Case Study: Soccer

(or, “when autism strikes”)

It seems that many of us when finding something to “fix” go straight for society at large, governments, economies, etc. This strikes me as entering a gym and immediately putting three plates on each side of your bench. Particularly with politics aka hard mode.  I thought for a fun change I’d try my hand at fixing something that doesn’t arouse as much passion: soccer.  To be clear, the main goal here is not to tackle the rather hilarious corporate governance issues at FIFA (like their burgeoning film enterprises), but rather the rules of the sport as such.

Assume FIFA grants you supreme power to remake the rules of the sport, and that all the respective associations will obey your word as law. Basically you are granted the ball of Fnargl.  Let’s further assume your goal is to improve the overall aesthetic of the sport, its efficiency and aggregate enjoyment of players and spectators. What changes to the rules do you make?

Some conservatives may consider the very proposition sacrilegious, as if the rules of the game were handed down from the Mount by the Lord Himself.  Which is of course nonsense, the rules having changed plenty of the years. It’s also ludicrous to suppose the rules we currently have, the result of path dependence, historical chance and politics, are the absolute perfection of rules and therefore any change is negative. Clearly absurd.  The most recent rule changes include changes in the offside rule in 1990 to give advantage to the attacker, the backpass rule in 1992 and the recent implementation of goal-line technology at the last World Cup.

There is something though to a reticence with altering fundamental aspects of the game. Superficial changes are likely ok, but the more serious the change the more we ought to think about leaving it alone unless we have an excellent reason for doing otherwise. If not out of some Burkean sensibility for tradition (and epistemological humility) at least out of an understanding that the game is wildly successful (most popular sport on the planet). In tinkering with fundamentals we may destroy that which makes it so and end up causing more harm than good. Primum non nocere.

And keep in mind throughout the sport’s relative simplicity is part of its appeal.  Any kids with something kickable and somewhere to try to get it to are in some way playing a version of soccer; a huge advantage relative to say ice hockey, basketball and others which require more specialized equipment and so on.

As such, here are some of what I consider higher marginal return changes; small changes with a big bang for the buck that should be obviously done.

END CONTINUOUS TIME:  One of the interesting aspects of soccer is that the clock runs continuously, unlike say basketball where every play is stopped the clock is stopped. This is a fundamental part of what makes the last few minutes of a basketball game usually the most exciting part as the clock enters play. American Football plays under a hybrid rule where the clock is strategically stopped at times according to certain plays/specifications and time management becomes an important part of play.

Soccer also has time management as a part of play but unfortunately the continuous time clock creates perverse incentives.  Virtually every soccer game in which one team is ahead on the scoreboard sees said team plagued by injuries during the final fifteen minutes of play in an almost comedic manner.  Players fall down at the slightest contact (and sometimes without any, simulating cramps), are taken off the pitch and immediately spring back up as if by divine intervention.  Many fans and casual spectators are rightly turned off by such behavior, but few see that outrage at a result is all for nought if we do not attempt to fix the real cause: the incentive structure.

Changing the clock from continuous time to in-play time similar to basketball immediately removes the incentive to waste time while the ball is stopped. One can of course strategically attempt to control the ball in play to waste time, but that is part of the game and valid.  Falling down though would cause a whistle and a stop to the clock, thus granting no advantage whatsoever (other than arguably time for the team to catch its breath, but then again time for the other team to do the same, so little marginal benefit).

The implementation is quite easy: have a time-keeper or 4th referee manage the clock stopping at every foul / ball out of play and starting again at every resumption of play. We have a clear model to copy in basketball (and American Football). Of course, to keep play time roughly the same (on average roughly 55-65 mins for most major leagues) instead of a continuous 90 minute clock we’d have a 30 (or 32 or what have you) min “in play” clock.  Games would last roughly as long, little would change in terms of the sport and one of the perverse incentives for off-putting behavior would be removed.

There is one valid objection to the rule change, which is that it opens up the possibility of someone on a breakaway being prevented from scoring due to time running out in the play. In current soccer the referee generally (but not always) waits for a position in which no immediate goal scoring opportunity is available to blow the whistle. This is valid objection, that the fixed end to the game might ruin last play goals, is easily addressed in several possible ways.

You could:
A- have the time running out simply grant the referee discretion to end the game at the nearest possible “no threat” moment as currently done
or if something more objective is preferable
B- have the game end at the next out of bounds after the time runs out (effectively ending the game if the winning team has possession as they kick it out of bounds, but giving the losing team a chance if they have possession of still trying to score until ball goes out of play)

My preference is for the latter, more objective, less discretion to be blamed on the ref, and everyone knows exactly when the game will end. I’m not the first to make this observation.

