sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs as creeping boredom overtook the sport.

A few slight amendments have been made to encourage scoring. The away-goal rule was one such experiment. As usual, too late. By then the sport itself was virtually immune to such feeble ventures. The game was firmly in the grip of those who believed in defensive attitudes, defensive play, and, of course, defensive tactics. Swept up in this tide of pro-defensive thinking were the referees, who adapted by showing leniency towards defensive play and players. More than one referee has told me “When there’s any doubt over a call, you give the benefit of that doubt to the defender.”

But no referee has ever been able to tell me where that rule-of-thumb came from. It’s certainly never been in the rulebook. Though I suspect it has featured at referee instruction courses.

It is with the reversal of such pernicious attitudes that the real struggle to bring back goals to soccer must begin.

These old attitudes are still to be seen. In the 36th minute of the Olympic final between Spain and Brazil, Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon came racing forward and leapt into a crowd of players to punch the ball away. He did not get to the ball, but he did smash Brazilian forward Cunha to the ground.

The game paused while Cunha was treated, then Australian referee Chris Beath restarted with a free kick to Spain -- having adjudged that Cunha had somehow fouled Simon. A blatantly ridiculous call, but one that we’re accustomed to seeing.

But Beath was soon looking at the field-side monitor. He ran back on to the field, signaling a penalty kick to Brazil. VAR to the rescue! The correct -- and obviously correct -- call was made. Richarlison then rather spoiled the episode by belting his penalty kick way over the bar.

Referee Beath came up with another shockingly bad decision in the second half. A Brazilian pass came into the Spanish area at about thigh-height. Cunha saw a chance for a shot on goal and shaped to make his kick. At the same time, Spanish defender Pau Torres, attempted to clear the ball -- not by kicking it, but by diving forward and low to head it.

That’s when Beath should have whistled, calling Pau for playing “in a dangerous manner.” Beath delayed his whistle a few seconds, until Cunha’s foot had made glancing contact with Pau’s head. He then penalized Cunha. My impression was that Cunha tried to pull out of making his kick, but was only partially successful.

Beath’s call was quite wrong. The danger in this situation came from Pau, from his decision to stoop low (to an area that belongs to the feet) to head a ball. Brazil should have been given an indirect free kick. Far from it. Cunha got a yellow card.

This is particularly brainless bias, because the rule to punish dangerous play is already there. Evidently, it needs to be ruthlessly enforced. Until it is, mild maneuvers to boost goalscoring -- like the away-goals rule -- will continue to fall upon stony ground.

In the modern game -- the game that IFAB has allowed to develop -- it’s simply too easy to suffocate scoring.

18 comments about "Soccer: A sport handicapped by its own lack of vision".
  1. Tim Schum, August 18, 2021 at 8:01 p.m.

    Paul: Good topic. I have been writing the NYT columnist for the last few months re the offside(s) rule. The rule, especially when one is trying to explain it to a soccer neophyte, makes no sense in terms of its execution. For, as you indicate, when it was changed years back(even is onsides), the linespersons always ruled in favor of the defenders. So, the intent of the change (more offense) was negated by the referees.

    Some years ago the NESCAC (sp) group experiented for a season with larger goals. If it had resulted in more goals it would have never seen the light of day as FIFA would have dismissed it simply too expensive as every set of goals throughout the world would have had to be replaced.

    Meanwhile how do some games have VAR available to rule on offsides and the great majority are left to the whims of linespersons? Instead of ruling offsides by fingernails or toes why not simply rule that if a unless a player's full body is in an offsides position that individual is onsides? Simple rule change. Saves on the entire VAR issue and offsides call would be far simpler. Meantime, defensive tactics would change in that teams would have to defend more space behind them meaning less compacted space for play by the attacking team.

    As you indicate other sports are always evaluating their games in tersm of the balance between offense and defense. In soccer that balance is way out of whack and those in charge need to readjust matters. I say start with changing the offsides rule. 

  2. beautiful game replied, August 18, 2021 at 11:23 p.m.

    T.S. makes more sense with the off-side rule that has always favored the defense. Hockey made a big adjustment to its off-side rule, and it provided more offense to the game. Bottom line is that soccer  referees get their marching orders from the chain of command. Speeding up the game mandate for example gives the advantage to the defense with a likelyhood that about every tactical foul will go unpunished.

  3. Mike Lynch replied, August 20, 2021 at 9:22 p.m.

    I agree on Tim's recommended offsides rule change to favor the attacking player ... the entire body must be offside (ie, light can be easily seen between the two bodies) at the moment the ball is passed. 

  4. R2 Dad, August 18, 2021 at 9:11 p.m.

      Yes, it’s always those Dick Dastardly referees ruining the game, right guys? With all their bad calls, bad eyesight and just all round badness! Bad bad bad!

