Balance. Not a word that crops up too often when soccer affairs get discussed. Which is rather odd. After all, soccer must be one of the most frequent topics of discussions throughout the entire world — discussions that involve arguments, disagreements, and, of course, a billion varying opinions.
During those countless discussions, balance ought to be a key topic for soccer people — all of ‘em, from club owners and administrators to players and fans and, for sure, journalists. For it has a vital role to play at each level of the game.
Yet it rarely gets an airing. So, as I try to introduce the word ‘balance’ into soccer matters, I do realize that it’s not an easy sell. But I’ll give it a try. Here we go ...
As this is a comparatively unheard of exercise, I shall set my own rules. For a start, let me distinguish the two types of balance that soccer needs, but too frequently ignores: Strategic and tactical.
I’ll kick off with strategic balance. Starting at the top, if you like, where a sport’s rules are formulated, where decisions are made that immediately affect an entire sport.
It is at this level that another key word should be operating — but so seldom is: Vision. The vision of a sport as ideally played.
There are, of course, massive difficulties involved. Soccer is, and should be, a fluid sport played in many different ways and styles.
It should not be limited to just one version. But certain basics should be required. Chief among them is goalscoring. We’ve all seen plenty of examples of teams that play dogged defensive soccer — it is often, and quite rightly, called anti-soccer.
A team that did just that and won a major championship doing it, was Greece at Euro 2004. Six games played, just 7 goals scored. A memorable win for Greece, a colossal bore for everyone else, a deplorable travesty of the sport.
Occasional boring games will afflict all sports, but for a sport to be deliberately boring, as Greece was, is something that should be unthinkable.
Obviously, no vision of ideal soccer will be boring; it is bound to include an emphasis on goalscoring. I like to think of goals as the red blood corpuscles of soccer. Soccer without goals, soccer as a 0-0 tie, is an anemic activity. The melancholy vision of goal-less soccer was beautifully captured by one of its greatest players, Alfredo di Stefano: “A game without goals is like an afternoon without sunshine.” And who would vote for that?
One of the most crucial tasks at the strategic level — in every sport — is to create a balance between offense and defense, a balance ensuring that “games without sunshine,” if not eliminated, are kept to a minimum. American sports are good at this. Baseball knows that a sport dominated by no-hitters is not what fans want, any more than they want every pitch to be whacked for a home run. An eye is kept on the situation. If either offense or defense becomes dominant, the rules will likely be tweaked to restore the balance between the two. Ditto in football and basketball.
And soccer? Clearly, soccer can, through its rules, do a lot to encourage goalscoring, and to make it very difficult for a team to win while playing anti-soccer. But it is mighty reluctant to use the rules in this pro-active way.
We now enter the world of FIFA, and of IFAB (the International Football Association Board) whose responsibility it is to ensure that soccer’s rules are kept in line with developments both within and outside the sport, to either initiate or reflect changes in the sport. We immediately run into a massive problem. Several of them.
For a start, soccer doesn’t have rules. It has Laws. Capital ‘L’ Laws. Much more imposing and impressive than mere rules. And, evidently, more difficult to change. Just how difficult?
This difficult: The first “universal” Laws for soccer were laid out in Victorian England in 1863. Among the infractions, they included the very Victorian notion of “ungentlemanly conduct.” And that wording, growing more laughably quaint with each passing year, survived for over 130 years, until 1997, when it became “unsporting behavior.” Those 1863 rules also required players to wear “stockings.” According to the Laws, they went on wearing stockings until 2016 when a change was made, at least 70 years behind demotic usage of the word, and players were allowed to wear “socks.”
I shall refer to these ponderous Laws as rules - not least because that is American usage. There are clear — recent — signs that the ossified world of FIFA and IFAB is, at long, long last, attempting to move with the times. The catalyst has been technology, in particular the arrival of instant and widely available replays.
Soccer, its rules for so long rooted in the 19th century, is having problems catching up with the 20th century, never mind the 21st. Incredibly, one huge gap in its thinking persists. As soccer adjusts to the VAR, the Video Assistant Referee, it continues to completely ignore the matter of balance.
In the swirl of changes that technology has brought, has there been any discussion of balance in the game? I recall only a 2007 article by Sepp Blatter, then FIFA President, titled “Balancing Act” which briefly touched on the issue. Anyway, why would there be much interest from FIFA for something that it had blithely ignored for 150 years?
Time for a definition. Strategic balance in a sport does not mean “equal opportunity” for both offense and defense. All the big sports feature a continual succession of offense vs. defense clashes, short struggles for momentary supremacy. The notion of balance does not require that 50% of those are won by attackers and 50% by defenders. Balance requires that enough of them are won by the attackers to produce a lively competitive game with plenty of scoring chances.
Which means that the percentage favoring attacking play must be more than 50%. That is certainly necessary in soccer, a sport in which it is a given that successful defensive play is considerably easier to achieve than successful offense.
Consider: every game begins at 0-0. A scoreline that already represents total defensive dominance. Once a soccer game is under way, the built-in advantages for defensive play make themselves felt, and the situation is quite clear: attacking play needs help from the rules.
