Thursday, January 18, 2007

It's a Funny Old Game



Why America doesn't like soccer football



News that David Beckham is leaving Real Madrid for L.A. Galaxy has been met with only a modicum of excitement – chiefly by the shop-keepers on Rodeo Drive who stand to benefit most when Posh Spice spends the massive pay cheques.


Joe Public (President, American branch of the WGTU (Who Gives a T*** Union) has responded with Ho and a Hum and a Fiddly, Dee Dee.


Why?


Poor old Becks is flogging a dead horse. Or, a horse that is marching to the beat of a different drummer at least. Whilst the rest of the world is obsessed with football, America remains largely unimpressed and mostly unresponsive. Becks' arrival will not kick start Soccer U.S.A. He might do some good and trouser a lot of dosh, but he will not wean the American public from their diet of baseball, gridiron football and basketball – with a small dash of ice hockey on the side.


Trying to generate interest in soccer in America has a long and distinguished history. In the 70's Pele, Best, Beckenbauer, Moore, Marsh and a host of other stars were paid lots of money to play in the U.S.A. All the best players were there. Result. Poor crowds and not much interest. Why?


Firstly, the American public did (and still does) not want to watch a bunch of foreigners kicking a ball around. What success soccer has had in America has been hard won and has involved generating home-grown players. Soccer did get a boost from the '94 World Cup, held in the U.S.A. and, therefore, quite rightly, set about developing their own players. The results have been good. There are many Americans playing in Europe, including the Premiership, and there is a stable domestic competition which Becks will shortly join. Crowds are decent, if not spectacular, and steady growth is being maintained. Becks is unlikely to do any more than generate some local interest in the Los Angeles area.


Secondly, it is “pie-in-the-sky” to imagine that just because the rest of the world has a benighted affection for football, the U.S.A. should, or is likely to, join in. Americans like winners. When the U.S.A. soccer ladies won the World Cup, they were rightly hailed as exceptional athletes. Interest soared. Lots of young girls began playing the game. It's an ideal game for girls who lack the abnormal height needed for basketball stardom. Team America can and does compete successfully with other nations, and they receive support and interest from the American public. Why not the men?


Two reasons primarily. One: Team America, men's version, has not been so successful. Qualification for the last World Cup was achieved but the team clearly wasn't going to challenge for honours. So, the public were largely unimpressed. Secondly, and most importantly, the game itself is not equipped to generate real enthusiasm in the American sports fan. Why?


What? Are you seriously telling me that what the rest of the world refers to as “The Beautiful Game” isn't good enough for Uncle Sam? Yep. That's about it.


Football's oldest cliché, “It's a funny old game” is often misinterpreted. Funny here doesn't mean humorous. What the saying really means is, “Football is a imbecilic game where skill, determination, athleticism and effort are often completely unrewarded and blind luck, poor judgement by the officials, the weather, and a hundred other nonsensical reasons are usually more important in determining the result of the game than the skill of the participants. It's the only game where the object of the game (scoring a goal) is so obtuse that it becomes almost irrelevant. After ninety minutes of skilful endeavour by twenty-two exceptionally fit and skilful players, quite often the purpose of the game (to score goals) is skilfully unachieved.” Fantastic! No wonder soccer has failed to impress the American sporting public.


It doesn't have to be like that of course. Sports, all sports, are human inventions and are not static. They do and should evolve. Almost every sport accepts that change is an integral part of the evolution. Almost all – except soccer. Soccer is stuck in a 19th century English public school time warp. It has been stagnating since it was invented by Toffs in long shorts and miner's boots with a ball made out of leather which, when wet, was so heavy that it must have been designed to break the bones of the foot, cause headaches that last for months, not to mention serious long-term brain damage, and reduce the spine of the idiot who heads it to a mass of quivering jelly.


If the Martians ever landed and had football explained to them – they would promptly leave, reasoning that any civilization which thinks that soccer is “The Beautiful Game” is seriously cuckoo and not worth conquering.


The reason that football will not “take-off” big time in the U.S.A. is football itself. Or, to be more precise, the inability of football to adapt to a changing world. Most of the idiots who govern football (did you know there are more national associations affiliated to FIFA than there are members of the United Nations?) simply conspire to maintain the status quo. There is no real impetus to evaluate the game and adapt it to changing circumstances. The very success of football as a world game is its own undoing. The administration is so unwieldy that any effort to improve the game is soon lost in a bureaucratic sea of isolationism, national agenda and chronic inertia.


For that simple reason the American public have rightly relegated football to a game suited to women and children. Americans will not take football seriously until the rest of the world takes football seriously – instead of conspiring to produce a hide-bound game of mind-bogglingly boring games populated by over-paid “heroes”.


Of course, there are fans who will cheerfully remind critics of the sweeping changes made in football in the last 100 years. Things like: modifying the offside rule (http://www.fifa.com/en/media/index/0,1369,105502,00.html); changing the way goalkeepers may use the ball; increasing the use of substitutes – I wish the list was endless – but it is not. I'm struggling to think of any fundamental change since the game was invented. Some are long overdue. This is a tragedy. Football could be a much better game. How?


It is quite simple really. The purpose of the game is to score goals. What football lacks is a fair contest between attack and defence. Despite FIFA's talk about giving the benefit of the doubt to attackers, it is all just talk. Watch any game. The officials are philosophically incapable of allowing close calls to go the attackers way. Why – because goals are so hard to come by. The importance of scoring a goal is so over-whelming that referees and their assistants are scared to death to give the advantage to the attack.


Change this by making goals easier to score. Each close call then becomes less important. How? Easy.


Number 1 – make the goals wider and taller. Not by much – just enough to raise the average goals score by say one or one and a half per game. By the way, at the last world cup, such a system would have raised the goals per game to just about 2.5, instead of the woeful 1.hardly anything it was! We could argue precision but for arguments sake how about six inches taller and a foot wider (15 cms and 30 cms). Does anyone seriously think that this would make the game something fundamentally different?


Number 2 – enlarge the area of the pitch. Yes, larger. Modern player are fitter and faster than their 19th century fore bearers. Give them the room to show their skills. Again a 10 to 15 percent increase in the pitch area would make a real contribution to opening up the game, for players and spectators alike.


Number 3 – change the off-side rule. Instead of tinkering with the rule – overhaul it. There was an experiment in moving the “off-side line” from halfway to the 18 yard box. OK, maybe this is too much – but how about an ice hockey type off-side at a third of the attacking area? Give players a chance by extending the playing area by making them defend a larger space. It's not rocket science!


Number 4 – give the “Assistants” real power in the game. On a football pitch you have 22 extremely fit athletes trying to kick a ball and (sometimes) each other. It is ridiculous to imagine that one middle-aged official is going to be able to control the game and make correct decisions. Use the Assistant Referees, who were “upgraded” from Linesmen a few years ago – but who still act only on the periphery of the game. Let the Referee control the middle of the field. Get the Assistants onto the field and let them involve themselves much more closely with the last 20 metres of the action. That's where getting it absolutely correct is most important.


Four simple changes to get the game into the 21st century and get more goals into the game. More goals equals more excitement. More goals means less controversy. More goals will bring more crowds. Can anyone honestly say I'm wrong?


All it takes is a change in mind set. Stop seeing football as “The Beautiful Game” and see it simply as a game like any other.

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