Off the ball: Six ways to make the World Cup better
In his irreverent World Cup column Off the Ball, Andy Goldberg looks at the lighter side of the football championship. This time he comes up with six suggestions for making the beautiful game even more beautiful.
Let the real games begin. With all due respect to the 16 teams that failed to make it through to the knock out stages of the World Cup, the real tournament only begins in Munich on Saturday when Germany take on Sweden.
While most pundits have been wasting their time speculating about who will actually win the World Cup I have been spending my time more productively and wondering what we could do to improve on the world's greatest sporting competition.
Some of these suggestions are clearly the result of Mondialitis - a new disease that leading researchers are just starting to understand but which appears to involve befuddled thinking and feverish hallucinations caused by subjecting the brain to the massive swings of the tension, relief, excitement and disappointment that are an integral part of the World Cup experience.
But others have the clarity of inescapable footballing logic:
1. United Nations team
How, for instance, could anyone argue against the inclusion of a UN team among the 32 competitors for the World Cup?
The team would fly the sky blue flag of the organization charged with promoting peace and understanding between all the world's nations and be chosen by a manager appointed by the UN secretary general. It would include the best players from around the world whose countries did not qualify for the tournament.
This would be a rare treat for fans who would get to see footballing greats like Wales' Ryan Giggs or Cameroon's Samuel Et'o compete with the very best. It would also give all those fans whose teams fail to qualify or get knocked out early a natural choice of whom to support - instead of opting for the default second choice of Brazil. An added benefit: having its own team would give a massive boost to the UN's role as a unifying world force.
2. Counterbalance home advantage
Another change would seek to counteract the built-in advantage that always accrues to the home team, which under current regulations are not even required to qualify for the tournament.
The idea is to have the opening game pit the hosts against the cup holders. This would provide a great opening spectacle to the tournament, and ensure that the hosts would face a decent challenge to get to the next round. Since two teams from each group would still qualify, meeting the world champs would not be an overly daunting task. But it would force countries outside the footballing elite to think twice about offering themselves as hosts. This would be a good thing, since everyone knows that tournaments are always better when they take place in football-mad countries.
If implemented for this year's final it would have made for a grand opening game between Brazil and Germany and prevented the host country from waltzing through an easy group with no-one better than Ecuador, Poland or Costa Rica for a challenge.
3. Who needs 11?
It is also time to consider changing some basic rules of the game. The most important change would be to reduce the number of players on a team from 11 to 10. This might sound like sacrilege, but consider it for a moment. Players are now so much fitter than they used to be and tactics so much more sophisticated that it is relatively easy for coaches to stifle creative opponents and kill off a game by packing defences and closing down the open spaces that are a vital part of the art of football. Reducing the number of players makes for a more open and entertaining game. That's why games always seem to get a lot better after a ref brandishes a red card or two.
4. Penalty shoot outs
It's also time for the penalty shoot out to go.
Clearly there has to be a tie breaker of some kind but penalty kicks are a poor reflection of a team's skill level. It would be much better to decide drawn games by having shoot-outs in which a player runs at the keeper from the halfway line. This idea could be taken a step further by having tied games decided with a three-on-three mini- game.
Even better: Force teams to take two players off every five minutes in extra time. I guarantee you that by the end of 30 minutes there would be a result.
5. FIFA preaching
It is also time for FIFA to start practising what it preaches. The governing football body earns billions of dollars from event sponsors like Budweiser, McDonalds and Coca Cola and has been rightly criticized for using the world's most popular sport to promote unhealthy lifestyles. The way round this would entail forcing the competing teams to subsist for the entire course of the tournament only on sponsored products.
6. New awards
FIFA already has individual player awards, like the Golden Boot for the top scorer and the Golden Ball for the best player. Isn't it also time there was a Wooden Ball award for the most disappointing player? My vote would go to Didier Drogba or Michael Owen, two strikers whose performance has been in inverse proportion to their bragging. It's only out of respect for his past accomplishments that Zinedine Zidane is not on the shortlist.
FIFA also has to come up with a better method of selecting qualifiers from the group stages when teams tie on points, goal difference, goals scored and in the result between them. Now the rules call for a coin toss to decide who qualifies. In future the decision should be much fairer. Each team would write a 500 word essay "Why we deserve to qualify for the next round".
23 June 2006
Subject: German news, World Cup