2010.06.16 Fixing football (soccer, that is)

Written by David Green.

Guest column by Taylor Ballinger

January 22, 2006 marks the day I became a soccer fan. Rosie and I were on a study abroad trip to Rome, Italy, and a group of us went to the Olympic Stadium in Rome to watch the scuffle between Lazio and Cagliari. It was cold, there were relatively few supporters in the stands, and we were greeted off the Metro with police in riot gear. As far as European soccer matches go, this was like watching the Lions take on the Bengals in a pre-season matchup—there wasn’t much at stake.

The stadium itself was in need of repair. We each had an individual seat, but it was as comfortable as a school-room cafeteria stool. The field was separated from the stands with a large—possibly bulletproof—retaining wall. Instead of toilets with seats, there were holes in the ground. The modern amenities that I had come to expect from a major sports league were nowhere to be found.

There was beauty in the simplicity, though. The only thing that mattered was the product on the field. It was a sports purist’s paradise. Admittedly, the crowd was a bit barbaric for my taste. Throughout the game there were racial epithets thrown toward both home and opposing players. There were fascist hand gestures and cheers (Lazio is well-known as a fascist-sympathizing club). At one point in the second half, when a Lazio goal was reversed on an offside call, a fan ripped his seat from its concrete foundation and hurled it over the aforementioned retaining wall and onto the track surrounding the field.

Despite the insanity, it was the greatest sporting experience of my life to that point. The game ended in a tie, but I didn’t care. The passion, pageantry and intensity were more than I had ever seen at any sports game stateside.

Just six months later, the Italian national team won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and my soccer fandom was set. I had been to a game in Italy the same year Italy won the World Cup. It was fate.

Fast forward four years, and we’re back to the greatest sports tournament on Earth. I’ve been flying high since USA’s tie against England, but I’m disappointed in the number of Americans who are uninterested in the World Cup (it’s bigger than the Olympics, people!!). With that being said, I have come up with a list of rule changes FIFA (soccer’s international governing body) should make to entice more Americans into becoming soccer fans.

Have the clock count down instead of up. We’re used to sporting events that start with the big number and count down to zero (last second shots are the bomb-diggity!). In soccer, however, time begins at zero, and ends at 45 minutes for the first half (plus additional time for injuries, but we won’t even go there). Time begins at 45 minutes and ends at 90 minutes in the second half. This is confusing; time doesn’t count up! Two 45-minute halves with the clock counting down—much easier for all the folks who’ve never read a clock before.

Narrow and shorten the pitch (field). And call it a field instead of a pitch. The complaint about soccer that I hear most often is there are not enough goals being scored. A 0-0 finish is far too common (after an hour-and-a-half of playing!!). The simple solution: make the field smaller, and put fewer people out there. Five on five (like hockey) with a 25% smaller field would increase scoring because the game would be faster and the players would still have plenty of room to find open space. We could make it even more interesting by playing two five on five games simultaneously, adding up the goals from each side for one final score. This would make it more confusing, but has anyone ever tried to explain baseball to someone who has never watched or played before? We love complex and confusing.

No singing in the stands. Each soccer club has its own anthem, along with other cheers and songs sung by fans throughout the match. Enough! We’re going to a sporting event, not a Broadway musical, people. In America, we have short, simple chants. DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE! We do the wave (only yelling and flailing arms involved). Often, we don’t even need to come up with our own chants—the scoreboard prompts us throughout the game.

No more ties. How un-American is a tie? We expect winners and losers (winners always do). A tie game is like going snipe hunting. All that work and no reward. The NHL changed their rulings on this a few years ago. Too many hockey games were ending in ties, so they instituted a shoot-out after overtime (if the game is still tied). Soccer could easily do this. Overtime, then a shootout. If not a shootout, perhaps a team relay competition. Either way, we can’t have everyone walking away feeling like a winner.

LET THE PLAYERS USE THEIR STINKING HANDS! While we’re at it, let’s put some pads and a helmet on the players, and relegate the kicking to only the rarest of occasions. We could just change the name of the sport to football.

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