Obviously, the World Cup is not yet over; Germany just took down Argentina 4-0, while Spain and Paraguay will match up shortly in the final quarterfinal game. But for me, my interest pretty much ended when the U.S. was eliminated. I've still been paying attention to the outcomes of the games, but it's hardly been the compulsive checking of scores and standings that I was doing during the group stages. I watched more soccer over this period of time than I ever had before, and it was more interesting and exciting than I expected. Yet, I couldn't help thinking that there would be some easy ways to improve the game and help increase its popularity (and yes, I know soccer is the most popular sport worldwide). Some parts of soccer, namely the low scores and hence the perceived boringness of the sport to many (especially Americans), are basic parts of the sport and thus not going to change. If someone finds soccer boring because the scores are usually 1-0 or 2-1, I'm not sure the sport can do much to draw them in. However, there are some things they can change in order to bring in fans, like me, who enjoyed the sport during the World Cup, but will quickly forget about it after the final next Monday.
I mentioned some of these suggestions in passing while watching some World Cup games with friends, and was met with fierce criticism from those friends who also consider themselves soccer fans. To me, these were pretty obvious, and harmless, suggestions to improve the game, but some soccer fans apparently consider them inseparable from the game. If there are any soccer fans reading this (which I doubt), let me know how you feel about them. I tried to limit the changes to ones that, in an analogical sense, I would at least consider in my favorite sport, baseball. For instance, I'm open to ideas that would speed up the game of baseball, such as limiting the number of pitching changes per inning, but I would never want to see a clock instituted for pitchers. In that same sense, I'm not suggesting anything revolutionary like adding a second goal to each side, but here are the things that I believe would improve the game:
1. More referees.
There were a number of high-profile blown calls throughout this World Cup, and while this may or may not be the norm, there is an easy way to make sure that it doesn't happen again: add more referees to the sport. The NFL uses a slightly smaller field with the same number of players and has seven referees. Baseball uses four umpires and adds two more for playoff games. The real key, though, is that in other sports the officials don't have to cover the same amount of ground as the players. In soccer, the head referee has to run up and down the field following the ball for 90+ minutes. They wouldn't even have to add an official, since soccer currently employs a fourth official whose sole role is, as far as I can tell, to hold up the scoreboard to show how much extra time there is. If it were up to me, I would add more than just one official, but to keep the change as small as possible, let's just say that we add one referee, so that there is one on each half of the pitch to go along with the two linesman. This should increase accuracy of calls by allowing each referee to focus on a smaller area. This increase in accuracy will produce another positive side effect: reduce the need for instant replay. One of the best parts of soccer, and one thing its diehards often point to in its defense, is the continuous action. For other sports, particularly baseball, I'm in favor of replay because there are very difficult to judge, yet clearly objective, plays that occur regularly (i.e., a close play at first base). In addition, other sports contain constant natural interruptions: baseball has the time between pitches, football the time between plays, and basketball the constant timeouts and out of bounds. Soccer, while it has throw-ins and free kicks, is very free-flowing and lacking in natural interruptions; to change that with replay would be to alter the whole pace and flow of the game. Also, soccer does not have many objective calls, which is what replay is best used for. Most of the calls in soccer, which are in regards to fouls, could be debated endlessly even upon watching replays. Of course, hand balls, offsides, and whether a ball crosses the line or not (Frank Lampard's shot comes to mind, though I'm sure that's a once in a decade type of missed call) are more objective, but the addition of an extra referee would help the referees make more accurate calls on those plays.
2. No penalty kicks.
Soccer has the worst overtime of any sport, period (well, hockey has a similar problem). To break a tie in a sport, you should have to play more of the game, not some schoolyard mini-game that kids lacking field space might come up with. Using penalty kicks in soccer is like deciding a basketball game by knockout. And, unfortunately, games are decided in this way all the time: semifinalist Uruguay has won their last two games on PKs and the 2006 World Cup final was famously decided by kicks as well. Considering the low-scoring nature of soccer, I don't really have a suggestion for overtime other than to just keep playing until someone scores. That may not be the ideal solution, but it's much better than using penalty kicks, which more closely resembles a game of rock-paper-scissors than soccer. To go along with this change, the golden goal should be re-instituted to overtime. I'm not sure why soccer went away from sudden death overtime (to give teams a chance on each end of the field?), but the excitement of a sudden death overtime would add even more to overtime. In a game with such little scoring, I don't see the need to give the other team a chance to come back.
3. Stop the clock.
I'm not sure how this made it down to the third bullet, as it's really the number one change that I think needs to be made. It really just seems absolutely ridiculous to me that nobody knows exactly how much time is left in the game. I know the running clock is an important aspect of soccer to its supporters, so we can keep the idea of extra time. However, instead of having the referee hold up an integer as a guess for the number of minutes lost due to injury, the exact amount of time that the ball was out of play due to throw-ins, goal kicks, free kicks, injuries and other stoppages in play should be kept track of and added at the end of each half. This would also basically eliminate the ridiculous time-wasting actions of players late in games, including players strolling off the field when being substituted for and going down with a career-threatening leg injury every other minute. I don't blame the players for these actions, as they're clearly within the rules and help their team, but it's extremely frustrating as a fan and a rule like this needs to be added in order to eliminate the incentive to do so. Finally, there needs to be a clear end to the game. For example, with three minutes of added time and the clock reading 92:50, Ghana won a corner kick its game last weekend against the U.S. They didn't play the ball in until the clock read 93:05, which means that really the game should've been over: the ball was out of play when the clock ran out. But the referee decided to let them play the ball in one more time. After he does so, how does he decide when to end the game? Does Ghana get one touch to score? Two touches? Until the ball leaves the penalty box? Until it goes out of bounds again? The point here is that no one knows when exactly the game is going to end. With the new extra time system described above, there will be an exact amount of extra time. My suggestion is that, once that time is reached, the game is over once the ball crosses over midfield, so that the attacking team has one last chance to put the ball in the goal, and there is a definitive answer to the question of when the referee should end the game.