Fiddling with the World Cup

By Sean Carroll | June 27, 2006 11:54 am

So a lot of visitors have been coming to CV to read Mark’s post on the Physics of Beckham. What’s more, the rest of the blogosphere is thick with commentary on the World Cup — 3 Quarks Daily has Alex Cooley reporting and Jonathan Kramnick grumbling, the Volokh Conspiracy has David Post enthusing and Todd Zywicki critiquing, and Crooked Timber has been hosting rollicking open threads. Who would have thought that people were interested in soccer? It’ll never be as popular as string theory, but there’s definitely some interest there.

Actually, philistine American though I may be, I love the World Cup. And I myself was doing Beckham blogging long before it had become fashionable. The World Cup is everything the Olympics should be, but isn’t. It’s a spectacle of true international importance, featuring a sport that people care about even in the off years, full of compelling personalities and a rich history, in which a country can’t dominate simply on the basis of a superior entertainment-industrial complex. And I have no desire to change the rules of the game to suit my uneducated predelictions. Even though basketball is my sport of choice, I have no problem with the paucity of scoring; just as I can appreciate the ebb and flow of the scoreboard and the drama of big runs and quick turnarounds in hoops, I can also savor the exquisite rarity of goals in soccer, with the attendant ebb and flow of anticipation as scoring chances are mounted and frustrated. I have no problem with the offside rule, nor would I want to see the goal size increased. Nor am I one of those postmodernists who would turn the whole thing into hockey. I don’t even have any problem with the idea that the world’s best team has a star named Kaka, or that the French think they can compete by fielding exactly the same players that won the Cup eight years ago.

That is to say, I am not a hater. So let’s nevertheless admit that there are a couple of things that everyone, from the most clueless newbie to the most knowledgeable expert, can admit are dramatically wrong with the game. And, perhaps, easily fixable.

The first is the refereeing. Not something Americans can feel culturally superior about, as the refereeing in the NBA or NFL is just horrible. But still, the quality in the Cup thus far has been atrocious, and not just because the USA was jobbed against both Italy and Ghana. (Against the Czechs they got what they deserved.) For one obvious thing, there is only one guy out there, expected to police every hidden elbow and maliciously-aimed foot? The notion is absurd on the face of it, and it’s hardly surprising that the difference between an innocent tackle and a game-altering penalty kick is basically a coin toss. (Has anyone before me noticed that the home-field advantage is really quite considerable in these games? They have? Okay, good.) And then you give to these subjective judgments an absolutely tournament-altering power — red cards not only send off a player, but keep him out for the next game, and force the team to play shorthanded for the rest of the match? The situation ensures that the amateur-thespian histrionics after a touch foul for which the Italians are infamous will always be amply rewarded. It’s not an admission of weakness to try to improve this mess somehow; surely nobody wants NFL-style reviews of the calls, but there must be ways (more referees, more latitude with the severity of sanctions) to make the games more fair.

But the real travesty, which I am absolutely convinced must be roundly despised by everyone in their right minds, is the shootout. I mean, come on. Some of the world’s best athletes run themselves ragged for over an hour and a half, with half the planet hanging breathlessly on the result, and it’s decided by a few free kicks from the penalty mark? That’s just insanity. The first World Cup final that I watched live (on TV) was Brazil-Italy in 1994, featuring a scoreless tie after regulation and extra time, the excitement of which was thoroughly destroyed by the shootout decision. This is embarassing, and has to stop. Especially because there is a completely obvious solution: let them keep playing! Sudden-death overtime. Some folks might worry that such an overtime period would just drag on forever. So, fine, let it! It won’t really go forever, because the players will get tired (and their number will be declining due to red cards!), and the ensuing sloppiness will make goals increasingly likely. And the excitement level would be amazing, adding to the drama of the world’s greatest sporting tournament rather than completely undermining it.