       Before you work the football literati into a lather, know that these days there are few people refereeing that don’t deserve their station. The refereeing universe is populated by diligent, young, hardworking and fair-minded amateurs and professionals trying to make the game safe, fair and fun for everyone. We are human, and make mistakes. But 98 of 100 referees do good work, are honest and fair, and just want a fair match and at the end of 90 minutes to escape with their reputation intact.

      Furthermore, referees are NOT taught that the defense/defending is given precedence over attackers—that is just not true. We are taught 50/50 offside calls go to the attacker. No, it’s not stipulated in the LOTG that way, but from the age of 12 this is what referees are taught and I’ve never heard an adult opine otherwise.

       If you run into a bad egg—and they are out there—that referee has already been flagged as suspect and all of us officials are hoping you will report your observations. Assignors talk to each other and they know who is suspect and why. Referees with biases, without fairness in mind, without a professional approach, do not last long in any one place. If your referee claims to be experienced but is moving around from league to league and region to region, you might ask yourself why that might be.

  5. Brian Yaney replied, August 19, 2021 at 8:46 a.m.

    Don't be so sensitive. Gardner isn't criticizing individual referees. He is criticizing the ways the game has evolved (via IFAB) to universally influence the way referees make their calls and handicap the sport. Why are defenders so often allowed to virtually tackle attackers during corner kicks and other crossed balls and why are goalies almost always given the benefit of the doubt when they are involved in violent collisions? Because refs are terrified to award PKs for fear of exerting undue influence on the outcome of the game. Even is on? What a joke. With or without VAR, if an attacker's fingernail seems like it might be off, that attack gets crushed either by flag or camera.

    Big but thoughtful changes are obviously needed. Like Paul said, the rule should be changed so that offsides would only be called when every atom of the attacker's body and uniform is beyond that last defender. Then do better: Restrict goalkeepers' use of hands to the 6-yard box rather than the penalty area. And for Heaven's sake award fouls against defenders in their own penalty area the same way you would call them against any player anywhere else on the field.

  6. R2 Dad replied, August 19, 2021 at 11:51 a.m.

    PG: More than one referee has told me “When there’s any doubt over a call, you give the benefit of that doubt to the defender.”
    Brian: Because refs are terrified to award PKs for fear of exerting undue influence on the outcome of the game.
    This is a web site primariliy for the benefit of coaches, so I expect a little coaching bias. I'm not OK, however, reading referees getting steamrolled because one coach heard a thing or saw this one case. is there a timestamp on these occurances? Did they all happen in the 80's and 90's? 2000-2015 was a placid time in the LOTG when there weren't many changes and implementation became easier to manage. Since then it's much more diffficult as the LOTG is geared towards the professional game leaving the amateur side out of sorts trying to apply this to the game of U12s.
    I do not disagree with your dissatisfaction with officiating on corner scrums, keeper infallability, etc. Perhaps if we had VAR we could get more calls correct. But we don't, and can't. I'm willing to live with the variablity of coaches and coaching. I'd suggest coaches make peace with human fallability, while still reporting offical behavior that exceeds/doesn't measure up to the norms of the game. 

  7. frank schoon, August 19, 2021 at 9:14 a.m.

    I've been a big fan of PG and still am, but I don't know about you guys, I find that in the last 2years his columns basically focused more about referee 'Booboos' and other things that are wrong or dangerous about the game.

    The VAR has come about supposedly to solve the 'Booboos' and all of sudden new ones have sprung up. For example look at what has happened to the off-side rule and  the complications resulting that , forcing referees to virtually carry a magnify glass to see if someone was offside. From this ,we forced now to go into new territory to judge the off-side rule...... And furthermore there are mistakes made that the VAR is criticized for not covering, leading many in Europe to suggest to get back to the basics and just allow human faults and otherwise which have been with this game for the century to be....

    It's becoming a downer to read PG's columns which I used to look for but now I first watch to see if his 'bitch' of the week column is worth spending time on.....

    I wish he would criticize and bitch if needed on things like player development, college soccer, MLS, or whatever ,instead of focusing constantly on the referee aspect, look at situations in games that possible could be dangerous which not too often....

  8. Wayne Norris, August 20, 2021 at 12:51 p.m.

    I am not really sure of point of article other than an uncontrollable rant on soccer sucks these days??

    What is topic?

    Low scoring sucks?
    rules suck?
    refs suck?

    Also, I was waiting for a suggested solution to low scorning but instead of that he went after the refs.

    Very disjointed article....

  9. Santiago 1314 replied, September 1, 2021 at 11:33 p.m.

    Did Biden Write this.???

