King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The beautiful, ugly game: Soccer doesn't need changing, but here's how I'd change it anyway.


Salon Staff
June 26, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

Here's a soccer prediction: Play a game filled with fouls and yellow and red cards, ending up with fewer than 20 players on the field, and some newspaper will headline its story "Beautiful Game Turns Ugly."

After the 1-1 tie between the United States and Italy last week, the Times of London's headline was "The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly."

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On Sunday Portugal knocked out the Netherlands 1-0 in a match that made U.S.-Italy look like a tea dance. There were 16 yellow cards, four ejections and too many dives to count.

The London (Ont.) Free Press described it thus: "Beautiful Game Turns Ugly."

At some point, there's going to be a fantastic match, and the blats are going to rave over the ugly game turning beautiful.

Maybe we can just agree that soccer's a lot like most other sports. Sometimes it's ugly, sometimes it's beautiful.

Beautiful is the only word I can think of to describe Maxi Rodriguez's winning goal for Argentina in extra time against Mexico Saturday. Rodriguez settled a crossing pass from Juan Sorin with his chest and then, without a bounce, left-footed a rocket into the upper-left corner of the net from about 25 yards.

It was an astonishing play, the kind of thing that, quite frankly, if there were more of them, soccer would have an easier time in this country, where we like our astonishing plays.

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We've talked a lot in this space about soccer's appeal on these shores in the last two weeks -- and I don't just mean me. Go to the end of any column of mine that has mentioned soccer since the start of the World Cup and click on the letters link, and you'll find a spirited discussion of soccer's appeal or lack of same to American sports fans.

It's been a conversation mostly devoid of both soccer snobbery and antisoccer provincialism.

For years I've been part of the very American contingent saying soccer suffers from not enough scoring, or more specifically not enough legitimate scoring chances. But starting with the 2002 World Cup and continuing this time -- with almost no thought given to the matter in between -- I've come to appreciate the flow of the game at its best, and to understand that how frustrating it is, the difficulty in scoring, is a huge part of the appeal.

"The hard is what makes it great" is how Tom Hanks' character put it about baseball in "A League of Their Own."

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And of course I realize the world doesn't need me to fix soccer, because the world is very happy with soccer, thank you very much.

More important, the world doesn't need to fix soccer, or tweak it, or do anything to it, to make it appeal to Americans. The hell with us Americans. If we don't like soccer enough, too bad. Our loss.

Those disclaimers out of the way, I just like to think about how I'd change sports to make them better and more entertaining for me, King Kaufman. Remember, I'm the guy who wants to remove free throws from basketball and turn the 24-second clock into a 10-second clock in the last two minutes.

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And I love basketball.

I'm the guy who wants to remove punting and placekicking from American football, which I also love.

So here's what I'd do if I were king. Lowercase.

I think I'd change the offside rule. That's about it. I'm not sure exactly how I'd change it, but I'd make offside a lot more rare. Scoring chances could be a lot more frequent and still be pretty rare, and way, way too many scoring chances -- in my opinion -- are scuttled by offside.

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I'd kill the offside trap, for one thing, make it so the attacking player is offside if he goes offside -- he's ahead of the ball and he moves ahead of the last non-goalie defender, to oversimplify a little -- but not if he's put offside by the defenders moving away from their own goal.

I might make it so that you could only be offside in the penalty box. I realize this would encourage cherry-picking, guys hanging back and waiting for a long pass from the defense, but I'm not sure cherry-picking would be bad in soccer. Anything that discourages a defender from clogging up the attacking end, and also sets up a possible breakaway, well, I think I'm for that.

But I'm not sure because I also might want to put in a rule something like hockey's late, unlamented two-line pass rule -- which I spent years railing against. That's because the other thing that scuttles scoring chances is that when the offense manages to get the ball into the penalty box, it's always facing about a 3-on-6. There are always way more defenders than attackers. I want to even that out.

A rule against long, long passes might encourage teams to bring more players forward when attacking because it would be harder to burn them with a long ball the other way.

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Then again, it would eliminate long, long passes, which are part of what's so great about soccer sometimes.

One thing I know I'd try to do is something to get rid of all the diving. I've learned in this World Cup that we Americans are more offended by the diving than the rest of the world is.

It's actually seen as a weakness of the American team -- a team with no shortage of weaknesses -- that it refuses to take part in the injury faking, which on the one hand seems noble, on the other seems foolish and on a third seems odd for a country that produced Joe Pepitone.

I understand why we don't like the diving and don't know enough about enough of the rest of the world to understand why it doesn't bother them as much. But no matter. This is my mental exercise, and the diving has got to go.

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Just for starters: If you're carried off on a stretcher, you can't come back.

There have been a lot of complaints about too many yellow and red cards. That may be. But what I think there have been way, way too many of are stretchers.

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