So come on, FIFA, do the right thing. Adjust a few knobs here and there on this World Cup thing, you may actually have something.

  • JJ

    Nice post Sean!

    I agree with most of your remarks , especially about atrocious refeereing but I am afraid your suggestions , well intended as they are , are not useful. First, about having two referees inside the pitch. I personally dont like it , because I see no need for it. Most controversial callings are about offside positions and those are mostly a responsability of the assistant referees,so having another guy inside is not going to help. Regarding infamous divings , hand touches inside the box and miscellaneous stuff the solution is to have physically fit referees who can be close to the ball all the time. I concede it is still a controversial topic and for example , UEFA is studying the possibility of doing something about it. Regarding the elimination of the PK shootout I must say is not going to happen ,and for very good reasons. A football match is an extremely demanding physical activity. A player loses between 5 and 10 pounds of body weight in a 90 min game so extending the game without time constraints is exposing the players to high risks of injuries and other physical damages, it is like asking that a boxing match keep going until one boxer is knocked down!. Besides , in a short tournament as a WC championship the time between games is usually shorter than in a regular tournament so having a team playing lots of overtime and 3 or 4 days later matching them with a team who played just 90 min is very unfair. From my experience, hating the shootout is mostly an american thing .People who only watch football every 4 years usually complains also. Most seasoned fans know that a shootout may be cruel but it is not unfair, both teams have the same chances. It is a necessary evil, the last resort. Some people even root for a draw in order to watch a shootout due to the high excitment it generates (mostly when your favorite team is not involved). Finally, shootouts are part of the history of the World Cup and they help to add a sense of drama and legend to the game. Most football fans remember famous shoouts, like France -Germany in 1982, France-Brazil and Germany-England in 1986, Argentine-Italy in 1990 and Argentine-England in 1998 among others ,and I think most fans and even FIFA agree that removing the shootout is depriving the WC of one of its most magic and emotionally intense features.

  • Aaron Bergman


    I want to see them crawling on their hands and knees pushing the ball with their heads if need be. Nobody stops baseball games after 12 innings to have a home run contest. There aren’t shootouts in playoff hockey. Soccer is the only game I’ve ever seen where the world championship can be decided by something almost completely unrelated to the rest of the game.

    I’ve wondered what adding a half-court violation might do to the game, too. It’d get rid of all those annoying goalie passes.

  • marco

    Dear Sean, there is something cultural here.

    The referee’s mistakes are one of the best parts. How could people argue for days or years between the matches, without those? How could all the “Bar Sport” in every italian little town survive, if not feeding and serving drinks to all the customers and fans that go there only to complain about the referee and the fate?

    And the penalty kicks vs the golden goal/sudden death? Come on! Everybody hated that when it was introduced to please the americans. Even the below-average soccer fan feels his/her heart stopping when your team is at the penalty kicks. It’s a bit more intense than, I don’t know, the 10th inning. And where else do you find a way to keep tens of millions of italians completely frozen for tens of seconds?

    By the way, I don’t know what you are talking about with that thing of the italians being infamous for pretending life-threatening injuries at every light touch. This must come to you from last week’s disappointment…
    Did I say which country I’m from?
    All the best.

  • Sean

    Give me a break. Referee’s mistakes are a highlight of the game? Why not make all the calls completely random? Believe it or not, there would still be things for the fans to talk about even if the referee’s didn’t make as many mistakes.

    As for the notion that the shootout is somehow more riveting than sudden-death overtime would be, or the one that soccer players are too delicate and fragile to keep playing until someone scores a goal — these Romans are crazy, as Asterix once said.

  • Tom Renbarger

    Have the PK shootouts come back this year? I could’ve sworn that sudden death OT was in play in 1998 and 2002.

  • Alfredo Louro

    You think play should continue for ever? Have you ever played football? Running constantly for two 45-minute halves, with a 15-minute intermission? Without breaks for TV commercials?

