Anyone who has ever taken an Economics class knows that there is only one universal truth; we all respond to incentives. What it is that motivates us changes from person to person but we are all willing to change our behavior to get whatever it is that we want. In soccer (brace yourself for a shocking statement) what everyone wants is to score a goal. When Americans watch soccer we have a tendency to get angry at the players on the field for embellishing contact, whining and in general following Coach Bombay's advice perfectly. To remove flopping you need to remove the incentive to flop. Currently, the perverse incentive structure of the sport makes flopping and diving far too rewarding to the elusive pursuit of scoring and therefore diving runs rampant, becoming a distracting side-show to an otherwise beautiful game.
The problem lies with the current way that penalty kicks are awarded. In a sport where it is so difficult to score, it is sheer insanity that a penalty in the box is rewarded with such a monumental advantage as the penalty kick. The ease of scoring a penalty kick compared to the difficulty in scoring during regular play leads to these objectionable actions that are far too prevalent in soccer. In short, flopping is absolutely the right thing to do. When it comes to flopping in soccer, don't hate the player, hate the game. So how do we fix this? I'm glad you asked.
One simple rule change would fix this flopping epidemic and it is as follows:
All penalties in the box are subject to review.
Wow that was easy. This one simple rule change would lead to soccer's popularity increasing enormously in the United States and it would not in anyway shape or form change the game for current fans. From Brazil to Germany and everywhere in between, I can't imagine any fans, coaches or players being upset that penalty kicks are only being awarded on actual penalties.
The chance of success of a penalty kick is roughly 80 percent. The odds of converting a penalty kick are currently higher than the odds of an NBA player making a free throw, and keep in mind they are called free throws. However, in basketball that free throw was most likely 1/100th of the teams total offensive output, in soccer that successful penalty kick was most likely 100 percent of his teams scoring for the game.
To award a gift of this magnitude is something that simply must be fixed and I can't believe soccer fans aren't more upset about the current system. If a player feels the slightest touch while they have the ball in the box, they should, and usually do, instantly dive. The current system rewards their delicate femininity. If you have a chance to line up for a penalty kick that will go in 80 percent of the time, there is no reason to try and score a regular goal. In fact, if players were correctly playing the percentages no one would ever stay upright while they had the ball in the box and a defender in the vicinity. In a weird way, given the current ridiculousness of the advantage given to divers, it's amazing we don't see more flopping in the current game.
According to this study done on the English Premiere League, 62.62 percent of all games ended with a score differential of 1 goal or less. This means that every single penalty kick is actually the difference between a win and a loss. In sports we can rarely pinpoint the exact moment during a game that a team definitively is going to win or lose that doesn't happen directly before the final buzzer. However, in soccer every single time a penalty kick is awarded it is a safe bet that your team will score and now your team is unlikely to lose. A penalty kick awarded in the first minute of the game is statistically likely to ensure that your team will not lose the game, despite the fact that more than 89 minutes of play remain. This is insanity. Maybe not Qatar hosting the World Cup insane, but insane nonetheless.
The average margin of victory in the NBA over the past decade has been over 10 points per game. If a free throw were weighted so that each and every individual free throw lead to more points than the average margin of victory in a game, you can bet that the world would stop watching basketball. If LeBron James knew that every single free throw was worth 11 points, there is no way he would ever do anything except put his head down and go directly to the rim. At the single slightest amount of contact he would crumble to the ground and act as if he may never walk again. Basically, he would become Manu Ginobili. And for a chance at two, 11-point free throws, he would be doing the exact right thing based on the stupid incentive structure of this new and horrible NBA I just created.
Imagine if there was a rule in baseball that stated getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded means your team gets an automatic grand slam. Sure some guys would still try to hit the ball but you would also see a whole lot of guys leaning in to inside pitches or pretending balls that came near them actually hit them. You could try and hit a grand slam the traditional way but that is much more difficult then taking the gimme. That would be a stupid rule right? But that's exactly what is happening in soccer. The rules are taking away the most exciting part of the game, encouraging poor behavior and handing out game-deciding points without verifying the authenticity of the infraction that supposedly was incurred.
That is why soccer needs to instantly add in an automatic replay system to ensure that all penalties in the box are true penalties. I am not against awarding penalty kicks to players who were genuinely fouled in the box but I am staunchly against the current system where a referee that is most likely horribly out of position, and potentially exhausted, is forced to make a split-second decision that in most cases will decide the outcome of the game. By ensuring that all penalties in the box are actual penalties, flopping in the box will be virtually eradicated as the goal now becomes to you know, score a goal.
One of the absolute best qualities of soccer is the non-stop action and the lack of timeouts. It is why I do not advocate for a full challenge system as it would decimate the flow and pace of the game. What's nice about instituting a replay review in this situation alone is that it is a natural pause in the game anyway. This minute could be spent having a central replay command center reviewing the play in question and ensuring a true foul was committed. For plays of this magnitude, the plays that decide the World Cup, that small break seems worth it to me. For those of you worried about corruption in the replay office, you should be comforted by the fact that there is also corruption of the referees, FIFA executives, coaches and the players themselves so this actually fits nicely into the traditions of international soccer.
One simple rule change could eradicate the games biggest problem. If penalty kicks were only awarded for true penalties, flopping will be disincentivized and eventually the flopper will be publicly mocked as they deserve to be, rather than awarded the Balloon D'Or. So please make this rule change FIFA, you are long overdue for making a good decision.