World Cup of Sports

Football[soccer in North America] after World Cup 2010 can make its case as the World Cup of Sports –  the most popular in the world especially if TV ratings are used as a measure of popularity. The 2006 Word Cup Final had an estimated 600++ million TV viewers North American  World Cup 2010 TV ratings were up by a whopping 36% despite having to contend with baseball, basketball championships, motor sports, Wimbledon Tennis Championships, etc.  FIFA with the World Cup should be congratulating themselves on a new rise to ever greater popularity.

However, George Vecsey’s assessment of World Cup 2010 in the New York Times in praise as  an alluring beacon of sport has a curious, melancholy twist:

So many World Cup finals are dark affairs, with one shadow or another looming over them. This final had no taunting or head-butting like the last one; no team played with an undetected Hand of God in its recent past.

And in the long run, the very long run, this final did not end with the gloomy coup de grâce of penalty kicks. Instead, it had two crack teams, two grand soccer traditions, testing each other for a long time…

There in lies the rub. This World Cup was alluring because it was not botched by the 5 problems plaguing FIFA’s sport:

1)Refereeing.
2)Not enough goals.
3)Refereeing.
4)Not enough goals.
5)Refereeing.

Lets look at these problems in their order.
1)Refereeing is the number one problem in FIFA’s football. No, not because of the record 13 cards handed out in this World Cup Final.  Rather because players are now openly gaming the game. The players know that because the referee is often so far from the “scene of the crime” while the sideline referee assistants are so absorbed in getting offside and ball out of play calls right, players can get away with murder. Murder in this case is anything from cleverly disguised pushes and shoves through shirt pulling and other free and corner kick wrestling matches to open bating and taunts. In short, FIFA’s World Cup games are always at the very edge of running out of control epitomized by Zinedine Zidane’s head butting redcard in the 2006 World Cup Final. It soured the game and the Italian “victory” badly. FIFA risks declining credibility as the lavish and superb TV coverage exposes the game’s officiating deficiencies ever more clearly.
2)Not enough goals is  very close to the top problem in FIFA’s football. And there are clear indicators.  The average number of goals scored in World Cup 2010 was 2.3  second only to 1990’s 2.2 low point and the stellar average of 5.4 goals/match in the 1954 World Cup. Low goal scoring brings on the  worst possible outcome,  George Vecsey’s “the gloomy coup de grâce of penalty kicks”. In the past five World Cups 2 were decided by penalty kicks and 2010 was just 2 minutes away from the same outcome. Ditto for  the Womens World Cup. The game is in danger of  dying for goals.
3)Refereeing is the number 3 problem in FIFA’s football. The beautiful game is is being marred with player’s stage acting. Thespianism can be highly rewarded. Dive whenever remotely close to the box and any contact is at hand. Dive dive  and writhe when your team needs  a breather or break in the action. Forget the free flow of the game; just get an advantage. And the players know they can get away with it, especially when the referee is 20 or more yards away. And if a freekick or penalty is available and 1 or 2 opposing players are nearby – dive, Dive, DIVE! World Cup 2010’s MasterDiver – Spain’s Andres Iniesta.
4)Not enough goals is the number 4 problem in FIFA’s Football. The goals per match are dwindling and not just in the World Cup as defenses get better and so does the sideline officiating. Give credit where credit is due – the side line officials were shown to be right by at least 3 or 4 camera angles in their offside and out of touch calls [but certainly not their goal score calls]. So FIFA should adapt. Basketball increased scoring  by establishing the threepoint shot. Ice Hockey reversed a similar trend in declining goals per game by limiting the size of gear worn by goalies and defensemen plus tweaking other rules. And the opportunities open to FIFA to  to opening up the game  can be simple and effective as these 4 examples show:
i)Raise the net by 4 inches or 10cm – many more top of cross bar shots would go in.
ii)No offsides for the the first pass over the midline – this would create space and new offensive strategies.
iii)No tackles from behind – tackles from behind slow the pace of the game down considerably and have given defenses the upperhand in matches. They are also the cause of  protests and diving.
iv)add  another on-field referee like baseball,  basketball and ice hockey all have  done -Better calls means fewer infractions because players know they cant get way with murder, play is speeded up and more goals per game follows.
FIFA must recognize that 2-5 goals per match is literally gold for their sport.
5)Refereeing is the number one problem in FIFA’s football. It is centered on having only one referee on a field that is 120 meters by 45 meters. Referees run a punishing average of 12 miles per game. Yet with long ball passing and swift counterattacking, referees inevitably find themselves out of position to make the right call. And the sideline officials have enough problems spotting offsides, out of touch balls, and balls crossing the goal line.  The case could readily be made for 3 on field referees. This would eliminate all the tugging, pulling and wrestling on freekicks.  Offenders caught touching would be whistled out of the box. More goals would be scored from corner and free kicks. Referees could more easily stay out of the way of play as they would be strategically placed  and could move out of the flow of  play[and would have more energy to do so].  In general, the players’ dives and other cheating would decline and the flow  and scoring in games would likely take an nice uptick.
FIFA football, at its peak in popularity, is also in danger of spinning out of control. Increasingly often referees are barely able to keep games under control as players play the cheat game within the game. And fans, already restive, can just say their actions are justified by the stultifying low-scoring games with  so much on-field cheating. So as one English mobster-like fan was quoted as saying – “we need to stir the game up a bit”.
Certainly FIFA administration needs a little stirring  up. Or FIFA could become like Cycling and Major League Baseball, reacting timidly to emergencies that call the quality of their sport into question.  And thus ironically, FIFA Football at its peak of popularity could likely lose its title as  the World Cup of Sports.

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