Fixing football — how to make it interesting

By Frederic Friedel

Football — also called soccer, to differentiate it from the American game, which doesn’t use feet — is probably the most popular sport on the planet. 3.5 billion people follow it (second is cricket, with 2.5 billion), and a certain percentage is fanatic about it. But that percentage is sinking, and even the most passionate fan must admit: the game is becoming less exciting. It was definitely more attractive in the days of Pelé, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Maradonna and co., with more goals, more activity on the field and more spectacular play, in general.

The problem is that the field is just too crowded. With modern defensive techniques in place eleven players kill the game. When someone gets the ball, in midfield, he is immediately confronted by three players, and has three options: pass the ball sideways, pass it backward or pretend he is going to dribble past the three opponents, hoping to provoke a foul and a free kick.

You must remember that the players are all artists with the ball. Have you seen them in action — it blows your mind. Here a compilation you will enjoy:

But: in spite of these extraordinary abilities, players very seldom get to actually use them — because they are always confronted by three determined defenders who together will neutralize their actions. So they pass sideways or back. There are currently two exceptions: Cristiano Ronaldo, who has sublime dribbling techniques, and even more so Lionel Messi, who doesn’t seem to mind a crowd. Take a look at this recent example (from Barcelona vs Espanyol on December 18, 2016).

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At around six minutes and twenty seconds into the video report Messi gets the ball. As you can see in the above screen grab he is surrounded by ten players, i.e. the entire Espanyol team (except for the goalkeeper, who is 20 meters to the left). What does Messi do?

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In exactly six seconds this amazing player has worked his way past them all and gets a clear shot at the goal! (It is parried by the goalkeeper, but his teammate and prodigy Luis Suárez, whose foot you see on the left, can easily tap the rebound into the goal). If I have got you in the mood you can google for the most impressive Messi solo runs against hoards of opponents.

This is sublime football, and because of this skill Messi is set to become the highest paid player in the world (and in history) when he renews his contract with Barcelona. The question is will he make a million dollars per week? Currently Carlos Tevez is getting £615,000 a week in China, and Messi is sure to top that. Cristiano Ronaldo, who has just won the 2016 Ballon d’Or, makes at least half a million.

That is how much you have to pay the handful of players who can overcome the current dilemma in football: an overcrowded field, destructively defensive games. And even then these tedious games do not disappear: defensive skills are refined, and Messi often just serves as a magnet for four, five or six players. He is mainly used to create space for his very able teammates.

So what do we do to make the game more attractive, to make it action-packed and fast-moving, with players able to properly use their incredible skills? I have a simple solution: increase the number of active players per side from eleven to sixteen — but let only eight of them play on the field at any given time.

This is the same system we have in ice hockey, American football and basketball, which allow running substitution during the game. The same could apply to soccer: we would have two squares marked just outside the field, into which a player can move and hand over to a teammate who is waiting there — perhaps with a ritual high-five clap. Substitution should be permitted during play, and the tagging square ensures that there will always be just eight players on the field at any given time — and that nobody can dash in suddenly from unexpected quarters.

The advantage is clear: players will have a lot more space on the field, the game will become visually more attractive, with beautiful long passes and dashes down the field. And the players will be fresh. Instead of two teams exhausted by an hour of (destructive) play, listlessly passing the ball without much progress, we would have energetic, rested players raring to go, even in the late stages of a game. Incidentally: if we discover that the field is still too full, or now too empty, then the number of active players on the field can be changed to seven or nine. It is trivially easy to adjust.

Crazy idea, right? I have a friend in professional soccer, Felix Magath, who played for Hamburg and for the German national team, and subsequently coached a number of top professional clubs. Some years ago I proposed my plan for reforming football to Felix, who told me it would not work, and then proceeded to not be able to find compelling reasons why this was the case. In the end he said: it’s really quite an interesting idea, and we should maybe try it. Recently I met him again and asked him if he had proposed the plan to anyone. He hadn’t, and proceeded to again try to find the fault in my proposals — and once again failed to succeed. Just as the first time over he found it “interesting”.

Felix is a really cool guy, but has other things on his mind. I have suggested that there should be some kind of exhibition during off season, perhaps a Cup with four or six teams playing a round robin. No extensive preparation required, just marking off two substitution boxes at the side of the field (that is really all we need). See what it looks like and if it has potential. One caveat: it has to be professional teams. Amateurs are fine with eleven players on the field, in fact in junior events it could be even more. It’s just the over-trained top professionals that have become too good and are slowly destroying the game.

Just try my system, and blow raspberries at me if it doesn’t work.

See also: Baseball — a faulty game

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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