Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rule changes for soccer? part 1

The rules of soccer, or “laws of the game,” are elegant, simple, and incredible. There are lots of ways you could set up a game where two teams kick a single ball toward opposite goals, but the way soccer is structured is a big reason it became and continues to be the “beautiful game.” The rules have served us very well over the years with only a few modifications, but they go largely unexamined. I think a few more changes might be in order.

Let's back up a little first. In soccer, there’s a perennial battle between “purists” and “realists” that takes on a distinctly moral character. I could describe it at length (more here!), but it basically boils down to this: sometimes, lots of the time, the team that plays “the best soccer” doesn't win. Purists simultaneously support those teams and want them to win while also wanting all teams to play more “attractive” soccer regardless of whether it helps their results. Realists think that winning is more important than any individual strategy and are willing to embrace a variety of tactics as means to that end.

But wait: isn’t “the best soccer” by definition the manner of playing that makes a team more likely to win? Yes and no. There are two reasons that what we call “good soccer” doesn’t always lead a team to victory. One is statistical, an artifact of soccer’s low-scoring-ness. Even though one team may be considerably better than another, it might only beat the other one 51% of the time because there are so few goals. The other reason is that the rules weren’t written to make playing in the most aesthetically pleasing way consistent with the most successful strategies and tactics.** I am acutely aware of this latter reason, often after watching a team like Barcelona lose a game: they played so well, it can’t possibly be their fault, so it must be soccer’s. [The second reason is admittedly related to the first insofar as the number of goals scored is related to way the game is set up, but they are still different in other ways.]

On the one hand, I really like this conflict, simply for providing an extra moral metaphor through which to view and play the game. Sports are full of moral metaphors that make for compelling viewing already, generally about your home team and its superiority to others. In soccer, there’s this extra dimension. You may never hear soccer commentators talk outright about the conflict I’ve described above, but they comment consistently and forcefully about which team “deserves” to score or win, and it’s the same idea. Even people who don’t fall squarely into one of the two opposing camps (as most don’t) feel the conflict, and it contributes to soccer’s popularity.

On the other hand, as a purist it gives me pretty constant anxiety about the direction soccer is going in when teams like Chelsea 2008, Greece 2004, Italy 2006, etc. have so much success.

Anyway, the rules and customs of soccer have obviously withstood the test of time, and therefore any changes I advocate are on the conservative and incremental side. Here are the things I think could use some tinkering, in ascending order of difficulty of implementation/problematic nature of proposed change. I’ll discuss them each in turn, and would love to hear other proposals along the way.

The advantage rule

Free kick placement

Persistent team fouling

Red card sendings off

Yellow cards for professional fouls

Penalty area size and penalty kicks

Wall distance

Offsides (not the rule, but enforcement thereof)


Goal size

**Most of what we come to appreciate in athletes is defined, ad hoc, by the things they manage to do that further their aims of winning. While that’s true also in soccer, there is a great deal that we appreciate in soccer players that is only loosely related to winning. While this isn't true only of soccer, I think the extent to which it is true is unique to it.

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