Monday, June 28, 2010

The Commissioner of Sports Fixes Soccer

Alright, the World Cup is over, so I will finally tell you why it is stupid, once and for all. And as the Commissioner of Sports, I will provide solutions when necessary.

"It's not over!" you say. Yes, it is. It was over the moment the clock ran was over the moment the ref arbitrarily blew the final whistle in overtime between the U.S. and Ghana on Saturday.

Terminology. "It's not soccer. It's football." Not in America. That isn't jingoistic rhetoric. In America, we call it soccer, not football. Just as we call it an elevator, and not a lift. It is fine for most of the rest of the world to call it "football" or some direct translation thereof. All of their other words are fine too. But in American English, we have some of our own terms. It isn't a draw, a pitch, and a side. It's a tie, a field, and a team. I get that to die-hard soccer fans, using American terms is a sign of ignorance of the sport. I'm not ignorant of it; I'm just not British.

The Football Attitude. To many soccer fans, people who do not love the sport simply do not understand it or have not given it a chance. We are too dumb to appreciate the subtlety, the artistry, the athleticism, and the finer points of the "beautiful game." Not so. I fully appreciate how gifted and fit these guys are. Soccer highlights are always among the best on Sportscenter every night. I just don't really like it. I could go to a restaurant and try everything on the menu, and while I would see how much went into all of the dishes, I simply wouldn't like some. They're no more fit or coordinated or intelligent than athletes of many other sports, though it does take immense fitness, coordination, and intelligence to be great at it.

Scoring. It is not that the games are low scoring that is annoying to many casual sports fan or to those who dislike soccer, it is that there is not even the threat of scoring for 90% of a match. I am fine with a 1-0 baseball game or hockey game. I'd probably get a kick out of a 10-3 football game (only three scores). Because in those sports there is always the threat of a score at every turn. Baseball is very slow-paced, but a run might be scored on every single pitch, 200-300 times a game. In football, every snap of the ball could result in a touchdown - for either team, in fact. Goals are hard to come by in hockey, but the goalie is in full-attention mode for probably 80% of the time the puck is in play in every single game. I said earlier that soccer makes for great highlights…then there are the other 89 minutes. Each successive pass builds up tension and is (ideally) designed to move defenders one way or another until an opening forms for a scoring chance, but those chances only actually come 5-10 times per game over 90 minutes! Does any die-hard soccer fan really think it would be less interesting if a 2 goal lead with even 3/4 of a game remaining did not spell certain doom?

Solution: Shrink the field - Force teams to move the ball towards the goal in order to get it away from their own. There is far too much neutral space in the middle of the field that is no threat to either goal. Fewer players - you want open space to move around in, not overcrowded clusters (especially on the new, smaller field). 6-8 players per team (including the goalie) should be plenty. Expand the goal - the best players in the world can't find the thing more than once or twice a game. Don't make it taller because the goalie needs a reasonable chance to make saves, but make it wider. Scoring areas - Corner kick with no offensive deflection = 3 points. Shot from outside the box = 2 points. Shot from inside the box = 1 point. Penalty kick = 1 point. Free kick with no offensive deflection = 3 points. Any offensive deflection earns the amount of points based on where the deflector is standing. Encourage teams to take chances on shots...will you win with a less consistent but more lucrative long-range attack, or will you punch it inside where scoring comes easier but is worth less? How do you defend? Give space inside and pressure the deep shots more or turtle inside and allow more close-up shots? Over-and-Back - it is a turnover and a free kick for the other team if the offense takes the ball back across the mid-field line.

Ties. The World Cup is the grandest stage of supposedly the world’s grandest sport, and yet games can end in ties? In a tournament that decides who is the best in the world you can finish even with someone? This is not a “friendly.” This is the freaking World Cup. Additionally, because of the ties, there was a likely scenario in which the U.S. and England would have finished the group stage dead even on all tie-breakers (points, wins, goal differential, goals, etc.). How would they have determined which team would move on in this magnificent event? A freaking coin toss. Head-to-head result would have been the fourth tiebreaker!

Solution: No ties. The same rules that apply during the elimination round games should apply during the group stage games. Tie-breakers for determining position after the group stage: head-to-head result, goal differential, total goals scored, penalty kick shootout (rather than a coin toss).

