Thursday, July 06, 2006

More Mindless Blatter

Hockey’s disease is spreading.

Barely a week after declaring that “World Cup magic is back!” FIFA President Sepp Blatter has reversed course and said he wants to “make football more attractive again.”

The problem? Too few goals scored at the 2006 World Cup. “When there are too few goals, the public isn't very enthusiastic. The essence of the game is goals,” Blatter told the Associated Press.

More alarming than the perceived problem are the suggested solutions. After the Cup, Blatter intends to convene a broadly-based committee to examine the Laws of the Game.

“We will set up a large symposium with the 32 World Cup coaches, the referees, the doctors and the technical study group of the World Cup,” Blatter announced. By the AP’s reckoning, the ideas to be examined include “widening the goals and revamping offside rules.” The stated objective: to help attackers break through increasingly sophisticated defenses and “counteract the growing speed and size of defenders.”

There will be limits to reform. Blatter has already rejected a proposal to reduce teams to 10-men.

For North American hockey fans, the talk is all too familiar. In the 2005-06 season, the NHL implemented rule changes whose primary objective was to “ reduce the scope of defensive ‘tools’ a team may effectively employ, and to create a corresponding benefit to the offensive part of the game -- thus allowing skill players to use their skills and increasing the number and quality of scoring chances in the game.” In other words, more scoring.

I don’t have a great deal of criticism for hockey’s changes (the consistent enforcement of interference is a good thing), but I do quibble with the motivation behind them. As the NHL freely publicized, the revisions were based in part on “extensive polling to determine changes desired by NHL fans.”

The fans were apparently fine with keeping the black puck, but insisted it reach the back of the net more often.

To my mind both FIFA and the NHL are engaged in shameless pandering, focused not on their fans but on casual viewers of the sport. Hockey and soccer fans alike have always appreciated impressive displays of defensive and mid-field power, and many of the greatest teams of the past generations were defensive forces (including my favourite, the ‘76-77 Canadiens). The scarcity of scoring in both sports is a big part of what makes the event memorable.

As for Sepp Blatter’s concern, it’s important to put World Cup goal scoring into perspective. The panic has set in because with two matches left to play the goals per match have dropped to 2.27 – lower than the 2.51 recorded in Korea-Japan and near the all-time low recorded in 1990.

But how does this compare to what fans see every year in their national leagues? Here’s the goal scoring for the 2005-06 season in the major European leagues:
Dutch Eredivisie2.98113*
German Budesliga2.81106*
Italian Serie A2.6199
World Cup 20022.5195
English Premier League2.4894
Spanish Primera Liga2.4694
World Cup 20062.2786
World Cup 19902.2184
French Ligue 12.1381

*Goals per match are translated into goals per 38 games to give an idea of the impact these differences would have on a full season. The Dutch and German leagues play 34 fixtures, while the other leagues play 38. There are 64 matches played at the World Cup.

The Cup totals for this tournament are at the low-end of the spectrum, but they’re clearly within the normal soccer experience. It would be rash to make changes based on a comparison to 2002 or 1990: the difference between these events is well within normal statistical variation.

Moreover, the cause of the relatively low scoring is easy to pin-point: from the quarterfinals on, scoring has dropped to 1.71 goals per match. Over 14 fixtures, just once did the teams collectively exceed three goals, and seven times they were held to one goal or less. Tight defensive play at the knock-out stage: should we expect anything less?

Finally, I don’t follow Dutch soccer outside Champions League, but I very much doubt that the Eredivisie employs different offside rules or a wider net than its French counterpart. Yet scoring is nearly a goal a game higher. I suspect it comes down to skill level and management styles, but FIFA’s committee might begin by exploring these differences and seeing what it can learn.

Perhaps, as is Andy’s fervent wish, it will conclude that the flow of the game and scoring would benefit from a crackdown on simulation. Now that’s an idea I could support.


At 9:50 AM, Blogger Alex said...

Excellent post, Avi.

The key difference between the NHL and FIFA is that the NHL product was suffering both on the ice, and off the ice in terms of viewership. Aside from the excessive simulation, I don't find that the on-field product has suffered this tournament, and I doubt the off the field product has either. During one of the semi-finals, the announcer mentioned that World Cup viewership among women was up something like 40% from the last tournament, which, if true, is remarkable.


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