Starr vs. Soccer Flops

I am a flop and, in keeping with the spirit of our times, blame my predicament entirely on the flops of others.

Let me explain. For the past couple of decades, I have postured as a true soccer man, or actually as a “football” man to project a continental flair. I have pretended to be so well versed in the game, so comfortable with all its nuances, downright European in my appreciation of its history, its ritual and its realities. At least in my mind, I am Old World. I practically have to put down my boccie ball before I stroll down the cobblestone street to the café to watch the match.

But the 2006 World Cup has drummed home one painful truth: in the end, I am fundamentally New World when it comes to soccer, impatient with the idiocies of the FIFA establishment for foisting a spoiled game upon us in this, the sport’s greatest showcase. Under the guise of tradition, they perpetuate a fraud. Unable to police the game with old methods, disdainful of new technologies, they have assured that the beautiful game is myth; the reality is a succession of dives, flops and other divalike performances that no one man—certainly no referee I’ve seen work this tournament—can sort out with any accuracy.

What you end up with is a succession of ruinous mistakes by referees that produce games that might as well be decided on a whim, which some pretty much are. I could name dozens of blunders, but I’ll stick to just the last few games. Fabio Grosso executes a classic Italian flop in the final seconds that, with official blessing, sends the Azzurri on to the quarters and the gutsy ’Roos home down under. There’s a missed offsides against Adriano on a Brazilian goal that stifled Ghana’s game comeback attempt . And my absolute favorite player, Thierry Henry, fakes taking an elbow to the face , going down as if he had taken a bullet instead: the result is a French free kick, which produces the decisive second goal against Spain.

FIFA obviously recognizes that the modern game has its problems. Before this World Cup the governing body of international soccer instructed officials to get tough on tackles from behind, tugs on the shirt and stalling tactics—all good notions. They hoped to help give the game back its flow and natural grace. In the first few matches the plan was successful before overzealous refs turned good intentions into farce. They called absolutely everything—though somehow they missed a head butt by Portugal’s Luis Figo in the middle of the field—and were right about as often as they were wrong. But the wrongs have too often proved to be the turning points in games.

I am sick of hearing announcers saying of fouls, “he sold it beautifully,” as if feigned victimization is Pele-like talent. I am sick to death of the prevailing attitude that flow is the be-all and end-all when an honest game should be the ultimate concern. There are many innovations that could help protect the integrity of the game—against both human error and, worse, scandalous deceit. Here are just a few notions:

A second ref: It is ludicrous that FIFA still insists on leaving command of the game in the hands of a single official. The field is too big, the athletes too fast, the game too complex for one man to handle. The referee is often out of position without a decent vantage point from which to judge a critical play. The NBA, with fewer men to police a smaller space, improved play with the addition of a third ref in the late ‘80s. It is at least common sense to add a second ref on the soccer pitch, providing two perspectives on everything. The game could also use one extra official at each end of the field; like a linesman with their sideline duties, at each end of the field, he would just eye the box, where the most critical calls are made.

Consultation: I know the referee is wired and can seek help from his two linesmen. But if any refs have been availing themselves of this assistance during the World Cup, it has been to no apparent effect. I haven’t seen a referee reverse himself yet. There is no shame in changing one’s mind, only in plunging ahead with a bad call, and when it proves decisive in an event of World Cup magnitude, it becomes a permanent stain on the game. This is not the same era in which fans would romanticize another call like the infamous “Hand of God” incident in the 1986 World Cup, in which Argentina’s Diego Maradona was given a goal even though he illegally punched a ball into the net.

Replay: Let me say it again: “Damn the flow.” In a sport where a single goal is so often decisive, you should aim, at least once every four years in the World Cup, to get the critical calls correct. So how about starting with replays on disputed goals (or disputed nongoals), as well as on fouls in the box that lead to penalty kicks. The former may not be needed if they can just perfect the gizmo that, placed inside the ball, will signal whether it crosses the goal line. The latter, though, is desperately needed. Sure, it might slow things down for a minute. But it probably wouldn’t take as long as NFL replay, where the loads of big bodies and big equipment tend to obscure events. Soccer is, by comparison, bit more naked and out in the open. Replay should be able to answer key questions—was he actually tripped or shoved or was he faking?—expeditiously. There’s always some delay before a penalty kick is taken. If a replay official starts looking at the call immediately after it is made, the impact on the pace of the pace of the game would be negligible.

Challenges: Here’s another lesson their football could learn from ours. Complement replay by giving each coach one challenge to use on a noncall in the box. If you want to really put the coach on the spot and restrict random use of that challenge, take away one of his three substitutions for an errant challenge. That would assure that a coach would only use it on a virtual certainty. But a challenge option is needed for those moments when everybody sees the play except the referee: like the one that still roils me, the German handball that was somehow missed in the U.S.-Germany quarterfinal loss in 2002. A challenge option might help level the playing field, since the benefit of the doubt on close calls tends to go to the superstars and established powers.

Postgame review: I know FIFA currently reviews referees’ performances. But nothing ever seems to come of it. What we need are official reviews with the power to rectify mistaken cards and to remedy oversights. Maybe you can’t solve everything on the field during the game. But if a player knows that a review official will re-examine the game with the power to issue a postmatch yellow or even red card that would affect eligibility for the next contest, players might be more circumspect about feigned injuries or random head butts. If, for example, a replay showed that no elbow even touched Henry’s face, then red-card him for the next game. Make the price high enough and flops may disappear. Similarly, bogus yellows and reds can be removed; it is ludicrous to make a team pay a second price—beyond the one they already paid on the field—for a mistaken call.

I know I am just an ugly American, a Johnny-come-lately to the beautiful game. I have no right to an opinion. Nevertheless, I have one. Beyond a few unsurpassed moments ( Maxi Rodriguez forever! ) the beautiful game has become an illusion. Those who think otherwise would believe that Dorian Gray is a lovely fellow, too.

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