Soccer, I would judge, needs that help more than any other major sport. Once upon a time ... well, that usually ushers in a lovely, totally unrealistic fairy story about a bygone golden age when everything was different and usually better. But my feeling is that soccer’s fairy story contains a good deal of truth ... there was a golden age, within living memory, when things were better.
Better in one crucial respect. There was more goalscoring. Yet again, I can find only the slightest of interest by FIFA — and it’s the much-maligned Sepp Blatter again, asking “Where have all the goals gone?” Great question, Sepp — such a pity it was never followed up.
For the past 70+ years, goalscoring in soccer has been steadily decreasing. Not covertly decreasing of course. It’s all been happening openly for everyone to see. The World Cup statistics tell the story with indisputable authority. Take a look at the goals-per-game stat for every World Cup:
In 1950 we had 4 goals per game. From then on (apart from a surely aberrational 5.38 in 1954) the goals began to disappear. By 1990 we were down to 2.21. Nearly half of 1950's 4 goals had vanished.
The most recent figure, for the 2018 World Cup, was 2.64. Optimists might interpret that as a sign that goalscoring was staging a comeback. Hardly. The 2014 figure had been 2.67.
You might imagine (I believe you should imagine) that a sport that loses nearly half of its climactic, most exciting and emotional moments is a sport in crisis. But FIFA and IFAB think otherwise — if they give the matter any thought at all.
This is a crisis that has come creeping slowly ... half a goal missing here, a third of a goal gone absent there. Nothing dramatic. So it is just about possible, I suppose, that the sport’s highest authorities failed to notice what was happening.
But that seems so unlikely — FIFA and IFAB must have been aware.
Apparently — what other conclusion can be drawn? — the opinion at FIFA and IFAB was that the goal-drain represented some kind of natural development and should not be interfered with. The game should be left alone to right itself. The attitude was really no surprise. For decades IFAB had resisted the very idea of rule changes. So the matter of balance was not discussed, and no action was taken.
It had not always been that way. In 1925, the sport had its annus mirabilis, its moment of sharp common sense. This time it did notice ... that attacking play was being increasingly thwarted before it had a chance to be really threatening. It was being neutered by organized defensive play that made more frequent and more effective use of the offside trap (this was in England, which was very much the nerve center of the game in those days).
A rule change was introduced that made the offside trap a much more risky maneuver for defenders. The change produced instant success. In England the number of offside calls plummeted. And the number of Football League goals scored (throughout all four divisions) shot up from 4,700 in 1924-25, to 6,373 in 1925-26.
I’ve read a good deal about that change, but I cannot recall ever encountering any suggestion that the offside trap issue was merely a symptom of the sport’s lack of balance. ‘Balance’ was clearly not part of the thinking. What followed the change proved that.
The game adapted ... by becoming more defensive. Not as the result of some natural development process, but because the sport’s strategists of the time (notably Arsenal’s coach Herbert Chapman) invented a new way, a more defensive way, of aligning players. Where there had always been just two fullbacks, there were now three backs. The position of center half back — formerly a key attacking player — vanished. Goalscoring started to decline, and has continued to do so ever since.
Had ‘balance’ been part of anyone’s thinking something would have been done to maintain a healthy scoring rate. But that was never done, not at the time, nor in the nearly 100 years since the 1925 rule change.
FIFA and IFAB, apparently exhausted by that decisive burst of rule-changing action in 1925, have hardly been heard from since. It has taken technology, and the arrival of the video-assistant referee (VAR) to disturb their slumbers. But, yet again, no one is mentioning balance.
So soccer continues to operate at a level below its full potential. It has become a sport in which defensive play dominates. Is allowed to dominate. A sport that seems to disapprove of goals.
Earlier this year the London Times tabulated the scorelines in all 203,329 games played in English league soccer since 1888. They found that 1-1 was the commonest scoreline (11.6% of the games ended that way), followed by 1-0, 2-1, 2-0, and 0-0.
What a miserable, miserly collection of scorelines that is. Two of them — including the most frequent — fail to produce a winner, one of them fails to produce even a single goal.
That is where we are with Soccer-2022. That FIFA and IFAB should be satisfied with that situation leaves one wondering. Is there any vision at work in the upper levels of the game? How can there be if the ideal sought by FIFA and IFAB has 1-1 as its most appealing scoreline?
A mischievous thought: If just 2 goals are added to each of those scores unearthed by the London Times, we get 3-3, 3-2, 4-3, 4-2, 2-2. The results are unchanged, but they now reflect a more balanced game, in which goalscoring is more frequent. Those 8 extra goals, 8 extra moments of jubilation or despair, surely indicate livelier, more exciting, games. They hold the promise of a more open, more free-flowing and more entertaining sport.
Which is precisely the aim of seeking to balance the sport. An aim that can be advanced — strategically — by rule changes designed to reduce the sport’s traditional pro-defense bias.
Next time I‘ll take a look at how the sport’s lack of balance has a game-wide effect at the tactical level, and how it directly, and balefully, influences the performance on the field of referees, coaches and players.