A Better World Cup

This is, hard to believe, my eleventh World Cup. I saw my first one when living as a kid in London, in 1974, while my academic parents were on sabbatical. I was mesmerized by the (to my mind) still unrivaled Johan Cruyff and the (not to my mind alone) still unequalled Dutch team of that year, which lost the Cup final, to Germany, but won all watching eyes and hearts. I have stuck with the game, and loved the tournament, ever since. Given the difficulties, until not that long ago, of even seeing the games in America, this year’s wall-to-wall coverage, with its unapologetic mulligan stew of accents on ESPN—Cockney and Argentine and Dutch and Portuguese, and no one in the executive offices, apparently, objecting—feels like a luxury. (I recall that the games in ’82 were shown on Univision alone, in Spanish, and my mind even turns back to an earlier tournament—’78?—when, unless my imagination is running wild, Jack Klugman was doing television commercials selling tickets to watch it on screen at a local arena.)

Two thoughts, though, keep coming to mind during the duller moments in play. (Don’t complain: nil-nil, as I wrote once, is the score of life.) The first is that the announcers and commentators and sports writers refer to Manaus, one of the competition’s stadium sites, as though it were a mere clearing in the rainforest where you might expect to run into a South American Kurtz mumbling “The horror! The horror!” Anticipating the terrific Portugal-U.S.A. match that took place on Sunday afternoon, one good observer wrote that, unfortunately, “they have to do it in the Amazon where the forecast is a temperature of 79 degrees with 87% humidity and a chance of thunderstorms. I can’t imagine trying to run for 90 minutes in 87% humidity.” This habit of talking about the Brazilian town as though it were offering some strange marginal Amazonian atmosphere, unknown to innocent Americans from our steadily temperate climes, is ridiculous. (In Dallas, after all, where an American professional soccer club plays, temperatures like that are normal.) It is only made worse, of course, by the execrable ad that shows the American players, serious as death, saying that they’re playing “on foreign soil” as though the other teams all got to play on the front lawns of their national embassies.

The more serious objection concerns the ancient and much agonized over matter of the penalty. Every good game has an Achilles heel, something that is just all wrong with it, and the trouble usually comes from some unanticipated hole in the rules, or in the way they’re enforced. Baseball’s is the endless and ever-growing delays that come from ringing pitchers in and out for lefty-righty matchups; basketball’s are those twenty-minute-long final two minutes, with all the dull strategic fouling; my beloved ice hockey’s is the needless violence that, meant to keep the game honest, ends up making it merely brutal. Soccer-football’s is always the same: the tiresome, unresolvable did-he-fall-or-was-he-pushed arguments that take place when a player goes down in the penalty area. The trouble is built into the rules of the sport: if you allow players to foul in front of the goal with minimal punishment, then the optimal strategy is to foul all the time. But, if you offer what amounts to capital punishment, a near certain goal, for a foul, then playing up a mild or debatable push offers a huge advantage, and the player gets rewarded out of all proportion to the offense—which encourages the absurd playacting and diving that disgusts even hardened fans. (I wrote about the phenomenon of the player, hardly touched, who falls “like a man shot by a sniper, arms and legs splayed out, while you twist in agony and beg for morphine, and your teammates smite their foreheads at the tragic waste of a young life,” for this magazine during the 1998 World Cup, held in France; as Alan Burdick noted last week, the tradition today is firmly entrenched.)

Watching the games, my teen-age son—who lives and dies with Chelsea and France—suggested that the resolution of this difficulty was, in truth, staggeringly simple: award a penalty only for a foul that removes an authentic chance on goal, and award a direct free kick for all other fouls in the area that don’t. In a flash, you would bring some justice to the area and distinguish between contact meant to do something dastardly and contact that, though a violation of the rules, is merely contact.

Of course, this would make it a “judgment call,” but all such calls are already judgment calls; the new policy would just allow the referee a finer area of discriminating judgment. And, though you would not end the fakery and playacting, you would at least put a small brake on it: no one would really think he could sell a foul and win a goal unless he had had a chance at a goal seriously stolen. The point of the writhing and agonizing is to buy a goal at the price of a ridiculous performance; if you knew that the purchase price included losing a chance to score one, there might be more effort devoted purely to getting the chance to score. (A free kick, after all, is hardly an impotent penalty to offer for a lesser foul.)

The estimable Paul Doyle, of the Guardianmade exactly the same proposal three years ago: “Rather than be lambasted for tweaking the rules to better serve justice, referees should be formally given the right to use their discretion when it comes to fouls in the area, awarding either a direct free-kick or a penalty, depending on how likely it was that a goal scoring chance would have ensued (as well, perhaps, as on the degree of malice).”

Given that this is a simple, clean, and significant change, I can only wonder, and ask: Why it hasn’t been adopted. The only rational objection I can see is that it replaces one kind of endless argument—was he pushed or did he fall?—with another: Did he really have a chance to score a goal or didn’t he? But at least that second argument puts the first one in perspective, and might help the game avoid some of its more obvious absurdities. Making this reform might be the least of FIFA’s institutional worries, amid corruption allegations and the like, but it is still worth doing. Either that, or provide better acting lessons for the players, so at least their performances have what actors call “dimensionality.” If we’re going to pretend, at least let us pretend well.