How to fix the World Cup, and how to fix soccer

I study international politics for a living, so of course I love the World Cup. It’s a civilized substitute for war and a welcome break from Great Power rivalry and domination. Who could not delight in tiny Wales playing the mighty United States to a draw — and neither China nor Russia even showing up?

But the World Cup has problems, and so does the game itself. What to do, what to do…

Let me deal with the easy one first. The way to fix the World Cup is to disband FIFA, throw everyone associated with it in jail, and ask the Dalai Lama to pick the host countries.

The second problem is that modern soccer is dull. Watching a match is, as Aaron Copland once said of listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 5th Symphony, “like watching a cow eat grass.” It is also fluky. The better team does not win anywhere near reliably enough. One might as well just flip coins and save all the trouble of playing the dull games.

These two issues are intimately related and boil down to one simple fact: soccer is too low scoring. In any sport, the occasional point can occur by fluke. But if points are plentiful, the laws of probability will restrict the number of fluky wins. When was the last time you heard someone say that Serena Williams didn’t deserve to win a tennis tournament, or that the Toronto Maple Leafs were really the best team in hockey in [insert here any given year since Lester Pearson was prime minister]?

So, the way to fix soccer is to make it higher scoring. The question is how. Fortunately, I have the answer. Just make three little adjustments.

First, do away with the offside rule. No, really. It’s gimmicky, pointless, hard to enforce accurately, and slows down the match. Soccer is a game of blissful simplicity where flow and momentum matter, so why gum it up by preventing talented, overpaid players from making the most of their expensive offensive skills? Open up the field. Dare the defence to let attackers outflank them. Incentivize the always-exciting long pass. Keep the whistle out of the referee’s mouth.

Second, make the goal larger. In the 1860s, the English Football Association established a standard goal size of eight yards wide by eight feet tall. This remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the average human has gained almost four inches in height and proportionately more in reach. Throw in the fact that a modern professional goalkeeper works out half the day, has a designer diet, and probably mainlines Red Bull, and the result is, effectively, a much smaller target for the offence.

Third, don’t let goalkeepers grasp the ball outside the crease  (a.k.a. the “goal area”). In the penalty area, let them slap it, whack it, or punch it; but why let them range freely over a zone larger than the average Toronto residential lot immune to the threat of an attacker stealing the ball and burying it behind them in the (now much larger) net?

Together, these three changes would reverse the downward trend in average goals per game that we have seen over the course of World Cup history. Gone are the glory days of 1954 when Austria topped host Switzerland in a 7–5 thriller and in which the average game saw more than five goals. If the current trend continues, in 2094 the average number of goals per World Cup game will hit precisely zero.

And while we are at it, let’s outlaw heading the ball. Not that the header isn’t fun and exciting, mind you, but brains need protecting. God knows the players will need them to remember the new rules.