    You think all falls are fake? Ever been kicked in the knees? Repeatedly? With zero protection?

    As for multiplying the number of referees, Americans may enjoy watching a group of referees debate amongst themselves while the game is at a standstill, but it wouldn’t fly anywhere else in the world.

    It’s a subtle concept, but the fallibility of the refs is actually part of the game. Football, like life, is occasionally very unfair.

    I always find it amusing that Americans are so unbelievably incompetent at this game, and yet they think that it’s riddled with flaws, that even “the most clueless newbie” can see.

  • Sean

    Relax, Alfredo. I have played the game, I don’t think all falls are fake, and having more than one referee does not imply endless debates between them. And not everything is America vs. the world.

  • Dan

    Ease up, Alfredo.
    Anyhow, it doesn’t make much sense, in my opinion, to demand that the game keeps going “forever”. Not only for the very important reason of the player’s physical integrity, but also for spectacle’s sake. PK shootouts can light up a lot of excitement in otherwise boring games, as thoroughly demonstrated by yesterday’s Ukraine – Switzerland. Third, the quality of the game decreases and keeps decreasing as the players get tired, as exemplified everytime a game goes into overtime. A posible solution could involve giving both teams a lot of extra replacements?

  • Aaron Bergman

    I just watched France score on an utterly atrocious call, after Italy won the other night on something even worse. No wonder people flop all the time in this game if this is the result.

    It’s pretty pathetic that multiple games at this level get decided by such histrionic crap. Get another ref on the field at the very least.

  • the roonster

    france won deservedly, what atrocious call are you referring to?

    It’s always strange listening to americans talk about football, as I’m sure it would be if I were to pontificate about american football or baseball. My instinctive response is ‘hey, football doesn’t belong to you – don’t mess with it’. But of course that’s silly.

    Incidentally, what’s the coverage of the world cup been like over there in the states? Here in england it’s pretty much the only thing in the papers (and I don’t just mean the sports section).

  • Aaron Bergman

    The free kick on France’s second goal. France might have deserved to win, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a foul on that play.

    I really think a second ref could help. That way you have one person ahead of the play and one behind it to get a better view on various contact situations.

  • Robert

    For the record: This time, there is no sudden death/golden goal in overtime anymore as there was in the last two tournaments. I must admit, I do not fully understand this decision, probably, it is to remove an element of randomness at least for the overtime period.

    The issue of the referee is probably more subtle than you think: For most of this year’s tournament I was very impressed by the performance of the referees and what they actually got right in so short time! Regarding your suggestion, it is one of the most important aims for the referee to keep the game flowing balancing the rules with not too many interruptions of the game. Ideally, like a systems administrator, you don’t notice the referee at all. This woul d significantly be hurt if there was a team of referees that would have to coodinate or the decisions would be open to review.

    I think, everybody agrees that penalty shootout is not really “fair”. But it is part of being a successful football team to be able to score the penalties after running for more than 120 minutes and under extreme psychological pressure. So, why not? In earlier days of football, a game with a draw was just repeated (a number of times) and eventually, a coin was thrown.

    I don’t think, either Ukraine or the Swiss would have been able to score if you had given them more time. 120 minutes of an extremely boring game did not suggest they had any ideas of how to get into the other team’s box.

  • JoAnne

    You wanna talk about Bad Refereeing? Don Denkinger, with his bad call that simply gave the 1985 World Series to the Kansas City Royals, still takes the cake in my book.

  • damtp_dweller

    Penalties are a pretty rubbish way to end any match. Except, that is, when that match involves England.


  • Brad

    I’ve always wondered what would happen if they made the following adjustment for overtime. After every 10 minutes of overtime, each team has to remove a player from the field. This would prevent the game from going on endlessly, as eventually it will guarantee someone is going to score, even if it ultimately comes down to the two goalkeepers, mano a mano!

  • Eugene

    Whoa. I was Sean’s student. I was also a huge footie fan. And I have no idea Sean knew so much about footie.