The Ball. For some strange reason (money), FIFA uses a new ball for every tournament. They have standards for size and weight, but the exact materials and compositions of the balls vary. And apparently they vary greatly. Goalies apparently complain about it every time; that way it is absolutely never their fault when they get scored on. But this time the goalies didn't like it, the players didn't like it, and pretty much every team complained about it. FIFA is not exactly what you would call "responsive to its members' or fans' opinions," so for the first 2 weeks they ignored the whining from all sides. Then they finally came out and said that they acknowledge that some people didn't like the ball, but they're not doing anything about it. Once they feel that they sold enough of them, they're heroically demand that adidas redesign it for the next big tournament, whatever that is.

Solution: Go back to the black and white checkered ball. Picture a baseball. Picture a basketball. Picture a tennis ball. Picture a golf ball. Picture a football. Picture a soccer ball. Every other sport around the world seems to have figured out that you don't mess with the ball. Basketball tried it to disastrous effect and changed back midseason a few years ago. Take a lesson. Everyone hates the changes every time, so stop making changes. That checked ball that you pictured earlier, that we all played with as kids in every country and every socio-economic class around the world IS a soccer ball. Use it.

Stalling and Fake Injuries. Easily the most obnoxious thing about soccer is the flopping. It is illegal to take fake dives and stall excessively, but it is simply not enforced. Every sport has stalling techniques, but they are usually done within the game. A football team runs more or kneels on the ball when leading to keep the clock moving. Baseball players have extra meetings at the mound to allow a reliever time to warm-up. Basketball teams dribble the shot-clock out. Hockey teams send the puck the length of the ice to kill off penalty minutes. And soccer players dribble around and kick the ball into the offensive corner and make late substitutions with players as far away from the bench as possible to run time down. All fine. This isn't: leading 2-1 in overtime against the U.S. on Saturday, a Ghana player tried to clear a ball out of the zone in front of his goal but misfired badly. The ball went straight out of bounds, giving the U.S. the ball right back, still in a dangerous spot, and without the defense all set up yet. So this player, who was 10-15 feet from anyone else, fell to the ground motionless which forced a stoppage of play. Time ticked away as the referee came to check on him and then called the medics. They sauntered out with a stretcher, upon which this player sat completely upright, waited to be carried off of the field, then immediately stood up and asked to be allowed to reenter the game.

Solution: If a player is truly injured, he clearly needs to be allowed medical attention. However, if he is faking, his team should not benefit. If a player is hurt, he or his teammates can request a stoppage of play (kick it out of bounds or ask the opponents to do so if the ref doesn't notice...they do this already). But if play is stopped for an injury, that player must sit out for treatment and his team must either use a sub for him or play down a man for some period of time (2 minutes? 4 minutes?). This will help take care of dives when players roll around looking for calls, and it will help take care of phantom injuries used to stall late in games.

The Clock. The most inexcusable fault in soccer is that no one on the planet knows the time of the game except the head referee. The stadium and TV clocks are guesses. In the U.S.-Algeria game, the referee signaled that there would be 4 minutes of extra time (so he had stopped his watch for a total of approximately 4 minutes during that half for stalling, injuries, goal celebrations and game resets, substitutions, penalties, etc.). During extra time, the U.S. scored a goal. From the time it went in to the time he blew the whistle to restart play, 1:07 elapsed. Later there was a red card given (ejection) and the argument that caused it and the ensuing argument took another :56 seconds. So of the four minutes of extra time they were supposed to have, 2:03 of it was spent with the game stopped. Yet the ref arbitrarily called the game after 4:11 of extra time, stripping the Algerians of around two minutes of come-back time. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when the clock is stopped and no accountability for the refs.

Solution: Wirelessly connect the ref's clock to the stadium clock. If the referee is upholding the clock-duties fairly and accurately, there is no problem. If he is not taking care of that duty properly, everyone will know. If it proves to be too much for him to watch every inch of the field plus the clock, have an official timekeeper who works off of the ref's whistle or hand signals or microphone (which they already use to communicate between head official and the line judges).

Technology. FIFA whines that they want to keep technology out of the officiating and keep the human element in. But the officials are already using wireless headsets through the games, so that argument is garbage. They are so totalitarian in their handling of the sport, they've now banned stadium replays on controversial calls after England and Mexico got shafted on Sunday and fans went nuts (which, admittedly, many other sports have done for years). Line-judges are basically there to watch for off-sides and they simply don't do a good enough job (ask the U.S. or Mexico about that). A goal scoring or not scoring can result in the loss of a game, a championship, a league membership, and millions and millions of dollars. The publicity these controversies stir up is not of more value than fair play. The field is too big and the play is too physical for one referee to adequately call the game.

