The rule change that saved soccer

Soccer is famous for producing 0-0, 1-0, and 1-1 results. But If one checks the scores from World Cup and European club championship finals in the 1950s and early 1960s, one finds no shortage of high scoring matches (e.g., Real Madrid 4 – Reims 3; Real Madrid 7 – Frankfurt 3; Benefica 5 – Real Madrid 3; West Germany 3 – Hungary 2; Brazil 5- Sweden 2).

The low scoring affair gradually came into vogue in the 1960s, I think. By the late 1970s when I was watching lots of soccer, defenses were so far on top that the game’s popularity and prospects for expansion were in jeopardy.

The biggest problem was that teams were killing off games after about 60 or 70 minutes through stalling. Specifically, a team with a lead (or with a draw, if that’s all it wanted) would pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, who would then pick it up throw it to a defender, receive it back, etc. The latter stage of a match was often no more than a successful version of this kind of keep-away.

This ended when the rules were changed to prohibit the goalkeeper from handling a back pass. Defenders could still knock the ball back to the keeper, but he had to play it, rather than pick it up. The idea was to gave the opposition a fighting chance of gaining possession. It actually did more. With most keepers electing to play it safe by kicking the ball long, the defense which is facing the keeper, is able to win possession more often than not.

At this point, another great rule kicks into play — the rule limiting teams to only three substitutions. By the 70th minute, most players have run about six miles. With fatigue setting in, and the major stalling tactic unavailable, soccer now produces a good number of dramatic finishes.

Which brings me to the subject of Euro 2008, and especially Turkey. In its past three matches, the Turks have produced (1) a goal in the 90th minute to defeat Switzerland, (2) three goals in the final 15 minutes, including two in the final five, to defeat the Czechs, and (3) a goal in the final seconds of “stoppage” time to tie Croatia, which itself had scored in stoppage time, to tie the match (Turkey then proceeded to win on penalty kicks).

Today’s stunning 3-1 upset victory by Russia over the Netherlands is another case in point. Russia held a 1-0 lead with less than five minutes left. In the bad old days, the Russians almost surely would have been able to run out the clock. But today, Holland (through the great Van Nistlerooy) produced an equalizer in the 86th minute.

But the rule works both ways. By the second 15 minute overtime period, the Dutch were exhausted (they had expended much energy getting back into the match, were playing a young opponent, and had used all three substitutes). In the bad old days, Holland might have been able to hang on, assuming it could have won a little bit of possession. Today, Russia launched repeated blitzes down the left flank, one of which produced a goal. Then, with Holland deflated and completely out of gas, Russia got a third.

I feet bad for the Dutch — their great wild-card winger Robben was unavailable and their starting right back (who lost his prematurely born daughter on Thursday) was taken off in the second half due to injury. But the Russians clearly deserved their victory and, from the neutral point of view, the real winner was soccer.

UPDATE: Actually, I’m just assuming Robben was unavailable. All I know for sure is that he didn’t play.

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