October 4, 2011

Note: David James Is English

I mention that right at the outset, because if an American had proposed some of the things James does in this column in The Guardian he would be set upon by defenders of the footy faith, persecuted as another heretic from across the pond, just like the ones who brought us multiple-point goals and artificial turf. Besides, that fact gives some cover to this American, who thinks James might be onto something, at least with most of the five things he identifies as things soccer could learn from its “egg-shaped cousin,” rugby.

The five things James identifies are (1) increased substitution flexibility; (2) making yellow cards more meaningful; (3) using technology to deal with disputed goal calls; (4) doing away with the transfer window; and (5) someone other than the ref keeping time. I’ve got no position one way or the other on transfer windows. And while goal line tech would no doubt help out in some cases, technology does not ensure correct calls (ask Toledo’s football team), so I’ll leave that to the side for now. As for the others, James has a point, if not a particularly good idea for addressing it.

Take substitutions. The sub rules in soccer look barbaric compares to most other modern sports – you get 3 per game, that’s it. If you use all three subs and then somebody else gets hurt or abducted by aliens during a corner kick, tough shit – you’re down to 10 versus 11. It was not always thus. In the good ole’ days no substitutions were allowed at all. As I understand it, substitutions were initially allowed only for injuries, but that rule was quickly abused, so it morphed into its current form.

Is “three” the correct answer for “how many substitutes should be allowed in soccer?” I dunno. I’ve seen plenty of matches where the last 10 or 15 minutes get pretty dire as 16 tired guys or gals just huff the ball around because nobody can actually run anymore. The three subs on each end run around like children gone off their Ritalin, but often with less interesting results. Maybe more subs would be better. Where James completely goes off the rails is his idea of “specialist” subs, with which we are all too familiar with in our own version of football, thank you very much. But there’s a happy medium somewhere, one that allows for a more up-tempo and offensive match during the whole 90 minutes, without turning it into the NFL.

I also agree that making yellow cards more meaningful would be a good thing, although not for the reasons James lays out. He’s concerned that the effects of accumulated yellows only pile up after several matches and the penalty ultimately served does little to benefit the “wronged” parties along the way. My concern is that a yellow card is really no deterrent for the kind of attack killing tackles that squelch interesting soccer. I’m thinking of the “professional foul” committed in the middle of the park during a counter attack simply to bring proceedings to a halt. It happens so often that defenders clearly aren’t troubled by the yellow (unless they’ve already got one). I’m not sure that the “sin bin” (that’s “penalty box” to you frozen pond types) would really work, as teams playing a man up for long stretches of time already rarely make the most of it. Five minute bursts of 11-on-10 action may not really add much to the game.

Where I think James is most correct is the issue of timekeeping. Soccer games are ruled with an iron fist by a single official who is responsible for all discipline, major decisions about things like goals, and the rather mundane job of signaling the end of the half or game. The clock runs continuously through each half, with a discretionary amount of “added time” at the end to make up for stoppages (allegedly). Thus, unlike most sports where the players, coaches, and fans all know precisely how much time is left in a game, soccer keeps everyone but the ref in the dark.

What I’ve seen of rugby timekeeping makes much more sense. Rugby halves run continuously, just like soccer halves (though they are five minutes shorter). The clock doesn’t stop for routine dead ball situations – line outs, scrums, what have you. But it does stop for longer stoppages, such as injuries or after a score. The ref signals the stoppage, the clock stops. It’s that simple. There is no added time at the end of the half or game because there’s no need for it. The half or game ends once the clock hits zero and the next dead ball occurs. Everybody knows what’s going on and what’s at stake.

Truth be told, Major League Soccer was on the right track with its timekeeping when it started, which involve the time being kept on the stadium clock and not by the ref. The mistake in the MLS plan was now allowing for any stoppages, so time wasting was pathetically easy. That being said, I can remember at least one last minute finish that simply wouldn’t have been as dramatic had we been playing the game the way the rest of the world did.

I don’t think anybody who is a soccer fan wants to fundamentally change the sport into something it’s not. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t evolve as technology and the experiences of other sports show ways that little tweaks might enhance the game. Even an Englishman can recognize that.

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