The Football kNuts put up a fairly detailed post filled with ideas on how to fix the fundamentally broken game of soccer. Many people have complained about the state of soccer in the 2006 World Cup and many have been upset over the number of bookings (though others will say they are justified). Being an opinionated sort, I figured I’d throw my 2 cents into the kitty as well.

In a nutshell? I don’t think the beautiful game is as broken as we think it is. It all comes down to consistency.

First, read the entire post over at Football kNuts. I’ll include some excerpts here, but you really should read all the justifications for certain positions they have.

The first suggestion is a common one. There aren’t enough officials at a match to properly call fouls:

In professional baseball there are 4 umpires on the field during the regular season and 6 during the post-season charged with officiating 18 players. In NFL football, you have 7 officials tracking 22 players. In basketball you get 3 guys following 10, and in hockey you have 4 guys following 12. However, in football, you have 1 referee and 2 linesman calling the game for 22 players on the largest field of any major sport.

I think this is apples to oranges. In baseball the critical thing is watching pitches (home plate), watching tags at each base up close (all 4), foul balls (1st and 3rd base), and the outfield (the base umps). In football, there are so many technical rules about who can touch who in what area of the field and how, did players move before the ball is snapped, invisible lines (scrimmage), plus the guys watching the boundary lines that you need 7 officials. Soccer is a simpler game with action (and most fouls) concentrated around the ball. FIFA linked the ARs to the center by headset for a reason. ARs can often see fouls a ref might not (the head butt in the Portugal-Netherlands match is a prime example.) ARs are responsible for about 25% of the field with the center handling the other 50% diagonally. TheRef at The RefBlog has a nifty diagram of this. I’m not sure adding a second center will help much since most referees are trained to stay within their segment, ensuring at least one official is near the action at all times. As long as the ARs are willing to consistently raise their flag when they see a foul and tell the center what it was, things should work smoothly. UPDATE: WorldCupBlog has some debate on adding officials to the pitch as well.

They also feel implementing radical new guidelines for bookings at the World Cup was a bad idea:

The record number of yellow and red cards by the end of the Group stage didn’t simply materialize out of thin air – referees were clearly told by FIFA that they needed to call the game in a particular fashion before the Cup, and they tried to stick to that. Once again, in principal, cracking down on all the things FIFA wanted stopped, which includes tackles from behind and fouls that interfere with scoring chances, is a good thing. What’s shocking is that FIFA instituted new guidelines at the World Freaking Cup, and have then backpedaled in the middle because they realized they screwed up.

Fair enough. However, I haven’t heard most people complaining because of the number of bookings. Instead they are upset with the uneven issuing of the cards where a bad tackle in one match gets a foul while in another it gets a yellow or even worse, a red. It also seemed like diving was being ignored during the cardfest when it was expected to be carded often. The inconsistency has been a major issue and FIFA knows it. FIFA President Joseph Blatter said as much in a recent interview:

In the same way that our members send their best teams, FIFA owes it to itself, in its own flagship competition, to send out the best referees. Even more so because hundreds of millions of players and referees around the world are watching what happens in Germany with the desire to improve themselves and understand how the game is changing. Instead, I’ve noted that instructions aren’t being followed consistently from one match to another. When a coach complains to me that shirt-pulling earned his player a yellow card one night and nothing for his team’s group rivals the next, how am I supposed to respond? And then there are the tackles from behind I’ve seen go unpunished and the violent conduct that has escaped sanction, not to mention the serious errors made in applying the rules.

This has been a major problem. I for one believe that the only way to really get player’s attention is to card the heck out of them for cheating, diving, and bad tackles. Nobody wants a red card or accumulated yellow suspension and if the calls are accurate for the most part, the players will modify their behavior in a hurry. The problem is everyone sees the inconsistencies and thus is in an uproar. One ref sees a vicious tackle (red) while another sees a dangerous play (yellow). In the end you have some teams penalized by the loss of a player for a simple foul while others get away with murder and stay at full strength. Football kNuts has a possible solution for the former which I think has some merit:

I would make certain that every yellow and red card given out at the World Cup were reviewed for validity, and immediately reversed if found to have little or no merit. Refs screw up, we all understand that. Admitting it occurs should not be a difficult topic to broach, and it’s understood that what happens during a game that affects the scoreline cannot be questioned during the game, but after the fact is another matter entirely. By doing this and questioning the ref involved, you would not have Michael Essien watching Ghana painfully from the sidelines for a nothing foul supposedly committed against the United States that even Bruce Arena was scratching his head about. Once again, making sure the stars are on the pitch is prioritized, it doesn’t undermine a ref’s authority during the game, and yet it still attempts to make sure the calls are correct in the end. Everyone can see the referees are fallible – admit when something was wrong, fix it, and move on.