There is another objection though to “real-time” dealing not so much with the game itself (where I believe it is unassailably superior to the current continuous time) but rather the danger of the inherent commercialization of the sport on TV leading to advertising breaks. This is certainly a possible danger, but note that that there is little need for both to be linked. The non-break play of soccer is a part of the sport, and allowing for 5 minute breaks at 15 minute intervals constitutes a far change to the sport than simply changing how the clock counts down the (roughly) same amount of play.  European soccer is an enormous moneymaker already to all concerned so I see little to fear in terms of letting in advertising breaks, something that would clearly be resisted by most concerned.

ONLY CAPTAIN MAY DISPUTE WITH REFEREE: Once again, another low-hanging fruit. There are few spectacles more revolting than seeing a referee mobbed following a penalty call or red card by players screaming in his face sometimes even engaging physically pushing/pulling and surrounding him in an attempt to intimidate.  The situation has gotten so out of hand leagues have started fining players and teams in sporadic manner for doing so excessively. The problem though is that enforcement is lax and arbitrary, a recipe for disaster

Rugby of course, with some of the toughest human beings alive as players (occasionally transcending gender), deals with the matter in a quite simple manner: only the captain may dispute a call with a referee. Period. Implementing the rule is trivially easy and when everyone knows what will happen everyone tends to obey and the game works better in general.  (One could draw parallels to British Imperialism in India/Egypt…).

SIN BIN: This one has been gaining traction of late.  The yellow/red card system is simply too inefficient. Noted legal scholar Epstein wrote an opinion piece in which one of his two major proposed reforms touched precisely on this. I could scarce do better than quoting him at length:

“The current penalty system has many internal defects. The first is that the differential impact of the free kick and the yellow card is just too great, relative to the seriousness of the two offenses. Remember that the yellow card counts as a 50% down payment against expulsion. The time-honored formula is two yellows equal one red card, which equals one automatic expulsion. The yellow card in one game often carries over to the next, so that playing a star with a yellow card in the next game risk expulsion. Why carry over infractions from one game to a second? And why treat an expulsion that occurs in the 10th minute equal to one that occurs in the 70th?

To remove these bizarre incentives, soccer should follow the ice hockey approach to penalties, after correcting for the difference in team size (six players for hockey vs. 11 for soccer) and game length (60 minutes for ice hockey vs. 90 minutes for soccer).

Here is how it works. In hockey a minor infraction sidelines the player for two minutes for an instant short-term advantage that doesn’t come with a yellow card. If there is a second infraction by a team, part of it is served concurrently with the previous penalty until the first player returns to the ice. If the other team commits a minor penalty when it is ahead, its player goes off the ice as well. In hockey there can be periods of play where the teams are six to five, six to four, five to five, five to four, even four to four. Obviously the first situation is the most common, and that advantage ends once a goal is scored. (…)

To make this system work for soccer takes only two small modifications. The first is that minor penalties should carry a three-minute penalty, not a two-minute penalty. Major penalties that carry a five-minute penalty in hockey could carry seven minutes and 30 seconds in soccer. Today’s red card expulsions could require a team to play 15 minutes short-handed until a new player is bought in. Since a soccer team is larger to begin with, all penalties should run concurrently until a team has three players in the penalty box.

Note that if several players are off the field, the game opens up, thereby increasing scoring changes. Players also have to learn to confront novel tactical situations and to shift positions on the field. Coaches have to plan for more permutations to cover the eventuality of nine vs. nine players. Imagine how to defend in an 11 vs. eight situation.”

MORE REFS: This is another one that has been toyed with, and in fact many junior level leagues without the use of assistant referees use a two-ref on pitch system.  For serious collegiate level play and above (pro) though it seems quite an easy fix to simply increase the number of referees in play. By way of comparison, basketball, with a fraction-sized play field, has a crew chief and two referees for a total three officials. The NFL has 7 man crews plus “replay assistants” in the booth. Baseball from four to six. Rugby uses three (one ref two assistants) but also extensive use of replays (which we will deal with later).

Given all the complaints regarding the quality of refereeing in soccer, one quick fix would be to have two refs on the pitch in addition to the two linesmen.  For professional play or tournaments we could go even farther and have four linesmen as well as two referees (one in each half, one given seniority for final call in case of disagreement), as well as replay booth.  A referee is therefore statistically more likely to be close to play, cardio plays less of a factor, multiple fields of vision, and so on.

