Soccer, like all sports and, well, like everything, changes over its lifetime. Some of those changes are organic (players are bigger and faster not because of the rules, but because people develop differently now than they did in the early 1900’s), and some changes are legislative, like changing the value of a win from two points to three, or changing the kickoff rule this year to allow kickoffs to move in any desired direction and not restrict kickoffs to be forward only.
The desire to change is good! It means you’re thinking about how things go, and wanting those things to evolve with the times and stay relevant, and attract new interest to your thing. So of course, a thing as big and sprawling as soccer will, with varying intensity, always be looking at ways to improve things.
In that vein, FIFA technical director Marco van Basten, one of the best players of his generation but a player whose career was cut way too short because of injuries, has been busy at work thinking some thinks about how to make the game...better? More interesting? Different? Anyway, he mentioned several things, each of which I will give a rating of, since we’re talking about FIFA, anywhere from one to five FIFA suitcases full of cash.
Eliminating extra time and going straight to penalties.
His rationale, which isn’t horrible, is that after 120 minutes players have nothing left at all. so why not just eliminate the two 15 minute extra periods - during which, a lot of times, nothing happens anyway - and go straight to penalties? I mean, it’s not the worst idea in the world, really. Soccer tried the sudden death thing (“golden goal” was their positive spin on it) in the 90’s, and it didn’t seem to be too popular, so FIFA went back to the current two 15 minute periods then penalties. There aren’t that many options here, so of the ones that exist, eliminating extra time isn’t the worst.
RATING: Three suitcases.
Another tweak van Basten suggested was to penalty kicks themselves. Currently, of course, the ball is static, 12 yards out, and most of the time the keeper has no chance. In an effort to, presumably, give the keeper more of a chance and to make the penalty more exciting, van Basten has recommended that players start 25 meters from goal and have eight seconds in which to score.
Longtime followers of The MLS Soccer League will remember that this, basically, is what the league did from 1996 to 1999. Which means that if this becomes a thing, world soccer will be taking its cues from MLS. Suck it, purists! Anyway, these shootouts were bizarre but a lot of fun, and I would have no problem at all seeing them in games today.
RATING: Four suitcases.
Stupid name aside, I do kind of like this one. It’s been floated before - basically, an “orange card” or something that is a stronger penalty than a yellow card but weaker than a red. A penalty that would remove a player from the game for a period of time, for either a single incident or for a series of smaller fouls, which currently lead to no consistent sanction whatsoever.
I like this idea a lot in theory, but the execution would have to be pretty well defined to make it better than the current system, otherwise it’s just another layer of ambiguity on top of the already frustratingly subjective calling or non-calling of existing fouls.
RATING: Two suitcases.
Now is when we start getting into the bananapants ideas. Again, van Basten’s heart is in the right place - he recognizes that the game is grueling, and that players might need a break. But introducing American football-style quarters probably isn’t going to go over well - even for me, an American. One of the things I love about soccer is that it’s non-stop for 45 minutes - as a viewer, it demands an attention span, and that gives it an intensity that most sports don’t have. And it would be a shame to lose that.
RATING: Zero suitcases.
Scrap the offside law.
Did I say bananapants? Because this one truly is. At first read, it sounds great - as van Basten put it:
"Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It's difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it's very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.”
Which is true! And one implementation of no offside - a hockey-style line that would define an “onside” and “offside” area - has a certain concreteness to it that appeals to a lot of people. But then you start to unpack the idea a bit, and you realize that the assumption behind “eliminate offside” also seems to assume that nothing else about gameplay would change as a result of eliminating offside, which...no.
A lot of the chat around this seems to assume that the reason people want offside to go away is that they feel like a lot of the goals that are currently whistled offside would count if there were no offside to be called. But think about it; the way that offside is currently set up encourages teams to defend with a high back line. those that do it well can almost regularly get an attacking team to stray offside. But if offside wasn’t a thing, it’s not like teams would continue to play with that high back line, because they’d get killed.
Which would mean that defenders would all collapse on the goal even more so than they do now - at the very least, the back four would almost never leave the penalty area - which is the exact opposite of what van Basten is looking for.
It just so happens two German teams tried this recently, and it didn’t sound like it was all that great.
RATING: This idea is so bad, it earns the opposite of a suitcase of FIFA cash - it gets a lump sum fine payable by FIFA’s exco.
Thankfully, other people feel the same, most notably our own Arsene Wenger, who said
"Offside is what makes the team be together," the Frenchman said. "It's a big quality of a team sport. It's an intelligent rule as well where you can use your intelligence. It's very important to keep that in the game.”
It remains to be seen how many of these ideas will see the light of day, but I do appreciate the fact they’re being brought up in the first place. Stasis = death, after all.