Lack of goals will ultimately kill the beautiful game if something radical is not done soon

2010-06-19 00:00

DEFENCES dominated the opening round of the World Cup and at times the soccer was sterile. Only two games produced a hatful of goals, the one-sided affairs between an efficient Uruguay side and a toothless Bafana outfit and between a vibrant Germany and a labouring Australia. Otherwise goals have been as rare as dieting pigs.

Admittedly, teams tend to be cautious in their opening matches of such a prestigious event. The sole purpose of these league matches is to advance into the next round. Survival is paramount, and that can mean eschewing risks. Once the knock-out stages start, the teams might become bolder.

More likely, though, the problem in soccer runs deeper and has been hidden by the success of a few notably adventurous clubs, namely Barcelona, Manchester United and Arsenal. Soccer has also been extremely lucky to have Brazil as its greatest exponent. But the last World Cup was won by the side with the best defence, Italy, and Inter Milan, another conservative outfit, has recently triumphed in Europe.

No game dominated by the stoppers as opposed to the scorers can be complacent about its prospects, not even soccer. Despite the efforts of Frank Worrell’s West Indians, cricket almost ground to a halt in the 1960s. The ’64 Ashes series was about as lively as a Bulgarian novel written by a grumpy psychiatrist with plenty of time on his hands. Cricket responded by introducing limited-overs matches of ever-declining duration, night contests, coloured clothes and so forth. Supporters are no longer taken for granted.

By the 1970s rugby was also in trouble. Matches seem to consist of scrums, line-outs, penalties and kicks. Authorities recognised the problem and decided to award five points for a try and to discourage kicking except inside the 25-yard line. Rules were changed so that rucks were shorter. Some of the changes did not work as well as expected and were promptly dumped. Now rugby, at the highest levels, provides a searing spectacle calculated to attract sports enthusiasts as well as devotees. Of course it does not work every time. Mankind has an infinite capacity to mess things up.

The time has come for soccer to encourage attack. Twenty-five goals in the first 16 World Cup matches tell the tale. Of course, the tally has been low partly because the sides have been unexpectedly even, with the Asians, Japan and the Koreans in particular surpassing themselves, while the Kiwis are relishing telling their favourite joke — “What does New Zealand have that Australia yearns? A World Cup goal!” These teams have played organised, energetic soccer and even strong sides find them hard to break down. That is part of the beautiful democracy of this game. Any country, any team, has a chance to issue a challenge.

Another factor in the paucity of goals has been the ever-increasing toleration of substitutes. Previously, besieged sides eventually faded towards the end of the 90 minutes and were easily taken apart. Often a glut of late goals resulted. Now weary players can be replaced. Better to reduce the importance of the bench. Apart from anything else, it encourages valour, a priceless quality in life and one of sport’s finest attributes

But the ease with which modest sides determined to protect their posts have contained richly talented outfits indicates that the problem of goalless soccer is not easily resolved. Fifa has sought to stimulate excitement by keeping the game moving, giving yellow cards to defenders pulling shirts and blocking paths, and using lighter balls and vastly superior pitches. And still goals remain elusive.

When conventional steps fail, it’s time to start contemplating the radical. Larger goals have been suggested, but that might put an even bigger emphasis on defence. Rather then widening goals or indulging in other artifices of uncertain outcome, perhaps the time has come to reduce the size of teams.

Is it not remarkable that cricket, hockey and soccer teams all have 11 players? So much changes in sport and yet this number remains sacrosanct. Has any attempt been made to examine the reasons behind this extraordinary constancy? Or is soccer prepared to take a million actions yet ignore the origins and relevance of its most central assumption — that teams consist of 11 players?

Might not 10-a-side solve the problem? Players are fitter and faster these days and cover more ground, so fewer are needed to create the same effect. If it works, then nine-a-side can be considered. If not, then let some other mad theorist produce an idea and let that be tried until the people’s game, the most superbly simple game of them all, is renewed. It’s not that goals need to be regularly scored like baskets in netball. A premium ought to be put on them. But games depend on a delicate balance between defence and attack and action is needed when that goes out of kilter.

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