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Change Soccer Attitudes, Not Laws and Balls

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Given the muddled perception of the USA in international soccer, it's dangerous for those of us who live here to suggest changes to the game. So for purposes of this discussion, I'm English (mother's side), Irish (paternal grandmother), Scottish (great-aunts) and, sadly, French (hence the name).

But whatever your nationality, the World Cup has shown few glimpses of the game at its best and many of the game at its worst. At times during the dreary first week, when ESPN's announcers would welcome viewers on American Forces Network, it was tempting to ask whether the troops had suffered enough.

We soccer fans can joke about bad soccer. A World Cup snoozer is, in many respects, no different than a Super Bowl blowout or error-riddled Final Four game. Referees are human. And if the easy answer were "more goals," we'd be watching indoor soccer in the winter and the World Cup of lacrosse now.

Yet FIFA, the sport's international overlords, have taken the occasional step to repair the game when it seems to be in danger of going wrong, particularly as the average number of goals per game creeps closer to two. Teams get three points for wins now, not two. Goalkeepers can't pick up simple passes from their teammates and hold the ball forever. In theory, referees can punish dives.

They also tend to introduce a new ball for each World Cup, promising that it'll dip and swerve to produce spectacular goals. That approach backfired this time around, as field players had as much trouble as goalkeepers in adjusting to the infamous Jabulani, spraying passes all over South Africa and misjudging normally simple crosses. Next time, perhaps FIFA will introduce a ball that splits in two in mid-air, giving goalkeepers quite a bit to think about.

FIFA can still tinker a bit, particularly with an offside rule that most of the sport's commentators don't understand. An experiment with additional assistant referees could prove fruitful, particularly if they're empowered to flag some of the nonsense seen on free kicks as in the USA-Slovenia game, which saw several U.S. players held in a variety of grappling holds.

Ultimately, though, it's attitudes that must change, not the game itself. Players' attitudes, coaches' attitudes, media attitudes and fan attitudes.

Players and coaches need to realize at some point that their negativity, particularly diving, is backfiring. Consider Cristiano Ronaldo, the wonderfully skilled Portuguese player who has been known to dive for a foul rather than proceed with a scoring chance that had a better chance of succeeding than the free kick he just won. Players and coaches have been trained to think otherwise. Besides, players are more afraid of making a ghastly mistake on a big stage than they are of being labeled a cheat.

That's where fans and the media come in.

In U.S. sports, we have a strong deterrent against blatant cheating: a gauntlet of reporters in the locker room after the game. Not so in international sports, where athletes can rush through "mixed zones," waving off questions. Soccer players in particular aren't used to being hounded by the press. Ridiculed, yes. Forced to endure scrutiny and outright falsehoods over their social lives, yes. Grilled about diving? Not so much.

Fans and the media also have the right to demand more from this sport than simply grinding out results, and they generally have no problem voicing such opinions.

And yet fans and the media also need to be patient. Perhaps a bit more forgiving, too, so that players and coaches will feel emboldened to take more risks.

Maybe, for example, on Wednesday, when the USA could really stand to throw caution to the wind to get a win against Algeria.

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