    Anyway, they did think about letting the players play forever until they tire off and make mistakes. The problem is that, the players will be so tired after the game that there will have no more energy for the next game.

    A proposed possible solution is that after regulation time, you allow extra subs, on top of the usual 3. Then the idea might work…

  • Eugene

    Anyway, I was rooting for Spain. Too bad the thespians kicked them out.

  • Alfredo Louro

    Sorry if I don’t sound “relaxed” enough. But this is a case of America vs. the rest of the world. Football is arguably the most popular sport in the world. (Not soccer; this is a British anachronism, short for Association Football, that Americans use to distinguish the game from what everybody else calls American football. Nobody else calls it that, not even the Brits.). It’s played and loved with a passion in its native Britain, in the rest of Europe, in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. It’s played in Russia, and Israel, and Palestine. Everybody gets it. Even the Germans get it. Everybody, that is, except the US. The US doesn’t get it.

    Football is played on dusty patches of ground in African villages; on Brazilian beaches, beautifully, at sunset; in muddy, rain-sodden fields by the mines in Wales; and although it’s beyond my experience, I’m sure dirt-poor Asian kids have found places to make magic with a ball.

    Americans think it’s a game fit only for small boys and girls, lovingly and condescendingly applauded by the celebrated soccer moms, a demographic category recognized by car manufacturers and politicians.

    Every four years the World Cup rolls around, and it’s such a big deal that even Americans are aware of it. They find that a local team has qualified, and they think they are ready for the big time, until of course their team gets roundly beaten up by some dirt-poor Africans who actually know how to play the game. You would think that Americans would say “Whoa. We suck at this. Maybe we should pay attention and learn how to play this interesting game”. But no. Americans being Americans, they don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, but with the game, of course! It should have instant replays, and a team of referees, with voting procedures and measuring chains, no doubt. It should go on, and on, and on, until the players drop exhausted to the ground. And above all, there should be none of this effeminate play-acting when you fall to the ground. And the referees, well! They obviously hate America. They hate our freedoms.

    Look, in the real world, you don’t like the ref’s call, you throw something at him. When referees need police protection to leave the field, they learn the rules, OK?
    And yes, even the best referee will occasionally make a mistake, and will have to lie low for a week or two, until the enraged fans find something else to gripe about. Like hunger.

    Football is played in a park, with jackets for goal posts and no referees or linesmen, and as many players as you can pull together on a Sunday afternoon. There is no way America’s desperate housewives or their desperate husbands can understand the game. There are no playbooks, no diagrams, no measuring chains, no instant replays, no hierarchy of coaches, no glossy satin uniforms, no clipboards. Just a bunch of ordinary geniuses with a ball, improvising.

    Americans don’t know how to improvise. This is why their armies, the most technologically sophisticated armies in the entire Local Group, are helpless against some barefoot guerrillas. If Americans stopped thinking about how to change the rules of football, and actually tried to understand the game, they might actually begin to understand guerrilla warfare, and save their lives.

  • Mark Srednicki

    The best thing about the PK shootout is that it’s a wonderful illustration of Nash equilibrium in game theory:

    But to have “no problem with the offsides rule” is downright unamerican!

  • damtp_dweller

    Alfredo, it’s funny to watch someone spend so much time crafting a response which contains so few actual points. Seriously, quit with the sweeping generalizations: they make you sound like a total idiot.

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  • Shantanu

    JJ, I don’t think Germany and England met in 1986 world cup. You
    are probably referring to the 1990 game(which I agree was a great game)
    I also agree with Aaron that the foul which led to France’s second goal
    looked iffy. Italy has been very unlucky in penalty shootouts in 1990,1994
    and 1998

  • Jack

    Alfredo sputtered: “If Americans stopped thinking about how to change the rules of football, and actually tried to understand the game, they might actually begin to understand guerrilla warfare, and save their lives”

    Oh, my aching sides!

