Soccer is boring. There, we’ve said it. But we do so because we’ve had a vision of how to take “the beautiful game” beyond mere beauty and into the fantastical realm of drop-dead gorgeous - as sexy, sassy and action-packed as 90-minutes of Charlie’s Angels-versus-Lara Croft.
I woke up from a nap during the US vs Australia friendly soccer match on the weekend – by the way what was the final score after 90 minutes of running back and forth? – with a sudden understanding of what was wrong with this so-called “beautiful game”. And in a way similar to how the poem “Kubla Khan” came to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a dream, how to fix soccer came to me while I slept. (Yes, I do know that, after an hour and a half of much fruitless running, the Americans beat the Aussies 3-1. Yawn.)
Okay, okay, it’s “the beautiful game” for 2 billion people, but that’s only because they don’t know any better. They haven’t figured out yet that it’s a boring game – and they don’t know how much better it would be if it were fixed properly in the first place.
Soccer-football’s quadrennial tournament gets people in a whole bunch of countries all worked up, true, but most of them come from European nations like Moravia, Slovakia, Graustark, Schleswig-Holstein or Claustrophobia; African countries like Monomotapa, Kleptocracia and Backofbeyondia; and perennial world powers like El Dorado, Paraguay, the former Danish West Indies and Surinam. Okay, okay, they play soccer in Russia too, but that’s probably an aberration left over from Soviet dreams of world domination and making the biggest tanks, tractors and rockets.
It is true that soccer has found something of an audience – even a following – in the US and that about 12,000 people are coming from America for this party here in South Africa (although we’ll bet many of these people are really Brazilian or Graustarkian passport holders who live and work in the US). Yes, over the past two generations, soccer has become a significant part of American life, but it has been as exercise for suburban children in a well-supervised way to get them out of the house and into the sun, rather than as a secular religion as might be the case in Germany or England. The very name of the “soccer moms”, speaks to protective suburban households worrying about the future, insisting on the need for safe sports and exercise and keeping all those bad things out there at bay. American society simply has no equivalent to those “soccer lout” tribes so common and infamous throughout Europe. Certainly not among those nice middle-class soccer moms and dads.
But let’s be totally honest for a moment – money is the real measure of sports success today. While the payment for this year’s TV broadcast rights in America for the 2010 Fifa championship – at more than R3.1 billion – is an order of magnitude over what it was for the previous tournament, the real comparison has to be with the payment for broadcast rights for the National Football League season and the US Superbowl, or with professional baseball and the World Series, or with professional basketball and university basketball. With these there is no comparison.
In fact, in spite of this bigger payment for TV rights to broadcast the soccer tournament in the US, soccer still has basically missed out on the two really big, really lucrative markets that virtually rain down money for advertising, TV rights, tie-in merchandising and everything else that goes with it – in the US and China. The dynamics are a bit different between the two. The US has a much higher per capita income, true, but China has the numbers – a way to connect with a whole new market of a billion-and-a-half people.
A few years back, the media stumbled on the worldwide sports star phenomena – the universal sports hero – Michael Jordan, then, later, Tiger Woods. Wherever one went in the world, in fancy airport stores, anywhere, or on the backs of street kids in the worst slums in the world, people knew the name Michael Jordan. They wanted to wear a T-shirt with his name on it and they desperately wanted his special brand of sports shoes.
Jordan, probably more than anybody else, ever, made basketball the coolest sport on the globe. He was absolutely American, yet he became the global big guy. Basketball is now big in Europe, Latin America and China. And then, all of a sudden, along came China’s own phenom, Yao Ming, with a fan base of more than a billion people, making China a basketball-mad nation in the process.
Basketball, at its most fundamental, is a street game that just needs a ball, some flat space, two poles and two metal hoops. It can be played almost anywhere – in war zones, ghetto streets and Ivy League universities. They probably even play it at Antarctic research stations.
It used to be a fairly deliberately paced game of patterns, set-up shots and intricate defensive formations that wasn’t all that different from the game James Naismith invented during a snowy New England winter in 1891, using a couple of peach baskets nailed to the walls of a university gymnasium. Then the people in charge of the professional and university versions of the sport added two key changes – the 24-second shot clock for the pros (and 35-second clock for university games) and the three-point shot from beyond an arc centred on the basket and passing through the foul line. Basketball’s all-time great, Bob Cousy, once said, “I think the shot clock saved the NBA.” And he’s probably right.
The challenge for soccer is to tap into the risk/reward of the 3-point shot and the fast pace of the shot clock and make them work for soccer so the game can truly grab the emotions of all those would-be American and Chinese fans and make them fall in love with that beautiful game. And – make the sponsorship, advertising and broadcasting rights wonga rain down on the sport, in the process. So, in the interest of improving something that is basically 22 guys running around for 90 minutes on a big grassy field, herewith are The Daily Maverick’s four new rules to create – a little drum roll now, please – Football 2.0.
#1. All goals scored from any place between the penalty line and the actual goal net are worth one point.
#2. All goals scored from any place between the penalty line and the mid-field line, by contrast, are worth three points.
#3. All goals scored from beyond the mid-field line are worth five points.
#4. A shot clock will count down from one minute at the beginning of each possession and a team must attempt to score before the shot clock reaches zero. If no goal is attempted, ball possession turns over to the other team and the shot clock restarts at a minute.
The benefits are obvious. The game develops a more fluid, run-and-gun, run-and-shoot style akin to basketball as the score runs up minute by minute. Classy combinations become much more important than individual flashiness and the game takes on the essential character of sport that is all about the tight teamwork that leads to scoring and winning.
This also separates so-so players from true stars who can score and win, locating players on a stretched out standard deviation curve by their scoring. The true greats of the game will become instantly obvious by virtue of their awesome scoring prowess vis-à-vis other players. Over a season, the cumulative total of goals scored by a player will more effectively measure greatness in the game. Players who can deliver scores, game after game, will command much higher salaries than also-rans. Moreover, the resulting deluge of statistics will allow followers to compare and contrast players just as fans now do with statistics in baseball, basketball, grid-iron, tennis and golf. These new scoring stats will give fans so much more to talk about in the off-season – and some tangible way to measure greatness.
Thus our challenge to Fifa is to set up a slate of games using these new rules for the next World Cup – or try this in a European league for a year. Let’s see what the fans want – really exciting high-scoring games, or the same old 90 minutes of “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
(Editor’s note: Spector can’t really be blamed for this astonishing display of fantasy. He grew up in the US and fell in love with the rhythms of baseball.)
Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a famous Johannesburg theatre and remains on its board, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Post-retirement, Spector has also been a Bradlow Fellow of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a Writing Fellow of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Only half humourously, he says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's increasingly cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music, and a dish of soto ayam (one of Indonesia's great culinary discoveries) will bring him close to tears.