Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Soccer queries answered

Kevin Drum asks a bunch of questions about soccer:

  1. Outside the penalty area there’s a hemisphere about 20 yards wide. I can’t recall ever seeing it used for anything. What’s it for?
  2. On several occasions, I’ve noticed that if the ball goes out of bounds at the end of stoppage time, the referee doesn’t whistle the match over. Instead, he waits for the throw-in, and then immediately whistles the match over. What’s the point of this?
  3. Speaking of stoppage time, how has it managed to last through the years? I know, I know: tradition. But seriously. Having a timekeeper who stops the clock for goals, free kicks, etc. has lots of upside and no downside. Right? It wouldn’t change the game in any way, it would just make timekeeping more accurate, more consistent, and more transparent for the fans and players. Why keep up the current pretense?
  4. What’s the best way to get a better sense of what’s a foul and what’s a legal tackle? Obviously you can’t tell from the players’ reactions, since they all writhe around like landed fish if they so much as trip over their own shoelaces. Reading the rules provides the basics, but doesn’t really help a newbie very much. Maybe a video that shows a lot of different tackles and explains why each one is legal, not legal, bookable, etc.?

The first one’s easy: there’s a general rule that no defensive player can be within 10 yards of the spot of a direct free kick. A penalty kick (which is a type of direct free kick) takes place in the 18-yard box, and no players other than the player taking the kick and the goalkeeper are allowed in the box. However, owing to geometry, the 18 yard box and the 10 yard exclusion zone don’t fully coincide, hence the penalty arc. (That’s also why there are two tiny hash-marks on the goal line and side line 10 yards from the corner flag. And why now referees have a can of shaving cream to mark the 10 yards for other free kicks, one of the few MLS innovations that has been a good idea.)

Second one’s also easy: the half and the game cannot end while the ball is out of play.

Third one’s harder. First, keeping time inexactly forestalls the silly premature celebrations that are common in most US sports. You’d never see the Stanford-Cal play happen in a soccer game. Second, it allows some slippage for short delays and doesn’t require exact timekeeping; granted, this was more valuable before instant replays and fourth officials, but most US sports require a lot of administrative record-keeping by ancillary officials. A soccer game can be played with one official (and often is, particularly at the amateur level) without having to change timing rules;* in developing countries in particular this lowers the barriers to entry for the sport (along with the low equipment requirements) without changing the nature of the game appreciably. Perhaps most importantly, if the clock was allowed to stop regularly it would create an excuse for commercial timeouts and advertising breaks, which would interrupt the flow of the game and potentially reduce the advantages of better-conditioned and more skilled athletes. (MLS tried this, along with other exciting American ideas like “no tied games,” and it was as appealing to actual soccer fans as ketchup on filet mignon would be to a foodie, and perhaps more importantly didn’t make any non-soccer fans watch.)

Fourth, the key distinction is usually whether there was an obvious attempt to play the ball; in addition, in the modern game, even some attempts to play the ball are considered inherently dangerous (tackling from behind, many sliding tackles, etc.) and therefore are fouls even if they are successful in getting more ball than human.

* To call offside, you’d also probably need what in my day we called a “linesman.”