A more beautiful (and fair) beautiful game

As you all know, I love soccer (football, for my international readers).  And I love the World Cup.  But watching so much always reminds me of how frustrating it is.  One horrible rule?  The penalty kick.  It was so nice to see Adam Gopnik (generally an amazing writer on criminal justice issues) make the strong case for modifying this rule:

The more serious objection concerns the ancient and much agonized over matter of the penalty. Every good game has an Achilles heel, something that is just all wrong with it, and the trouble usually comes from some unanticipated hole in the rules, or in the way they’re enforced. Baseball’s is the endless and ever-growing delays that come from ringing pitchers in and out for lefty-righty matchups; basketball’s are those twenty-minute-long final two minutes, with all the dull strategic fouling; my beloved ice hockey’s is the needless violence that, meant to keep the game honest, ends up making it merely brutal. Soccer-football’s is always the same: the tiresome, unresolvable did-he-fall-or-was-he-pushed arguments that take place when a player goes down in the penalty area. The trouble is built into the rules of the sport: if you allow players to foul in front of the goal with minimal punishment, then the optimal strategy is to foul all the time. But, if you offer what amounts to capital punishment, a near certain goal, for a foul, then playing up a mild or debatable push offers a huge advantage, and the player gets rewarded out of all proportion to the offense—which encourages the absurd playacting and diving that disgusts even hardened fans. [emphasis mine]

Watching the games, my teen-age son—who lives and dies with Chelsea and France—suggested that the resolution of this difficulty was, in truth, staggeringly simple: award a penalty only for a foul that removes an authentic chance on goal, and award a direct free kick for all other fouls in the area that don’t. In a flash, you would bring some justice to the area and distinguish between contact meant to do something dastardly and contact that, though a violation of the rules, is merely contact.

Of course, this would make it a “judgment call,” but all such calls are already judgment calls; the new policy would just allow the referee a finer area of discriminating judgment. And, though you would not end the fakery and playacting, you would at least put a small brake on it: no one would really think he could sell a foul and win a goal unless he had had a chance at a goal seriously stolen. The point of the writhing and agonizing is to buy a goal at the price of a ridiculous performance; if you knew that the purchase price included losing a chance to score one, there might be more effort devoted purely to getting the chance to score. (A free kick, after all, is hardly an impotent penalty to offer for a lesser foul.)

The estimable Paul Doyle, of the Guardianmade exactly the same proposal three years ago: “Rather than be lambasted for tweaking the rules to better serve justice, referees should be formally given the right to use their discretion when it comes to fouls in the area, awarding either a direct free-kick or a penalty, depending on how likely it was that a goal scoring chance would have ensued (as well, perhaps, as on the degree of malice).”

Amen!  And since a British writer already made the same argument, its just not ugly Americans who don’t get soccer.  While trying to find the Gopnik piece (which I couldn’t at first remember where I read) I also came across this commentary on the matter which I quite liked:

So let me get this straight:  You play 90 minutes of soccer, average roughly 13 shots a game, accurately strike those shots less than 38% of the time, and put less than 3 of those shots in the net … both teams combined.  But if fouled somewhere in the 18 yard box despite a potentially low percentage chance of scoring, you get a free kick so close to the goal that the goalie is merely left with guessing in an attempt to stop it.

Sound about right?

We’ve all heard the adage, let the punishment fit the crime.  In the case of soccer, their penalty kick is akin to executing someone for lifting a Snickers bar from the Oyster Bay Drug and Sundry…

I understand that a player with a fantastic scoring opportunity cannot be allowed to be chopped down by a tackle, without fear of a severe consequence.  After all, I’ve established that scoring opportunities are few and far between, so everyone should be treated according to its obvious value.  But why not allow some level of subjectivity in regards to individual fouls?  Some may warrant a penalty kick, while others merely a direct kick or some more difficult version of the existing penalty kick…

The penalty kick in soccer would be the equivalent of a hit batsman in baseball being awarded a swing off a tee.  I can see it now; Mike Trout is hit by a Felix Hernandez fastball, and the Los Angeles Angels bring Albert Pujols to the plate for one cut from the tee.

Or the NFL making all pass interference calls, regardless of where they occur on the field, to be placed on the opposition’s 1-yard line.

Or the NBA rewarding a 10-point free throw for a clear path intentional foul.

Those are ludicrous, but so is the penalty kick in soccer.

Yes!!  And driving into work today, I was listening to Colin Cowherd making a point that I’ve thought myself so many times. Basically soccer just needs to clean up dirty play through better officiating– the point being to let the most skilled players actually demonstrate their skill.  That’s what we all came to see– right?  And the way to do that is simple– more than one referee.  Sure there are the assistant referees on the side, but a huge portion of their attention simply goes to the offside call.  The idea that the massive acreage of the soccer field is patrolled by a single official empowered to call most fouls is ludicrous on its face.

Of course, the traditionalists I’m sure have all sorts of complaints for this.  But neither reform would fundamentally change the essence of the game and they would, without a doubt, make the sport more fair, and a more compelling athletic contest.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to A more beautiful (and fair) beautiful game

  1. itchy says:

    A recent article I read compared the penalty kick to a 30-point free throw in basketball. Sounds about right.

    While we’re at it:

    a) The player who was fouled should be the one who takes the kick.

    b) Goals scored on penalty kicks should not be counted in a player’s individual stats unless it is determined that the foul negated a likely goal by the kicker.

    Suarez and Neymar are great, but their stats are padded by penalty kicks.

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