Solution: There is already has a ball with a microchip in it that can digitally record when it crosses the goal line. This technology is used in some leagues and tournaments around the world. Use it. If every fan in the stadium and watching at home can see that a player was clearly offsides or a ball was across the line, why should the referee be the only one who doesn't know? A replay official can watch all plays and communicate to the head referee for all close goals and offsides. Side judges can focus only on balls out of bounds and fouls. Possible off-sides plays will be played out until the head ref gets word that there was an off-side player. If the goalie makes the save and plays on immediately, play on. If a shot goes wide and the goalie plays on, play on. If the replay official calls it offsides before the goalie plays the ball, it is a goal-kick as usual. If the possibly offsides play results in a goal, the goal announcement is held for the offsides call. These replays would essentially be instantaneous and would not slow the game down (ESPN has been showing off their instant-off-sides viewer all tournament long). A light can be placed behind the goal and can be lit when goals are scored (whether obvious or on replay).

“Soccer doesn’t need to change. It is the most popular sport in the world even with its perceived flaws. And it certainly doesn’t need America or to be Americanized at all.” Perhaps. Perhaps some of these changes are unnecessarily extreme. Perhaps the game doesn’t need to be Americanized. But it does need America.

The 1994 World Cup in the U.S. drew the largest crowds in World Cup history. They built new stadiums in South Africa to house the Cup this year and they are barely selling out with 35,000-40,000 fans. The Rose Bowl had over 100,000 people for each game. Most of Europe is within a single time zone or two of South Africa. So why are the games played so late at night there? So they can be seen at a reasonable hour in the U.S.

They want mainstream American money, but they will simply never get it with the game the way is today. Will they get it even with these changes? Probably not. Isn’t the game perfectly popular around the world? Sure. But just because the game is popular doesn’t mean it is not flawed. So are all of these changes necessary? Of course not. But instituting replay is. Using a micro-chip ball is. Standardizing the ball is. Policing fake injuries and dives is. Objectifying the game-clock is. Reviewing referee performance with some public transparency and removing poor refs is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crazy Man Hired By Lunatics To Cheer For The Dodgers

Some people get paid a lot of money to be really, really bad at their jobs.  Russian physicist and mystic Vladimir Shpunt (not pictured), for instance, was apparently paid six-figures to be a Dodger fan for the last five years, and they only won one playoff game. 

Frank and Jamie McCourt hired Shpunt to sit on his couch in Boston and watch Dodger games while going all Marky-Mark on them and pumping positive vibes at the team.  Shpunt claims that he had the ability to improve their performance from between 10%-15%, and he's a physicist, so it must be true.

The Dodgers should probably ask for their money back, considering that they are apparently broke and getting divorced.  How broke?  Well, remember that Jamie Carroll was their big off-season signing, and they drafted a kid in the first round this week that they knew wouldn't sign with the team.  Thus they avoid having to pay a first-round bonus and salary.  The draftee had already committed to playing quarterback (and pitching) at LSU, and said had announced that he wouldn't sign if he was drafted.  And then the Dodgers drafted him.

If Shpunt got paid over a half of a million dollars over five years and the Dodgers only got one postseason win for it, I feel like I am owed a crapload of money by the New York Giants.  They won Super Bowl XLII despite being double-digit underdogs and despite trailing with under two-minutes to go at their own 17-yard line.  The upset was ridiculous and I called it in a column for CBS on the Friday before.  I want my money.  Or just a ring would be fine.

Though as crazy as Shpunt is for thinking that his cheering for the team from 3000 miles away made an impact (what did he think happened in the 350-400 games they lost in that span?), the real over-paid, utterly inneffective ones here are the McCourts.  These two lunatics tried running a professional franchise, one of the world's greatest, with a ouija board and burning incense.  The funny thing is that they even knew this whole enterprise was crazier than a family going to a Dodger game and thinking the bleachers are a good idea.  They hid the Russian witch-doctor from the rest of the organization, paying him under the table and now each denies hiring him and insists that the other one did it. 

(For those playing at home, yes that is Leo Tolstoy pictured above)