The “cost” issue may be relevant for lower leagues, in which case the system as is may be fine, but certainly professional leagues would benefit from this relatively easy fix.

CHANGE PENALTY RULE:  We’ve all seen games altered by a stupid play on edge of the box with little goal threat in which a foul or accidental handball causes a penalty (roughly 85% certainty of goal) and changes a game. The idea of the penalty is sound: to prevent the use of fouls from stopping a goal scoring situation. The gross implementation though via a large penalty box and most any foul occurring within though is highly problematic.

The best way to fix this is to only grant penalties when ref determines situation was a “goal scoring threat” or “imminent threat thereof” or “purposeful foul”.  Some may decry the room for discretion while missing that said discretion already occurs in many aspects of play (what card to hand out, ruling “gray area” fouls like pushing, pulling, etc). The goal would be to end idiotic penalties from say a ball on the edge of the box on the side with no immediate threat to goal hitting a defenders hand by accident, or a trip foul there with little in the way of immediate goal threat. The latter is particularly egregious as it has turned a very high percentage of attacks on goal into a game of “fall down in the box”.

Instead, grant an indirect free kick from the spot. Still dangerous and thus the defender does not have an incentive to commit the foul, but not an 85% goal which encourages the striker to fall (sometimes in a comical (but effective) manner).  In fact, the rules ALREADY allow for indirect free kicks from inside box, all we are doing is raising the bar for a penalty shot to require immediate threat of goal.  Indirect free kicks from inside the box are also interesting tactical situations.

CHANGE OFFSIDE RULE:  There are few aspects of the game more frustrating than the constant interruption at the point of most excitement (goal threatening position or goal) by an offside ruling; in particular given how often it can be incorrect with game altering consequences. Some non-fans may argue for simply scratching the rule altogether. While I have my sympathies for such a view, the fact of the matter is the offside rule does have its place in encouraging good play.  That said there is scope for some changes in how the rule is implemented.

The main problem with the offside rule in soccer is the moving back line, making enforcement quite arbitrary at times.  This problem is avoided in hockey by use of a fixed offside line. Hypothetically in soccer this would create an attacking zone in which there are no offsides, but entrance of which is only permitted after the ball. This very much removes referee interference, allows for free play in the attacking zone worry-free about some bureaucratic implementation of offside rule, and preserves the fast break element of the game that offside rule fans are such fans of.  Interestingly, the MLS precursor, NASL, had a 35 yard offside line as an experiment approved by FIFA. This was eventually repealed due to worries that it would turn the game into an athletic competition (sprinting in fast breaks) rather than technical skills. Which given the high important of physical training/nutrition/steroids in the game over past 40 years has become an irrelevant complaint.

INSTANT REPLAY: This is the big one. Other than the goal line technology that FIFA finally relented on, a limited amount of instant replay flags for the coaches seems an obvious next step.  Purists decry it as making everyone question every play and instantly look for the replay.  Which is of course silly; everyone ALREADY questions every play and looks to linesman for offside and the ref for a call of a foul, any foul. Instant replay is a last-step safe measure allowing a coach to question potentially game changing situations like a questionable offside or penalty or this crap.  Use the example already established in sports from US football to tennis: allow each side a limited number of flags to ask for replay, maybe two per half or per game. In US football the replay can be used quite rapidly in a matter of less than 30 seconds, which is often how long a “complain to ref about questionable call” huddle lasts anyways.

The above all seem to me to be relatively easy and straightforward reforms that could be trivially implemented to dramatically “improve” soccer as a game. The excitement would remain but the inefficiencies inherent in it as a sport would be dealt with through a combination of superior social tech, logistics, and some actual tech.

Much like naive Republicans hankering for a Fair Tax though, the meta-issue is of course dominant. There will be no above reform until the governance issue is sorted out. IFAB is a mess and FIFA, well, the less said the better. Compare with the NFL, where for better or worse the team owners have delegated authority to a commissioner representing them and the league (technically a trade association). Not ideal, and certainly with its fair share of stupidity but certainly capable of rational decisions on a sporadic basis.

So all the above is just an autistic “what if I had ultimate power” wish-list.  Though certainly a smaller waste of a time, effort and money than the Republican Party and the “conservative movement“.

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One thought on “Case Study: Soccer

  1. Pingback: Case Study: Soccer | Reaction Times

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