Saturday, September 30, 2006

An Incontinent Blatter

Everyone's favourite interventionist autocrat has been up to his old tricks again. This time, good old Sepp Blatter has been whining that penalty shootouts are no way to finish a World Cup, and that we can look forward to changes in time for South Africa 2010. Blatter has gone on record as saying that he favours reducing the number of players on the pitch, although replays are also still being considered. So, again, the greatest football tournament in the world is to be used as an experimental guinea pig. Blatter, of course, is the man that gave the world the Golden Goal and it's idiot younger brother, the Silver Goal. You'll forgive me if my excitement at whatever new bauble he decides to add to the end of these matches is somewhat tempered. There is a case for replacing penalty shootouts, of course. They are kind of, well, repetitive. Whilst Chris Waddle's tortured face is etched into the mind of the England supporter, I can scarcely remember who missed for England against Portugal in Germany earlier this year. Lampard, Gerrard, ummm... Downing?

First, a quick history lesson. Penalty shootouts weren't actually introduced until 1982. Until then, FIFA had scheduled replay dates, but they were only very seldom required to use them. In 1974 and 1978, the finals were the only matches that even required replay dates. I'd hazard a guess that penalties were introduced because of the expansion to 24 teams - presumably the increased number of matches made it more difficult for them to fit in these dates in the last week of the tournament. The first shoot-out was the 1982 semi-final between West Germany and France. Since then, to say that FIFA have dicked around with the format would be one of the bigger understatements I could make. 24 teams was, of course, an utterly unsatisfactory number for the World Cup. It needed either 16 or 32 teams in order to be workable, so we were faced with the absurdity of teams finishing third out of four in their groups and getting through to the second round. This wasn't rectified until FIFA expanded it again, this time to 32 teams, in 1998. Since then, 16 matches in every tournament have been knock-out matches, so the number of penalty shootouts has greatened.

I'm not against changing this format, but to suggest that getting rid of penalty shootouts will somehow cure the World Cup of the sort of torpor that we saw last summer is, so far as I can see, a fantasy. Do you remember the Silver and Golden Goals? How much of a bad idea was that? Teams, afraid of losing, put all eleven men behind the ball and played out the thirty minutes. No-one would take a chance. No-one would take a gamble. What would happen if the idea of reducing the players on both sides in extra-time? The coaches would take the strikers first, then the midfielders, until we'd end up with a central defender, on the point of exhaustive collapse, running the length of the pitch to put the ball past a collapsed goalkeeper. It's a stupid idea, designed to appeal to the sort of people that don't like football. It's only a short step from there to sudden-death extra-time MULTIBALL. Replays, I like. The idea of "The World Cup Semi-Final Third Replay" has a definite ring to it. However, there will be huge protests from the biggest clubs, who will be less than happy to see their valuable assets being thrown on for another couple of matches in the middle of the summer, and, presumably, the police, who will be less than happy at being called out on duty a few times because Uncle Sepp has got sick of penalties.

There is one solution to the problem of the World Cup boring us to death, but it's not an easy one to manufacture. Reduce the stakes. Stop the press from talking it up into THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER. It would take twenty years to bring in an entire coaching system that took the negativity out of the game. Try teaching players that winning is more important than not losing, and we might slowly start getting somewhere. I'm not holding my breath that this will happen any time in the near future, though.


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