Soccer’s goal crisis

After watching yet another 0-0 draw, my excitement for the World Cup is more muted than when things kicked off a week ago. In part, it was dismal play by my home squad, England, but it’s deeper than that. Coming right off the Stanley Cup playoffs, even the drama of international competition can only somewhat backfill a gaping hole: this sport needs more goals.

Since I am a policy alternatives guy, I think I have a fix: Eliminate the offside rule.

Here’s the intuition: Going way back, different team sports have used different means of controlling the forward movement of the ball (or puck). In rugby, offensive players must always be behind the player carrying the ball; there are no forward passes. In the early days of hockey the same rule used to exist. But in hockey this led to greater emphasis on defence, and eventually the rule was changed to allow the forward pass. This swung play to the other extreme, like basketball, where there was too much offense, and eventually that led to the blue and red lines. But even just a few years ago, in search of more offence, the NHL dropped the rule that made two-line passes an offside. In other words, the sport has sought to find the right balance between offense and defence, and currently I’d say it is just about right.

In soccer, similar liberalization is needed to avert these horrible 0-0 and 1-0 games. The current rule is better than rugby; forward passes are allowed but only to the extent of the last defender, which means to offside line is in continual flux, even when play is down near the net. In my world (I’m hereby licensing FIFA to steal this idea), I would open things up by removing this rule. Doing so would not stop millionaire players from blasting the ball over the crossbar from close range (really, have you not been kicking a ball since you were 3 years old?), but it would spread out the defence, and make for a lot more attacks on the net, which means more goals. Too many goals and a blue-line type system could be implemented, but let’s hold that in reserve.

I know, I know. The fact that scoring is so rare makes each goal precious and more to celebrate. But in truth, I think fans really want to see dynamic games with big highlight reel goals. There could still be the odd no-scoring affair, just as there is in hockey, and fans would appreciate those more. But most of the time the increased action would make this game truly beautiful.


  • I don’t even know where to start. That is a horrible, very North American idea. In case you were wondering, soccer is the most watched sport in the world. Not sure what audience it needs to attract. You and some millions of Americans? It’s doing just fine without you, thanks. I think there are high scores in basketball, if you’re interested.

  • That’s not much of an answer. I enjoy the World Cup, as do millions of others, but surely it could be better, so why so conservative? What about shootouts to end crucial games? Lots of people hate that way of deciding a winner, much less a championship.

    That’s a whole other rant, but back to the scoring matter, look at it this way: as I write this there have been a total of 49 goals over 26 games. Ostensibly, not bad, but a few of those games have been blowouts. While only 3 games have been 0-0, another 8 have been 1-0. Not a lot of scoring considering they are out there for 90 minutes.

    I’d love to see a good defence of the existing offside rule, if you have one. It only helps the defensive teams like Italy, who play a dull and boring game, so why is that worth, er, defending?

  • Marc, I was a little surprised that you went straight from rugby to hockey. To me, the obvious segue is from rugby (without forward passes) to North American football (with forward passes). For more on how the forward pass revolutionized football, check out Knute Rockne, All American, starring Ronald Reagan as “The Gipper.”

  • I hate to rain on your parade Marc, but for me the beauty of soccer is not the goal scoring, it is the tactics and the strategies. the offside is in there fro a reason. It is so to keep a beautiful game from turning into something that less strategic. It is the art of the game one has got to appreciate. It is so much more exciting than other sports, especially when a good game is at hand.

    I have a hard time sometime switching form soccer to Hockey, as there is almost too much randomness and action held within the sport. Bounces, and luckiness that one would not see in soccer, at least, from a bias kind of perspective.

    I love hockey as well, but soccer, when one can appreciate the otherness of it, holds just as much action and excitement as any other game.


  • That’s not much of an answer.

    Fair enough.

    The entire premise of your policy recommendation, though, is flawed. You think the game needs to be more attractive. I think (and apparently many, many, many other people agree) that it’s plenty attractive as it is. There’s nothing to fix, so no policy recommendation is needed.

    By your logic, widening the goalposts in soccer would be good policy, because it would lead to more goals. It’s an absurd idea that would be correctly laughed off the pitch if it was ever considered by FIFA.

    I suggest reading Inverting the Pyramid for a good exploration of the evolution of the offside rule.

  • To me soccer does feel kind of like really slow hockey, but I don’t know soccer well. On the randomness, though . . . haven’t some games in this World Cup been determined by odd bounces or strange goalie flubs? If only one goal is being scored, it only takes one odd bounce the whole game to decide it.

    So, I was for this idea until I read Mr. Weir’s comment. Making a game more like hockey is one thing. Abetting something like the transition from rugby to American football? Horrors. Give me rugby any day.

  • ahhhh, I was waiting for that luckiness bounce retort.

    It is an interesting theory in terms of the statistical approaches.