  • jb

    For the record, in Australia, Canada, America, Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand, association football is called soccer, and football means something else, which depends on the country and sometimes the region. Britain is a notable exception.

  • Say Lee

    Americans are not new to bad refereeing, or their dire consequences. Instant reply rules do not apply in all games.

    And to extrapolate from Americans’ ill understanding of the soccer game to their military prowess, or the lack thereof, is a long stretch.

    As for football being native to England, I thought the game originated in China. But I must admit that the game has gone through many iterations except that it is still basically played with the feet, and the brain.

  • Say Lee

    Oops, “replay” and “the head” at the end.

  • Fussballer

    Nice post, Alfredo! I think a provocative post is good sometimes.
    Sean, you have to understand that the rest of the world is more than just fond of soccer, we love it. And so we are somewhat sensitive to comments like yours and obviously react emotionally. So a reaction like Alfredo’s post had to come…
    If I was to propose to change the colors of the American flag to pink and green for whatever (maybe) sensible reasons, you can think about what I would hear…
    For us, soccer is tradition, soccer is passion, soccer is part of our culture and our lives.
    And your comments, well, that’s your opinion. But I like the shootouts and I really like the human component of the referee. It makes the game more interesting! And hating a referee for bad decissions or feeling lucky (as the Italinas should!) and maybe a bit embarrassed for a gift from a referee, that’s all part of the emotions of soccer.
    For my part, I expected a nicer and more positive post from you about the world cup. You know, in this soccer tournament, the word “world” is really deserved since the whole world is able to qualify and participate… Not like the “world series” etc. So I think there are a lot of interesting international aspects to report about in the world cup. Unfurtunately, they are not shown on the American TV broadcasting neither (at least the one in English on ESPN/ABC! Univision in Spanish shows things about the fans, about Germany, etc.), so maybe you are not aware of some interesting issues.
    Anyways, I am glad you guys are writing something about the world cup!!!

  • Elliot

    I have tried to watch soccer. It is about as interesting to me as watching water boil. No way it even compares with (for example) the NCAA basketball tournament for excitement. And if you want a “real” workout try water polo. 10 minutes and you won’t even be able to breathe or stand up.

    When it comes to American foreign policy and imperialism I am thoroughly and genuinely embarrassed. When it comes to spectator sports “bring em on”.


  • Tom Renbarger

    I gotta say, reply #18 by Alfredo has to be the silliest non-Quantoken post I’ve ever seen here, specifically the understanding soccer = understanding guerilla warfare bit.

    Assuming for the moment that the premise isn’t silly enough to be dismissed out of hand, I think the Italy game alone is enough to give lie to it. Italy scored on a set piece. The US historically hasn’t been all that great at set pieces. On the other hand, they are a decent counterattacking side, as they demonstrated against Italy, you know, while they were shorthanded. Sort of like guerillas. 😛

    The US style has been this way for a while now, too. I haven’t seen it rub off on the military so far.

  • Amara

    The Lexington column of the Economist June 10 issue: might shed some light on parts of Alfredo’s perspective.

  • damtp_dweller

    jb said:

    “For the record, in Australia, Canada, America, Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand, association football is called soccer, and football means something else, which depends on the country and sometimes the region. Britain is a notable exception.”

    On the contrary, football is called football in Ireland, not soccer. The term lives quite harmoniously with the “other” type of football played there. What’s more, using the word “soccer” in either Ireland or the UK is quite likely to result in people viewing you as an effeminate, foppish American, but I digress.

  • Elliot

    So we’ve got a sport with a rule (offside) which penalizes the players for being able to run faster than their opponents.

    What a great idea.


  • damtp_dweller

    “So we’ve got a sport with a rule (offside) which penalizes the players for being able to run faster than their opponents.

    What a great idea.”