  10. Eddie Rockwell, August 20, 2021 at 2:28 p.m.

    Be fun to experiment with a rule such as basketball has with backcourt.  Once you pass into the opponents half, you can't pass back into your own.  By the very nature, there would be a lot less negative play (or what the coaches call "recycling")...

  11. Dave Wasser replied, August 20, 2021 at 4:43 p.m.

    Eddie, that's a good idea. I would love to see that experiment. Unfortunately, I think most people would say that it is too radical a change to the game.

  12. Charles Davenport replied, August 20, 2021 at 6:35 p.m.

    That is a good idea, Eddie!

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, August 21, 2021 at 10:41 a.m.

    Talk about a rule change that greatly favors the defense. Wow. Was that your intention? Turning the half line into essentially another out of touch line would allow teams to bunker and press at the same time.

    No thank you.

  14. Dave Wasser, August 20, 2021 at 4:48 p.m.

    I don't think it is fair to blame IFAB. Over the years there have been tons of proposals to change the rules of the game to increase scoring. The one thing that all those proposals have in common is that most soccer fans don't like any of them. If IFAB pushed a change that most people don't want, imagine how furious fans would be at them.

    The one thing that IFAB could do is promote experimental leagues, where variations in the rules could be tested. Fans could watch games from those leagues, and decide if they like the changes. But currently that isn't possible.

  15. Charles Davenport, August 20, 2021 at 6:41 p.m.

    My pet change would  be that after to cut the first two overtime periods to ten minutes. Instead of going to PKs after the 20 minutes, Play another 10 minutes 9 a side; if still no winner, another 10 minutes of 7 a side; if still no winner, go to PKs

  16. Tim Schum, August 20, 2021 at 11:01 p.m.

    All: Wow! Sorry that somehow my "change the offsides rule" submission became twisted!

    In reference to referees I might have been more precise. I didn't mean to challenge their integrity. I think it can be documented that once the "even is onside" rule was passed, IF there was a question re offsides, the mindset of referees was to reward the defenders and rule for offsides. I think the rule changed, its implementation didn't. So the result was the intent of rhe rule (more offense) hasn't been achieved.

    So let's take the offsides rule one step further; unless the attacking player's FULL BODY is behind the last defender, the player is onsides.

  17. Sean Guillory, August 21, 2021 at 8 a.m.

    It's not just the rules it's also coaching.  Kids at the youth levels are taught not to take risks and push forward for goals.  They keep four players back to defend two attackers while getting worried when a left back or right back bombs forward in the attack.  Kids themselves have become to overly cautious and that keeps scoring way down.

  18. Kent James, August 22, 2021 at 4:56 p.m.

    I think the main thrust of the column; that IFAB has been focused on conserving the rules rather than enhancing the game with the result that games have many fewer goals is exactly right.  The Spanish GK taking out the Brazilian Forward should have actually been an exception to that, since the use of VAR allowed the referee to get that call right. That's progress. Not sure why PG put that in this column. 

    As for goalscoring, it is very difficult to get more goalscoring by getting referees to referee differently or by changing the rules; for me, the obvious change you make is to make the goals bigger.  I would suggest we try 1' higher and 1 yd wider (so 9' by 9 yds instead of 8 by 8).  Try them in one league somewhere and see what happens.  I would hope that it would increase the goals slightly (I think any competitive game with more than 3 goals is usually a good one), but not too much (more than 8 total goals regularly might cheapen them too much, but I could be wrong). I would love to seem more 4-3 games...

    My hope would be that larger goals would make shooting from outside more effective, which would force defenders to defend farther away from goal (and eliminate "packing the box" as an effective strategy).

    As for the shootout, I think we should try (again in a league or at tournament to see how it works) shooting from either the 18 yd box or the top of the circle (22 yds).  The goalkeeper would not have to guess, and excellent shot would score, but less than excellent would not.  So instead of some poor player missing their kick (or even more unfair, the GK guessing correctly and stopping an otherwise good kick), the GKs would get to make a lot of good saves, and the player who scores on a great kick would rightfully be a hero.

    Of course, a better scenario (though logistically tougher, mainly due to field markings) would be to shorten the field in extra time to generate more chances on goal.  While ideally you could put both goals on the 18 yd line (shortening the field by 36 yds) a logistically easier move would be to put one goal on the halfway line (cutting the field in half).  To avoid having to make the penatly area, you could just mark a new 6 yd box and (per the suggestion of a previous commenter) only allow the keepers to use their hands inside that box (not the whole area).  You could also only award penalties for fouls inside the 6 (all other fouls would be given where they were committed).  That should generate a lot of chances on goal and should settle the game in a reasonable time, while still playing "real" soccer (though the half field version would essentially eliminate break aways).  

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