5 Ways to Improve Soccer
I love soccer. In my opinion, the game reached rule-making perfection when the back-pass was outlawed in 1992, and I scoff at remarks from non-fans who suggest ideas to "improve" the game.
I've often cited the game's simplicity and lack of frequent rule changes as examples of its superiority over others. Even three of my other favorite sports—cricket, rugby and American football—suffer from having new rules introduced every year.
Some of them are so intricate and technical that even regular viewers can be left wondering what the referee just did.
However, soccer is still not perfect, and here are five ways I think that the game could be improved for the long term.
More Indirect Free Kicks in the Box, Rather Than Spot Kicks
Spot kicks have the potential to change matches, and thus their influence over the game is disproportionate. Why should an infraction warrant a free shot on goal just because it takes place in a certain location on the field?
So too, some referees are hesitant to punish fouls that would certainly warrant a free kick had they taken place anywhere else on the field, because a penalty is almost tantamount to awarding one team a free goal.
Empowering referees to award more indirect free kicks would allow them to punish certain minor fouls (e.g. a tug on the shirt) with a penalty that is more commensurate with the offense.
It would also cause the game to be less subject to simulation, as any foul in the box no longer immediately results in a free shot at goal. Perhaps players would be less likely to dive and risk a yellow card if the potential reward was only an indirect free kick.
Finally, indirect free kicks from close range are more unpredictable than spot-kicks (as evidenced by the attached video), and open up the opportunity of exciting set pieces.
Fewer (and Shorter) Cup Competitions
If you're a starting-11 player for a top-tier European team, you have to play a 38-game league season, domestic cup competitions (i.e. FA Cup, Italian Cup, Kings Cup, etc.) with the possibilities of replays, international club competitions (Europa League or Champions League), tournament qualifiers for the national team, friendlies, trial matches, summer tournaments like the World Cup, the Euro Cup or Copa America, and probably a couple of warmup matches in Asia or North America before the season even starts.
Is it any wonder, then, that Wayne Rooney isn't performing at 100-percent when he's playing Scunthorpe in the League Cup?
Players and fans can become burned out when there are too many games. Just look at the ridiculous Major League Baseball setup, which features two months of spring training exhibition matches, 162 games in the regular season, followed by weeks of BEST-OF-SEVEN playoff series.
I'm sure it's making some people very rich to have that many games, but the upshot of it is that following baseball can get exhausting by the time October rolls around.
The first thing to go should be the English League Cup. Inter-divisional cup competitions can be a nice adjunct to league play, but the FA Cup already takes care of that. Extra time should also be introduced where applicable, instead of replays.
So too, the Champions League should return to its regular knockout format from the start, rather than having groups. One fixture played over two legs should be more than enough to separate the champions of Spain from the champions of Cyprus.
Fewer games breeds more excitement, because the stakes are higher. You wouldn't want a World Cup where every winner is determined by a best-of-seven series.
Anyone that's been on the wrong end of a "phantom goal" decision will tell you that it's time the game featured goal-line technology (GLT). And it's hard to argue.
It's 2013. You'd think that we could build a system that correctly and quickly identifies when a ball has crossed a line. And yet, a technophobic FIFA (led by a doddering Sepp Blatter) has dragged its feet on introducing any new technology, lest it destroy the game's pace.
It's true that video replays would break up the flow of the game too much and don't provide any guarantees that the correct decision is reached (see NFL's "Inaccurate Reception"; or pretty much any rugby league game from the last decade), but GLT could present instantaneous decisions that wouldn't slow the game down.
Thankfully, after a series of prominent errors at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros, it seems that FIFA is getting with the program, having recently committed to using GLT for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Retroactive Suspensions for Every Simulation Caught on Video
While simulation has become one of the dirtiest words in the game, there's still little worse awaiting divers than a spiteful haranguing on YouTube. Television networks can catch simulation unnoticed by referees and pore over it for hours; why not use that ability for more than just heightening the outrage?
Further punitive measures need to be taken against those revealed to have cheated, and an automatic two-game suspension would be a good start—perhaps even bumped up to three games if their actions resulted in a spot kick or an opposing player being sent off.
Getting Serious About Stamping out Racism
Again, it's 2013. The fact that we still see black players regularly being racially abused by opposing fans is embarrassing.
And it's not just going on in redneck backwaters, but in (supposedly) modern nations like Italy and Russia.
Law enforcement can only go so far when you're trying to pick out one fan in a crowd of 100,000. The only way to truly punish such fans is through players (from both teams) refusing to participate in the match any further.
Game over. Go home.
AC Milan players took a positive step by walking off in a trial match earlier this year after Kevin-Prince Boateng was racially abused, but let's see them do it in a Serie A or Champions League match.
Do it in a big game, because that's how you send the message that the game is less important.