The main problem I see here is that everyone will start to contest every booking. It’s an administrative nightmare. Maybe only allow red cards to be reviewed and drop it to a yellow if the red was unwarranted to avoid the suspension. Given how close matches are sometimes scheduled you’d have to have a system that would be in place at a moments notice. How you would work it for the professional leagues, I’m not sure. One would hope that the increase in bookings is a temporary spike and as players get the message, things will clean up on the pitch and the bookings will come down again, making possible reviews less frequent. I know I know, and monkeys may fly out of … well you get the idea. Moving on…

Officials in all sports make mistakes. Calls for video replay in soccer have been around for years and the Football kNuts feel its time has come:

when the referee does something to actively change the scoring, like award a penalty kick, wouldn’t it be nice if someone were there to review it immediately? Forget simple games, entire tournaments hinge on these decisions. It only makes sense to get a second pair of trained eyes to at least take a look and see if they agree. Humans are fallible, especially when attempting to observe events occurring at an extremely fast pace – events that are often intentionally disguised or falsified by the participants themselves. Create an instant replay official to review goals, penalties, and red card offenses with a 60 or 90 second review period, and you will dramatically change the game for the better. If the replay official doesn’t see conclusive evidence of a change, then the referee’s call stands.

Many sports have instituted instant replay to overturn bad calls, but mostly in sports with frequent breaks in the action. Soccer doesn’t stop except for bookings and even then it is brief. That’s the way it should be. Cameras in the net to monitor the goal line plane make sense, since anytime the ball goes in the net there is a reasonable break when a review could take place. But most fouls barely stop the action as teams just drop and kick. Bookings take a little longer, but not much. Offsides doesn’t stop things for long either. While I have no problem reviewing if a ball crossed the goal line plane and possibly, possibly, the awarding of PKs, anything else will take too much away from the flow of the game. Red cards are sometimes going to be subjective even with a replay so I’m not sure it gains you enough definitive evidence like you would get trying to see if the ball crossed the plane. I’d say PKs probably fall into the same subjective category and more often than not there won’t be enough conclusive evidence to overturn one. I just don’t see where a video replay is going to provide enough benefit outside of the goal to counter the impact it will have on the game as a whole.

One sore spot for many fans is the problem of shirt tugging and other annoyance fouls.

Professional players are going exploit the rules to the absolute maximum that they are allowed. In fact, one could say that it is in their job description. Unfortunately, this desire is generally contrary to that of the fan, who would prefer to see good football, and referees are ill-equipped to make sure players follow the rules. Say, for example, a player keeps walking up the back of the other players in the middle of the field. This is an obvious foul and gets whistled constantly in every single game. How exactly does one penalize a player for this behavior? Now, the ref can eventually give this player a yellow card for persistent infringement, but say the player still does it, but this time only on important plays. Do you red card someone for it? Technically the answer is yes, but few referees I know of have the huevos required to do such things. Additionally, if they did hand out a red for such a thing, you could expect the ref to be ripped apart in the media and possibly by FIFA itself.

The Football kNuts suggest implementing blue cards, similar to some indoor leagues, which you accumulate for lesser fouls and if you get enough, you are sent off for a period of time. I’m not sure this is such a bad idea. Now I agree that referees have enough to try and keep track of and I’m loathe to introduce anything that will delay the restart of play after a simple foul. However, the fourth official definitely could keep track of something like this. Not sure you have to wave a blue card or have the center write it down each time. After a foul, the center simply relays the offending player’s jersey to the 4th official via headset and if they accumulate a given number of fouls, a tougher sanction is issued. As for what that sanction should be, I’m undecided. Maybe that is when you issue a ‘blue card’ – when they accumulate 5 or 6 fouls – and that means they are gone for the rest of the match, but not suspended for the next, similar to what the Football kNuts suggested. Or just keep things simple and make it a red card sending off with next match suspension to really send the message that repeated BS fouls won’t be tolerated. The problem with any of this is, again, it requires consistent calling of fouls, something we haven’t necessarily seen.

And that is at the heart of the matter here. I have no problem with a record number of bookings if it means divers are getting carded too. However, up until recently, almost all the bookings were for fouls, or worse, fouls that didn’t merit a booking. The divers never seemed to get carded until the knockout round and even then it depended on the referee. The end result of this is fans got fed up and felt the refs were blowing every match and some focused on the sheer number of bookings as some sort of indication of this when it clearly wasn’t. The uproar over the Netherlands v Portugal match and the record number of bookings is a clear sign of this. I happen to think that while the ref probably could have shown his cards earlier to try and keep things in check, once both teams decided the could play a more physical game, most of his bookings were dead on. TheRef has a great post up with his take on that match, and he highlights the unsportsmanlike conduct of the Netherlands as a key factor in things going from bad to worse:

If there was a crucial mistake, it was the drop ball that the Netherlands, in a colossal show of disrespect, did not send back to Portugal. On Socref there are plenty of people who say in a similar situation they would invent some reason to stop and retake the restart; anything from a foul-throw, to my shoe is untied, whatever. To do so is to blatantly disregard the Laws of the Game for the sake of fairness, and had Ivanov done so, I’m sure Blatter et al. would be spitting venom as well – but we might have saved some, but not all of the battle from happening. In this case, we’ve seen what will happen if it’s not done (in other words, score one for disregarding the Law). Portugal took great offense from this move and took matters into their own hands, with brutal results, and in my humble opinion, was the biggest mistake, and caused the biggest hole for the referee.

