Robben Marquez

While much of the soccer world at large is surely gratified to see Americans finally taking to the game — record Nielsen ratings (even for games not involving the Yanks) have been accompanied by admirable on-field performances — many international observers do worry the U.S. will eventually use its outsized cultural sway to exert undo, ill-considered influence on their game.

There is, in fact, considerable precedent for this wariness. In the 1980s, the North American Soccer League toyed with an offside line that was just 35-yards from goal. Major League Soccer, the top league here in the U.S., insists on playing its season from Spring through the Fall (to avoid competing with the NFL and NBA), whereas every other league in the world plays Fall through Spring. MLS also plays official games on artificial turf, a FIFA no-no. Some have even alleged the “cooling breaks” inaugurated during this World Cup are the result of some American conspiracy that will lead, incrementally, to in-game commercial breaks.

What’s more, I think we’ve all been in bars with some soccer-watching American yahoo who confidently proclaims, “Here’s how they could make this sport a lot better…”

While I have spent the last 30 years patiently defending/explaining soccer’s status quo to small-minded people like this, I have also been witness some quite radical rule changes: Even used to be offside; now even is onside. Goalkeepers used to be able to handle any back pass from a teammate; now they cannot (unless it’s headed); extra time was never sudden death, then it was; now it isn’t anymore. This year we say hello to goal-line technology…

So, in the interest of progress, and despite my holding a valid U.S. Passport, allow me to advance one idea as a thought experiment:

Spot kicks in the penalty area should be taken from the spot of infraction, not the penalty spot. If said foul takes place inside the 6-yard box, a traditional penalty is awarded.

This, too, is radical, but it would be more consistent with fouls called anywhere else on the field, i.e. foul occurs here; free kick is awarded on that spot. As with PKs currently, infractions resulting in a direct kick would require all players but the shooter and the keeper to clear the penalty area, until such time that the ball is played.

Why the change? As it stands now, the impact of PKs is, to say the least, outsized. We have attacking players actually going down in the box — trying to draw the ultimate foul — rather than trying to stay on their feet in order to consummate a legitimate scoring chance.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil has had its fair share of such episodes: Fred’s questionable tumble during the tournament opener, which drew a deciding penalty kick for the host nation. Even more notably, witness Rafa Marquez’ borderline, last-minute foul on Holland’s Arjen Robben, which resulted in a game-winning penalty kick and sent Mexico packing after the Round of 16 (again).

The Marquez Affair inspired all sorts of back (there was contact; he stepped on Robben’s foot) and forth (clearly an “embellishment” in contravention of the rules). However, this much is clear and straightforward: Robben was more interested (far more) in drawing that foul than in scoring, despite being so close to goal (with all sorts of teammates in the box who, upon receiving a pass, might well score). That’s a perversity, and this rule change would help address it.

At this level, the PK conversion rate is some 75-80 percent. PKs are awarded because an attacking player has presumably been denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity, i.e. the chance to shoot on goal. But how dangerous a position did Robben occupy when Marquez took him down? (Marquez did not, for the record, also surgically invade Robben’s abdomen and rip out the Dutchman’s severed spleen, Robben’s facial contortions, shouts of agony, and pathetic collapse to the turf notwithstanding).

The foul occurred on the goal line, or end line. This rule change I’ve suggested would give Robben his free kick, place the ball at the spot of the foul — close to goal but at a poor angle — and let the chips fall where they may. The angle might be poor but the keeper must remain on the line, as per usual; he may not cut down the angle. So, Robben would be awarded a free kick that provides him a slightly better opportunity to score, from the spot of the foul, had he not been impeded. In other words, we are still giving defenders a disincentive to foul in the area. However, that opportunity for conversion, for scoring, would be more in keeping with the actual scoring chance — the one snuffed out by the foul.

The Marquez example is particularly instructive because imagine the strategy for PKs awarded there, under this proposed system: Robben can’t reasonably score from the touch line, from such an acute angle. He would be obliged to seek out teammates scattered about the edge of the box, creating chances for them — much like a penalty corner in field hockey (I realize this movement has been set back some 15 years with that comparison, but it’s apt). These would be strategic but still flowing, soccer-centric scenarios, however, unlike penalty kicks which, in fact, are the most contrived thing in the game. Those situations — guys standing alone on the spot with no one around him, just shooter and the goalie — almost never happen in the run of play.

Far more frequently, with no wall to take away the short-side post, goalies would be sorely tested from many spots in the box. These “new generation” penalties would result in acrobatic saves. There would be brilliant, net-bulging strikes. But all of these chances and half-chances would be more in keeping with and proportion to the scoring chance the foul prevented.

As indicated above, traditional PKs would be awarded only for fouls that take place in the six-yard box. That makes sense, as trying to keep the goalie on the line, when the ball is placed 3 yards in front of him, would be impractical. Further, a hand ball or foul that close to goal should rightly result in a goal 80 percent of the time.

Indeed, we may, through this rule change, have finally figured out why that mini-box exists. Purportedly, goal kicks can be taken anywhere inside of that box. But surely this is a waste of space and paint. There must be a more practical, intrinsic purpose, and this might be it.

Most interesting and most important would be the new ruling’s effect on overall play in the box.

Right now, each offensive/defensive encounter in the box is all or nothing: Any sort of foul is a PK, almost surely a goal. Defenders are determined to avoid that foul and strikers routinely cheat/simulate in order to draw it. Under the new system, each offensive/defensive encounter would take on but a gradation of risk. Defenders would be more aggressive on the goal line, and out on the peripheries of the penalty area. Referees will certainly call more fouls at the corners of the box more frequently — because the stakes out there would lower, and far more entertaining. Traditional PKs are boring, fait d’accomplit. I, for one, would like to see more mano-a-mano encounters between keepers and strikers who can really strike a 16-yard bullet — from an assortment of angles.

By the same token, less aggression would be manifest in the center or the box, in front of goal, where committing a foul would still result in a more or less point-blank penalty.

Maybe if this gradation of risk were realized, other aspects of the game would be positively affected. Currently, the amount of clutching and grabbing that takes place on any corner kick is absurd. At least one penalty kick could be called on every corner, at this level, if the referee so chose. However, if referees feel more at liberty to call clutching and grabbing at sharp, shallow angles to goal (because it’s not as if that referee would be handing one team an 80 percent chance at goal), clutching and grabbing generally, anywhere in front of goal, might subside.

The other piece of this equation is the tendency toward diving, or, as FIFA calls it, “embellishment”. We already have the means to snuff this out: calling the foul on the offensive player, the diver, and awarding a yellow card. This is a simple matter of referees more frequently whistling players for embellishment (and flashing the yellow caution, two of which get you ejected, of course).

For some reason, refs have been loath to follow this course. There is squeamishness on the referee’s part — getting that call wrong might decide a game unfairly. But games are being unfairly decided right now, and FIFA, in a surprising bit of wisdom, was clever to call it “embellishment”. The foul is irrelevant. The overriding infraction is embellishing the foul in hopes of unduly influencing the referee, drawing a penalty kick, and perhaps getting your opponent thrown out of the game. Once you have embellished, it doesn’t matter if you were fouled. Name go in book.