    The point of the offside rule is twofold: to enforce fairness by ensuring that the fastest person (attacker or defender) reaches the ball first, and to prevent “goalhanging.” Regardless of whether or not you understand it (you obviously don’t), the offside rule is definitely something that works well.

  • Alejandro

    Elliot got it precisely backwards. With the offside rule strikers are forced to run fast overpassing the defenders to reach a long pass. Without it they could just stand close to the goal waiting for the ball to reach them.

  • jb

    damtp_dweller said:

    “What’s more, using the word “soccer” in either Ireland or the UK is quite likely to result in people viewing you as an effeminate, foppish American, but I digress.”

    Well, it is true that the Irish person who told me “soccer” is the word was a woman…

  • Elliot

    Gee guys, thanks for setting me straight. I’m going to send a letter to David Stern right now telling him to make the fastbreak illegal in the NBA because it would be such a better, more interesting game. And maybe the NFL should require wide receivers to wear ankle weights to make it more fair.

    I tend to agree with international criticism of America and its aggressive imperialistic policies, but when it comes to sports I guess I’m just a little too parochial. Maybe it is one of those things that is culturally imprinted as a child. So I plead guilty.

    Anyway. Somebody wake me up when the world cup is over.

  • Jacques Distler

    Hockey has both an “offside” rule and an “icing” rule (to deter pointless rink-spanning movements of the puck).

    I agree that, without an offside rule, goal-hanging would make both sports kinda silly.

  • Mark Srednicki

    But Jacques, there is a profound difference between the offsides rule in soccer and in hockey. In hockey, the attacker cannot receive the puck if past the opponent’s blue line. In soccer, the attacker cannot receive the puck if past ALL DEFENDERS. It is up to the attackers to make sure that the defenders are in position. I find this ludicrous on principle. It also leads to frequent stoppage of wonderfully developing plays, and to a ridiculous (though sadly effective) defense, the offsides trap.

    I have no problem with the offsides rule in hockey and wish soccer would adopt something similar, with (say) the box serving as the blue line.

  • Eugene

    I find this ludicrous on principle. It also leads to frequent stoppage of wonderfully developing plays, and to a ridiculous (though sadly effective) defense, the offsides trap.

    On the contrary, the offside rule has spread the game out into the entire field.

    You can use a blue line, but then the space between the two blue lines will basically be empty, since footballers will just stand on the blue line, and wait for long passes to come.

  • Jacques Distler

    You can use a blue line, but then the space between the two blue lines will basically be empty, since footballers will just stand on the blue line, and wait for long passes to come.

    Umh, no. A pass which crosses either blue line and the center line (a “two-line pass”) is also an offside in hockey.

    I take Mark’s point about making the offside rule depend on the locations of the opposing players.

    I was defending the idea of an offside rule in general — which I think is necessary in a sport like soccer/hockey/…

  • Aaron Bergman

    Umh, no. A pass which crosses either blue line and the center line (a “two-line pass”) is also an offside in hockey.

    That was the old NHL. This is the new NHL.

  • Thomas Dent

    I think the ‘golden goal’ was dropped because it made the teams more defensive in extra time. That is the logical response to a sudden-death situation: defend at all costs.

    With a full 30 min extra time, you can still equalise and even win.

    Penalties make perfect sense as an ultra-condensed form of what should also happen during normal play: in both, you win if your players can keep their heads and shoot straight into the net.

    I’m not going to defend the refereeing!!

  • Stephen Levy

    Perhaps I’ve missed the comment in the above threads but what I find troubling about offsides is that the linesman is expected to determine whether the offensive player is behind the last defender when the ball is struck, effectively meaning that he should be able to see two ‘events’ separated by maybe 20m at the same time. I can barely tell on the slow motion replay most of the time. Why not make the rule contingent on the offensive player being at the same position as the last defender when the ball is breaking the plane of the last defender? Wouldn’t this lead to less ‘mistakes’?

