Every four years, soccer takes center stage as the world is captivated by the World Cup.
Thirty-two countries qualify from the 211 that are eligible as relative unknowns become legends and legends fall from grace.
There are memorable games where teams go end-to-end, carving out scoring chance after scoring chance, but also some forgettable games where the ball spends most of the time in the middle of the field and goalkeepers are virtual spectators.
Here are some observations about the World Cup in Russia.
— Athletic trainers in soccer must be the very best in the world? Are they borderline miracle workers?
How many times have players tumbled to the turf, writhing in pain after grazing an opponent’s shoulder or having the tip of an opponent’s pinkie finger tap his forehead?
Out comes the trainer with a bottle of water and a can of first aid spray, usually a freezing concoction to numb the injury.
After several minutes, they help the injured player to the sidelines. Sometimes it requires a stretcher.
Once the player reaches the sidelines, a remarkable recovery ensues!
Usually, within a few seconds, he raises his hand to let the referee know he has recovered so expediently, and he is ready to return to the game.
The trainer, the water and the first aid spray have produced yet another miracle.
Then there is the player who, when he gets tripped, rolls 10 yards down the field, trying to draw a yellow card on the opponent who tripped him.
Soccer experts will call the fake injury or over-dramatic rolls part of gamesmanship, but they actually give the sport a black eye.
It is dishonest and it encourages youngsters who emulate these players to follow suit.
The only way to rid the sport of this dishonesty is for the referees to consistently hand out yellow cards for embellishment. It is in the rulebook, but it is very rarely called.
Also, if a referee feels a player wasn’t injured as badly as he tried to make everyone believe, don’t wave him back into the game when he’s ready. If he caused a four-minute delay, let him stand on the sidelines and have his team play one man short for four minutes.
— Using the accumulation of red and yellow cards as a tiebreaker under the fair play conduct rule is wrong.
If two teams have the same number of points after the group stage (three points for a win, one for a tie), there is a series of tiebreakers including head-to-head against each other, goal differential and goals scored.
If two teams are still tied, it comes down to fair play conduct.
Teams receive a minus-one for every yellow card, a minus-three for an indirect red card (two yellows that result in a red), minus-four for a straight red card and a minus-five for a yellow and a straight red card.
That is how Japan advanced to the knockout stage vs. Senegal. It had accrued two fewer yellow cards.
But every referee is different. Some referees issue a lot of cards. Others let more go without brandishing a card or warn the players first.
It would be better to decide a tie by number of corner kicks or shots on goal during the three group stage games. At least that promotes attack-minded soccer.
— It is hard to believe the few number of teams that use the long throw.
It is a terrific weapon. Denmark’s goal in its penalty-kicks loss to Croatia came off a long throw.
Every team should develop a couple of long throwers who can put the ball into the penalty area from at least 30 yards.
Throws are more accurate and easier to head than free kicks.
— Penalty kicks should not be used to decide a game. There’s too much on the line. I realize the need to protect players, but take a page out of field hockey’s book and play seven vs. seven in extra time instead of 11 vs. 11. Allow up to four subs per team to start extra time if players who have played the entire game are gassed. If the game is still tied after the two 15-minute extra time frames, play five-minute sudden-death overtime. Switch ends after each five-minute period and give teams a two-minute rest period.
— In the it’s-about-time category, the referees in the England-Panama and England-Colombia games finally awarded a penalty kick to England when English striker Harry Kane was bearhugged and thrown to the ground on a restart. Why do referees let those muggings go unpunished on free kicks and corner kicks? If they start awarding penalty kicks, defenders will stop holding players in the penalty area and more scoring opportunities will occur.
— Which games have been most memorable so far and what do they have in common? Goals. Spain-Portugal (3-3), France-Argentina (4-3 France) and Belgium-Japan (3-2 Belgium).
Here are some rule changes that would produce more goals. Don’t worry, purists, soccer governing body FIFA is, by far, the least progressive of all the major sports organizations and will never implement these suggestions.
The first four are all tweaks to the offside rule.
— You can’t be offside on a free kick as long as you take it at least 10 seconds after it is called. This prevents a team from taking a quick free kick and the pass goes to a player who is 10 yards offsides.
Why should a team that committed a foul be able to keep its players at the top of the penalty area and draw an offside call? This will also help eliminate fouling.
— If an attacking player’s back foot is parallel with the last defender’s front foot, it should be onside. Just because the attacking player’s head and chest are ahead of the last defender’s, they are still in the same plane.
— If a player is in an offside position when a pass is launched to him but is onside when he actually receives the ball, play on. No offside.
— If a player is in an offside position when his teammate takes a shot and the shot rebounds over to him off the goalie, the goalpost or another player, play on. No offside.
— Take a page out of hockey’s book. If a player receives a yellow card, he has to go to the sidelines for 10 minutes and his team must play one man short.
— Force fouling teams to move their defensive wall back 12 yards instead of the current 10 yards. This will make it easier for the player taking the free kick to put it on frame and this will also serve as a deterrent to taking fouls.
The World Cup enters the quarterfinal round Friday. Enjoy the rest of the games!
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