Sunday, August 15, 2010

51 and counting

51 and counting.As if FIFA were not in enough hot water already over goal-line incidents.

In an interview with Germany's Focus magazine, President Sepp Blatter made an extraordinary admission that football's governing body was considering abolishing draws and extra-time in World Cup finals matches.

According to Blatter's admission, penalty shoot-outs could replace ties in the group games, while, mirabile dictu, the 'golden goal'
could make a return to the knock-out stages in order to spice up extra-time before another shoot-out, if necessary.

What has prompted this sudden revelation of another p
otential volte-face, following FIFA's u-turn on technology last week?

Blatter is presumably reacting to the meagre 2.27 goals-per-game average from the 2010 World Cup, the second-lowest on record, narrowly beating Italia '90's 2.21 haul.

The opening round of two games per group yielded only 1.6 goals on average, with nothing beyond Germany's 4-0 trouncing of Australia to write home about. The tournament was dull in footballing terms, with the exception of Germany's brief but fantastic foray to the semi-finals, which yielded a rich harvest of breakaway goals and sent the lumbering old battleships of England and Argentina spiraling to the bottom with aplomb.
World Cup.
But a resoundingly negative final littered with bookings, gamesmanship and brutal tackles put an unhappy seal on what should have been a carnival of football. At the climax of Sepp's big show, the watching world was left unhappy and even the winners Spain took their crown having netted fewer times (eight in seven games) than any previous champions. Blatter felt responsible.

South Africa after all was the President's baby from the moment he first garnered African votes to win the top job in football with the promise of a World Cup hosting in return. Perhaps he is over-reacting to the bad impression the finals lef
t on the field, or indeed looking to be a pro-active president as a re-election looms in 2011, although his throne looks safe.

With UEFA increasingly strutting its stuff and steaming ahead with its own innovations such as the extra linesmen, FIFA does not want to be seen to be an ostrich with its head in the sand, and while it is reassuring that they are ope
n to change and eager to improve the aesthetic experience of top-level soccer, this latest shock still begs two questions - if it ain't broke, why fix it and if it is broken, what can we do?

We can all agree on the need for more attacking and entertaining football, though we surely do not want as much scoring as in basketball. Yet short of increasing the size of the goals to gargantuan proportions or reducing the number of players per side, can anything realistically be changed
?

Is doing away with extra-time going to increase the amount of attacking play over 90 minutes? And will teams determined to play for spot-kicks anyway not welcome a half-hour less in which to have to run around? This has been tried before of course in many competitions.

Abolishing draws in the NASL and later, MLS, was resoundingly unpopular with fans,
MLS.players and coaches. Replacing the award of a hard-earned point with the lottery of penalties left honest teams unpaid for having clawed back a deficit, and superior sides equally penniless for having failed to break down a stubborn defence only to lose on spot-kicks. So it seems unthinkable that if American fans succeeded in binning the shoot-out after four miserable seasons, FIFA is all set to re-introduce it at the highest level.

'Golden goal' was another aberration best confined to the annals of past mistakes we have learnt from. Introduced as a compromised response to the dissatisfaction with the penalty shoot-outs of the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, golden goal, where the first goal in extra-time wins, debuted in Euro '96, when Oliver Bierhoff's 95th minute strike handed the trophy to Germany.

Laurent Blanc sent France through to the last eight of the 1998 World Cup with a golden goal in Lens, while at Euro 2000 the French were again the beneficiaries with a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the semi-final and a David Trezeguet winner in the final. Three years later on home soil, Thierry Henry bagged another golden goal to win the Confederations Cup.

The evidence of golden goal improving the contest as a whole was inconclusive. In fact, the spectacles of both the Euro '96 and Euro 2000 finals seemed to have been terminated prematurely by the rule, when it was the maximizing of entertainment which had lain behind its imposition in the first place.

Its penultimate hurrah came in the 2002 World Cup, when Senegal and South Korea advanced to the last eight and Turkey to the last four on golden goals. When it was quietly abolished by FIFA's International Board (IFAB) in 2004, there were few mourners and since then there has been no clamour whatsoever to revive it. Nor has UEFA's short-lived silver goal of Euro 2004 (whoever leads after 15 minutes of extra-time wins) been sorely missed by anyone.

No, if improving the spectacle is the aim, an already-failed experiment is not the means again.

Blatter must be feeling the strain of South Africa to have plucked this comedy rabbit out of the hat so soon after the finals. Some time in the Swiss Alps or some R&R beside Lake Zurich might be just the ticket in order for him to regain his composure.

As a German journalist immortally commented to Brian Glanville - "That man (Blatter) has 50 ideas a day, and 51 of them are bad."



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


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