In the competitive games, however, the quality of play decreases linearly with the quality of talent. The least talented teams - North Korea, New Zealand, the U.S.A. - play their hearts out, keep their noses clean, and emerge with respect (if not hardware). The best talents revert to playground tricks and duplicitous histrionics as they face tough competition. The World Cup final saw a team noted for aggressive play (Holland - my favorites) face a Spanish team noted for precision. Predictably, the Dutch broke up the Spanish midfield ballet with hard tackles and rapid attacks. Wonderful - that's good football. But they started playing for fouls, cards, and referee attention instead of for goals. One of the many eye-rolling moments of the match featured a Spanish attacked fouling a Dutch defender in the box. The referee missed it, but the Dutch player looked away from his man and threw up his hand to signal a foul before returning to playing defense. That's the epitome of a lousy game.
The epitome of bad refereeing (a theme throughout the tourney) occurred when a Spanish player had rolled around for a full 10 seconds, after a minor foul the referee didn't see. When the referee noticed the Spanish thespian's bravado performance, he stopped play and issued a yellow card by way of applause - for an infraction he did not even see!
To paraphrase Gregg Easterbrook, there is no immutable law that football must remain as globally popular as it now is. Many talk about what FIFA must do to win Americans over. Nay, FIFA must reform itself to hold onto European and Asian fans, who can and will shift their attention and Euros to other venues if international football continues down the road to travesty.
After watching more of this World Cup than any before, I suggest the following simple reforms for improving the matches.
- Use video review before issuing cards or awarding penalty kicks (not free kicks). Use video review of goals at the referee's request. Under this system, when the referee calls a foul, the free kick is taken and play continues. A centrally-located booth reviewer automatically gets all the video angles and takes his time determining whether a yellow card is deserved for either the infraction or for the dive. At the next break in play, the on-field referee issues any cards.
- Choose better referees. If a player born and playing in France qualifies as Algerian, why not a referee of Algerian descent who referees in France? Matches should not be officiated by lightweights like Koman Coulibaly.
- Add a referee per match. People are more attentive when they aren't exhausted, and an extra angle always helps.
- Make red cards a 45-minute power play, carrying over to the next match. Reds early in the match are too debilitating; Reds late in the match (e.g. Suarez) are too lenient. If booth review is a bridge too far, at least review all red cards between matches and rescind unfair ones for the subsequent match. FIFA can't bear admitting it is wrong. But if the Association behaves like a child, how can it expect adult behavior from its players?
- Never end a match with penalty kicks. Extra time is often goal-less because players are exhausted and defense is less taxing than offense. When extra time occurs, give longer breaks to let players catch their breath. That's more time for commercials ($$$) and the revived players will reward you with better play. Also, award one or two extra substitutions to each team at the start of each 15-minute overtime period. After the first half-hour extra time, continue 15-minute extra time periods indefinitely (with a new sub for each one), like a baseball game in extra innings. Could it be insanely long? Yes, maybe. But that would also be insanely exciting. And anything is better than penalty kicks, which is like settling a draw in Chess by playing War.