    – hockey definitely has a whole lot more bouncing around, deflection, boards, shots, rebounds, etc. But as you mention, if the pathway for the outcome must walk the gauntlet of a narrow pathway i.e. determining one goal rather than a few in hockey, which actually game does the randomness, factor into more.

    I know I know, why do we want to know this, well just because our culture is so fixated on sports. Kind of caught up in some sort of hold over from our hunter gatherer times I am thinking, who had the steadfast aim, who were the heroes of the hunting group, etc. (potentially I am dramatizing this as there has been some discussion that hunter gathers had a whole lot more egalitarian society, which would have rolled back the role of those with the best aim, etc. Not to mention the fact that much of the gathering actually pulled in more of the caloric requirements)

    So in the end, I still would lean towards hockey having more of a randomness bias built in because of all the space left wide open for a puck bounce etc. And while on that point I thought I would just say this:

    Ken Dryden and Bob Rae are most definitely off my list of liberals I still thought had some potential. They both voted to expedite the c-2 free trade with Colombia bill.

    The side human rights assesment posed by Brisson is a joke and to think that somehow with all the union and social activists being killed in that nation, that some kind of flimsy self assessment is going to help is beyond acceptable. So Dryden and RAe and the rest of the liberals who voted for that and allowed it through- shame on you, you have just condemned more activists to death.

    We held a rally last week, and I had people with personal stories coming over at my house explaining through their personal accounts (in very vivid detail) how death threats are regularly made within these developing economies. Without a free union movement I am not sure how these countries will ever make the moves forward. Thankfully there is a bit of a left turn down there, but for those countries left with right wing dictatorships with now regard for union or activists, there is still a very big, big problem.

  • Diving should be the number 1 issue to address. This World Cup is almost unwatchable because of it. Why most Soccer fans put up with blatant cheating and why FIFA essentially sanctions it is beyond me.

  • Having playoffs that are best of 7 series compared to one game playoffs in the World Cup would mean the results of the hockey playoffs are less random then the World Cup, even if individual games are more random.

    I’m sure that a statistical analysis could be done to see which is more random.

  • 7 goals enough for you today? (Portugal over DPRK)

    On a more serious note I don’t think goals should be the measure… sometimes a 0-0 draw with many chances is more exciting than a game where one team gets thrashed 7-0

  • As a football (soccer on this continent) fan and a referee, removing the offside rule might actually have the opposite effect.

    If there is not offside both teams can leave their striker hanging around the opposing teams net for the entire game. This forces the opposition to leave at least the same number of defenders (preferrably more) in front of their own net for the entire game. In the end, this might lead the a total division of the team into defender and attackers. Where say six players defend and when the get to ball the give a long pass up the field to their attackers and then we keep going back and forth. As it is now, all 11 players from each team participate in both attacking and defending.

    The best tactics for the defense would be to have all defender (six or however many you have) defend the penalty area and let the attackers only take long range shots. And because long range shots that don’t result in a goal will result in a turnover, attackers will pass the ball around looking for better opportunities, which in turn will actually lead to fewer real changes and a slower paced game.

    Fifa has changed to offside rule over the years to make football more offensive. For instance, being an offside position used to be enough for the referee to call an offside. Today, the player in an offside position has to been actively participating in the play for the call to be made.

    I agree with Tyler, dealing with diving, shirt tugs and other form of thuggery would do much more for the game than removing the offside rule.

    I also agree with Paul, the beauty of the game is in the strategies and the technical skills that the players demonstrate, not just in the goals.

  • Nice to see some economists are passionate about soccer. You should obtain a copy of Soccernomics; I’m reading it right now and it’s fascinating.

  • Soccer defenders, please. Ever wonder why there are such things as soccer riots, rampant fights, truly excesive drinking, annyoing chants and/or vuvuzelas (sp?) at soccer games? Because fans are BORED TO DISTRACTION. Now, there may be some of this in american sports, but nowhere near the extent that they appear in soccer.

    As for the strategic/tactical beauty of the game, what’s a beautiful move if it leads to nothing? Ballet? What does a tie decide? Nothing. The only thing I find attractive about the World Cup is the patriotic aspect…I WANT my country (USA) to kick France’s a#$. Especially considering only about a dozen people over the age of 12 even play the game in the states. (Yup, great game for the kids of neurotic parents who faint, sue and/or head for the ER at the sight of a skinned knee.) But as far as the game is concernened, it might as be tiddlywinks.

    Rugby rules.

  • … Yet another economist issues a misguided call for deregulation …

  • It took two hours to get one goal in today’s final. And Spain achieved this goal only after Holland was short-handed (or short-footed?).

  • The fact that Spain only scored seven goals in the whole tournament underlines that sentiment. On balance there were some really exciting games with scoring, but too many 0-0 or 1-0 affairs for my liking. Thankfully the final did not go to dreaded penalties!

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