Sunday night, Chile's goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, guessed right and dove in the right direction. Argentina's goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, wasn't so lucky. Thus did the Copa American football championship come to an end after a 0-0 tie. All the tactical brilliance and athletic exertion played by 22 guys over 120 minutes meant nothing. The game was decided by a kicking contest.
The same thing happened last year between the same two teams. Chile won that one too in another kicking contest.
Few who love the sport are happy about this. But no one seems to be able to make a change. I'm not an official of FIFA, the world's governing body of football (or soccer), or someone who even grew up playing the sport (though I would coach kids later in life). I'm just a guy with common sense and a smidge of imagination.
Soccer needs more than a facelift. Let's forget about the game's finer points -- the offsides rules that are ever in dispute, or the cry for technology to support or overturn calls made by referees. Let's look at the problems that are far more fundamental. There are two. The first is that there is too little scoring and therefore too many ties. The second is the way ties are resolved.
The best way to create more scoring is to widen the goal posts from the present 8 yards to 10 yards. Traditionalists will howl, but they are forgetting that when 8 yards was settled on -- I believe it was in 1863 -- players were smaller, slower, and less well trained. By present standards they would not even be considered professionals. In particular, goalkeepers, at least at the highest levels of the game, today have a longer reach, are in better physical shape, and are usually better trained than in former years. Not much gets by them. In fact too little gets by them. The game has changed, but the rules haven't kept up.
The other problem is of course the way tie games are settled. What would be a good alternative? Thirty minutes of extra time, as is now the case, is welcome. But what then if the game is still tied, as was the game Sunday night? One solution would be to take the goalkeepers off the field and play ten against ten with no off-sides rules until one team scores. Think about it. Such an arrangement would add an entirely new dimension to the game. Coaches and players would tax their imaginations in order to come up with the winning strategy. New rules might have to be drawn up to prevent chaos. Imagine the tension and excitement once the kinks were worked out in exhibition matches. And the game would be resolved in minutes, with the better and smarter team, not the luckier team, the winner. An obvious, much less radical alternative would be to retain the penalty kick but move the kicker to the top of the box, thereby giving the goalie time to react and not be forced to guess.
Would even the most staunch traditionalist prefer the penalty kick as it now stands over the novel arrangement suggested here? On what grounds? That it's different? Baseball introduced the designated hitter, a radical change, in 1973, and the game has been better for it. And in 1974 the National Football League pushed back the goalposts 10 yards, another radical change, when kickers became so proficient and strong that field goals got too easy. But no game has changed more than golf. As the players have beefed up and the equipment modernized, the courses have been lengthened: the longest courses that the PGA plays on have gone from 6800 to 7800 yards in the last 35 years. And the game has become a TV must for millions of fans every weekend -- unlike tennis.
Which brings us to tennis -- and Wimbledon, which is upon us. Tennis is another flawed sport that has not kept up with the greater athleticism of the modern player. Today the sport's greatest players serve at speeds of 130 mph -- totally unlike when the game's present rules were set up -- and even the best receivers too seldom break serve. Thus the point is far too often won by the server, and even when the receiver can put his racket on the ball, his return is usually weak. This makes for boring matches for the spectator and weakens the game's appeal.
The solution to this problem is easy: push the server six feet back from the baseline and have him serve from there. (Most women are not yet powerful enough for this to be a general problem, though Serena is certainly an exception.) This arrangement would give the receiver more time to respond and produce a powerful return. Breaking serve would be easier and the outcome of each game much less predictable.
Such a solution would entail painting a line parallel to the baseline six feet back, and of a softer hue so as not to confuse the players while playing. A light, subdued blue might be ideal for the "serve line."
The commissioners who make and guard the rules need always to keep in mind the spectator. Professional soccer and tennis are forms of entertainment, and what entertains best is probably the way the sport should go. Over the years Major League Baseball has brought in the center field fences of its ball parks because fans like to see home runs. And the NBA introduced in 1979 the three-point basket, at first thought to be a gimmick by traditionalists, but which proved to be an alteration that has added immensely to the game's popularity.
Interestingly, the baseball diamond has never needed a change. The distance of the pitching mound from the batter's box and the distance between the base pads has proved to be exactly right. (Baseball has a major problem with slowness of play between pitches, not with the nature of the game.) And the smaller diamond used by women playing softball at the college and professional levels has needed no adjustment either. But soccer and tennis have not been so fortunate. I don't expect to win over traditionalists with these recommendations any time soon, but sooner or later something should be done.