  • marco

    Wait, you are missing a point on the off-side rule!
    Its whole purpose is to enable the most experienced watchers to stay still in front of the TV screen when it is enforced. I mean: you are in a crowded room full of over-excited fans. Suddenly an attacker of your team dashes forward and is heading alone towards the goal. All the room jumps up and shouts! …But you know he was in an off-side position, so you know the referee is going to stop the game soon. So you sit still, and say with confidence “Mm, what a pity, it is an off-side…”. Then the referee actually stops the game and you gain enormous respect from the rest of the crowd, especially girls (countless jokes about explaining girls the off-side rule). I must add that this works in any case, because if the action is not stopped nobody will notice your imperturbability, and you can immediately join the excitement saying “I knew they were good!”…
    Seriously, though, do factor in some small human details that make the game more uncertain, and therefore debatable.

  • Robert

    Stephens suggestion in comment 43 would not work as the defenders could step forward after the ball was kicked while it’s in the air forcing an offside and there would be no way for the offensive team to avoid it (except for the receiving player moving backwards).

    Given that watching out for a potentially receiving player being in an offside position is the main task of one of the assistan referees (the one that is supposed to stand at the line of the last defender) it should not be too complicated to realise if that condition still holds when the ball is kicked. But I agree, offside is the hardest rule to decide in real time.

  • bittergradstudents

    So, the rule is good because it is arcane? Marco, I think you and American football would soon become good friends.

    I think the offsides rule is good because it allows defenders to come up on offense more often. If you changed it, even to something like the NHL-style rules, I wonder if the more conservative play of the defenders might more than cancel out any breakaway-type plays by the strikers.

  • Mark Srednicki

    That doesn’t happen in lacrosse, where each team is required to keep at least three (of 9) players on each side of the midfield line (plus a goalie on the defensive side). The defensemen generally stay up close to the midline so as to challenge any attack as soon as possible.

    It would be fun if FIFA would try staging some exhibition games with alternate rules to see how things go. Not that I expect this to happen.

    Meanwhile I look forward to tomorrow’s thrilling 0-0 tie between Germany and Argentina …

  • Robert

    Why do you expect this to happen as both coaches said they told their teams to go for offence rather than bringing the game to stand-still by falling back to defensive play?

  • Mark Srednicki

    Robert, I’ll certainly be happy if (a) the coaches are telling the truth and (b) their teams listen to them.

    Here’s hoping for a score of, say, 4-2 (which was quite common in World Cup gaimes before 1970 …).

  • Greco

    In soccer, the attacker cannot receive the puck if past ALL DEFENDERS.

    Completely and utterly wrong. A player is offside if he is closer to the goal line than both the ball and TWO DEFENDERS at the moment of the pass. See, it is not even arcane.

    And offside trap is an effective tactic? Please. There’s a reason why it is called the “dumb line” in Brazil. Refereeing mistakes always happen with it, both for and against, and using it against a team with players who are intelligent, fast, and/or skilled is suicidal. I had to pick my jaw off the floor when I saw Ghana playing with a very high trap against Brazil, a team that has players with all three characteristics.

    And before you mention Adriano’s goal in response: watch the tape and you’ll see the first wrong call was against an unmarked, just-the-keeper-to-beat Ronaldo, when the score was 0-0 and he was onside by a light-year.

    Most football fans remember famous shoouts, like…France-Brazil…1986

    Yes, I do remember that, it’s one of my first footballing memories and the second most traumatic. The other is the surreal 1998 final, and those are the reasons I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s match.
    And I don’t agree with criticism of the shootouts. It is the ultimate test of fitness and emotional stability, it’s exciting, and not a bad idea if your team has Taffarel or Dida in the goal.

  • adam

    The change I’d make is retroactive punishment for dives that went unnoticed by the referee during play; the television footage is good enough now to catch quite a lot of them. Give the player a three game ban for something that he thinks that he got away with at the time and they might think a bit more carefully. It won’t solve the problem (particularly in the Final itself, when worrying about the games to come isn’t such a big deal, as they’ll be in qualifying games towards getting into the next World Cup), but it might help to change the culture a bit.