Look, we all complain about the cheap fouls and grabbing that is ruining the game. FIFA’s answer is to card more often. I think this is a good plan, but you have to make sure your referees are ready to do that in a fairly consistent manner. This is no easy task, especially when you try to combat diving with increased bookings as well. Again, TheRef had some interesting thoughts based on a recent match that highlights why diving is so hard to call and the idea that because diving is considered such an evil thing and it is so subjective, many referees are very hesitant to card it:

She started playing much more physically, which as a player and observer I like, but as a referee I need to watch closely because all too often guys can’t handle a girl playing the same way they do. Then she took a dive. It was a good dive, too – I’m pretty sure I would have bought it if I were anyplace else on the field; she was trying to box in a defender with the ball near his corner and I ran to cover it from in-touch near her bench in order to be very close as it’s very common for elbows to be thrown when that happens in that area. I saw it clearly: no contact whatsoever, and down she went crying for a call, I waived her to get up in the fashion that trainers tell you not to do, but you see MLS refs do all the time, and let the game continue. Her bench even joked about the dive, "Can’t you give her something for her effort?" She was too close for me to joke back, so I stayed neutral, said no, and went back to play.

I should have carded her. The USSF said I should have carded her. FIFA says I should have carded her. Collina says I should have carded her. But I didn’t. I could have said it was because it was late in the game, would have only inflamed the situation (in fact, any tension on that team pretty much evaporated at that point – not sure why, maybe it was my showing that I really was on the ball even in such a slow game as that), but I would be lying to myself. I can’t speak for every referee, but I think even when we "know" it’s a dive, there’s something way back in the back of our minds that asks, "But what if it’s not? Would the caution make the injustice of a non-call, worse?"

It’s really easy to sell a call for a reckless challenge. There’s contact, it goes further than you want, and it doesn’t matter if the player got the ball or not – it’s simply a crossing of the line, issue the card. OK, there’s grey areas too, when you can at least try to get away with a stern talking-to because you’ll get more mileage out of it than flashing some plastic. Diving is cheating of the worst sort, and as referees, we, I, aid it because we want to be 100% sure before declaring that this player is of the worst sort; because when it comes down to it, I don’t think there’s anything referees fear more (aside from assaults, injuries, lawsuits, and others) than carding someone who doesn’t deserve it. [ed. emphasis mine]

And there you have it. FIFA made a conscious decision to increase the number of bookings to try and yank the players back into line. The problem is a booking is often a subjective thing and some referees are less likely to issue them than others. I’ll say it again, the record number of bookings this World Cup is NOT the problem. The problem is the inconsistent manner in which they have been issued. FIFA needed to make sure they had the referees on the same page and they obviously didn’t. Think about it – if the refs for the most part had called things consistently across the matches, the actual number of bookings wouldn’t have mattered. Instead, you’d leave with the feeling that all the teams got treated fairly and that’s just not happening right now. No amount of video replay, added officials, or foul accumulation can change that. For once I have to agree with Blatter: "I’ve noted that instructions aren’t being followed consistently from one match to another." No doubt. Fix that and we’re halfway there. Make sure those instructions ensure the divers get carded consistently and we’ll be a LONG way from where we are.

Soccer isn’t broken. But until we can have fouls and bookings called consistently in a manner that reduces the grabbing, cheating, and diving, it sure will seem that way.

Of course the referees will need FIFA’s steadfast support in all of this and sadly, they haven’t gotten it so far. As TheRef so eloquently notes about Blatter’s criticism of the officiating of the Netherlands v Portugal match:

FIFA has emphasized for its referees to call the World Cup a certain way, and when the system he desires turns out not to work well aesthetically, he shifts the blame off to someone else. The reality is that both teams in the game played thugball, not football. And while you could say that one or two of the yellow cards were harsh, you could not say they were undeserved. NONE of those cards came from the referee being deceived. NONE. But because FIFA is more concerned about the product they’re pushing to the sponsors rather than the sport (one only has to look at how FIFA has treated Cameroon for the last eight years for that), they have decided that it’s better PR to blame the referees than at two of the world’s premiere teams that played a farse of a game.

Only one team came out of this game not smelling like shit, and that’s Valentin Ivanov and his crew. The sad part is that the organization that should be supporting them has decided to dump an additional load, instead of clean up the mess the players made.