  • Denis Barkats

    Hi Sean and others,

    I haven’t read all the comments yet on this post, I’m only on number 9, but already I think it’s awsome how a physics blog on soccer can inflame virtual comments almost as much as plays on the green turfs of Germany.

    Sean, I wanted to tell you, thanks for posting this. I manage to watch a few select games downloaded in low-res to make it through the low south-pole satellite bandwidth and there are a few soccer fans down here. We get a kick thinking that South Pole is still represented at the World Cup (I’m french and the QUAD winter over is german) and we laugh like idiots imagining and historical France-Germany final.
    In any case, cheers to all soccer afficionados.


  • Robert

    See, it was not 0:0. I haven’t seen such a thrilling match for years although it was not very aesthetic. And obviously, you don’t want me to doubt the fairness and the well deservedness of a win in penalty shootout!

  • Mark Srednicki

    You’re right. I was only able to watch the first half, alas, but I agree that it was exciting. Portugal-England and France-Brazil were also exciting, even though we had a grand total of one goal in those games.

  • AL

    Guys who do not like football ( The real one….the one actually played by using two feet kicking the ball….a ball that is round as a ball should be)You cannot start comparing two different sports and start combining good parts of each game and totally basterdizing the game. When you do that, you end up with American football. That game is the most boring I have ever watched. Some of you want 2 referees, and forcing the games into unlimited overtimes instead of Penalty Kicks. I do not agree we need 2 referees, but we absolutely need video replays. As per eliminating the Penalty kicks, and having multiple overtimes instead, youve got to be kidding! Let me remind you that unlike Ice Hockey, Football is only allowed a few substitutes. You will only understand what it takes to keep playing on, if you have played the sport yourself at a professional level.

  • Amara

    That Italy-Germany game took my breath away. I am happy to see my neighbors over-the-top excited, but I honestly don’t care who won. The skill and flair I saw in that game was thrilling. Both teams should feel proud.

  • Sam Gralla

    I haven’t checked in a while, so I haven’t followed the comments and didn’t read them all just now, but I’d just like to say that the poor officiating is all part of the appeal of soccer. It’s like the real world–there is limited law enforcement, and you get away with what you can (within limits that reasonable people set for themselves). In life, you might speed if there are no cops around, but you wouldn’t steal someone’s car. In soccer, you might pull a shirt if ref isn’t looking, but you never, for example, fail to be sportsmanlike and kick the ball out of bounds if an opposing player is injured. I like how soccer reflects life in this way; it feels more realistic and less game-like. Winning the game involves not only outsmarting the other team but also outsmarting the referee (and believe me, how referees make calls is heavily dependent on how the players act and interact with the referee, so this ads a nice additional psychological dimension to the game).

    I agree about pk’s, but I don’t think the solution is permanent sudden death. Maybe something like what was used in the MLS for the first few years of its existence–a hockey style dribbling penalty kick that requires more diverse skills that just a shot from the kicker.

  • Albert Beerstein


    Add a 2nd tier goal 6 feet higher and the same width etc on top of the 1st tier goal (present goal no changes to it). Change points to 3 points for the 1st tier goal and 1 point for the 2nd tier goal. The top goal height is now 14 feet. The goalie will still be able to block a lot of 2nd tier goals up to about 10-12 feet. The new 2nd tier goal will allow long range scoring shots. This is like a field goal in American football. If a game ends in a tie, then have an overtime period and: allow a sudden death victory score like American football or allow the winner to be determined by a final score at the end of the overtime period like American basketball. Allow free substitution like American basketball since a fresh body plays at a higher skill level. No other rules changes needs to be made. This should be tried first in a semi-pro league funded by the professional association.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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