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Let's Put the Sock Back in Soccer

The sport's alltime greatest player urges a return to offense to enhance its appeal

CHANGE IS A VITAL PART OF SPORTS. Even old-fashioned sports, such as tennis, have given way to the forces of change over the years and have had their rules modified. So why not soccer? Because the powers that be at FIFA, soccer's international governing body, keep the sport stuck in the 19th century. The game is suffering.

For the past three years I have been lobbying FIFA to take steps to increase scoring. It is goals that have made soccer the world's most popular game, not scoreless ties that are decided by penalty kicks. However, every time I've approached FIFA with my ideas on how to open up the game, I've received a polite brush-off. And I'm not the only one. In December, bowing to pressure from outraged fans, FIFA appointed a task force to study ways of ending the scoring drought. But FIFA said that the committee's findings and recommendations, which will be released at the end of this year, will not be acted upon before the 1994 World Cup in the U.S.

Why not? Certainly anyone who saw the 1990 World Cup would agree that something needs to be done to restore balance to the game—and fast. In that tournament, not only were there fewer goals scored per match (2.21) than in any previous World Cup, but both semifinal matches ended in penalty-kick shootouts and the one goal in the final was scored on a penalty kick late in regulation time. This is not just a World Cup problem, either. Last fall, the men's soccer finals in all three NCAA divisions were low-scoring draws that were settled by—what else?—penalty kicks.

Defense no longer merely has the upper hand, it has a stranglehold on the game. This trend toward scorelessness has been developing for years, fueled by the vast sums of money flowing into the sport. Many coaches, fearful of losing their high-paying jobs, no longer play to win, they play not to lose. That subtle shift in attitude has had far-reaching effects at all levels of the sport, from the mechanized way kids learn the game to the questionable defensive tactics pros use to frustrate their rivals.

What has been lost in the process is the very heart and soul of the game—creativity. The jazz musician Charlie Mingus once said that to take something simple and make it complex is common, but to take something complex and make it simple, that's creativity. This is as true of soccer as it is of music. To create a goal is a complex task that requires dozens of split-second decisions and the imagination to anticipate three, four, five moves ahead. Most of today's players, who are products of the overemphasis on defense, aren't afforded the opportunity to master these skills. In my day, all the best teams had five or six exceptional goal scorers; now if a team has two, it's considered a world power.

Last October, I experienced firsthand just how desperate the situation is. I was playing in my 50th-birthday game in Milan. Before the match I was concerned that I might have trouble keeping up with my teammates, who were young members of the Brazilian national team. But what I discovered as I moved the ball upfield was that they were having trouble keeping up with me. Not physically, but mentally. These were Brazil's crème de la crème, and they didn't know the rudiments of offense: how to move without the ball, how to give and go, how to perform a one-two pass. I was stunned.

Is it possible to reverse this trend in soccer? I think so, but it will take more than cosmetic changes. It will take a forward-thinking approach to the game, and rules that stimulate creativity. Here are my suggestions:

•Prohibit the human wall on direct free kicks. The wall has never made sense to me. Let's say you're a forward. You bring the ball up, dribble past four or five players and just as you're about to shoot, somebody nails you. And then, all those players you beat out are back in the picture, forming the wall. Ridiculous. In those situations, I think the fouled player should get a free kick one-on-one against the goalie.

•Award penalty kicks for all fouls committed in the penalty area. Referees usually award only an indirect free kick for charging and lesser infractions. But if defenders knew they might get hit with a penalty kick, they would think twice about committing those types of fouls in the box.

•Allow players to kick the ball in, or as at present, to throw it in when the ball goes over the sidelines. This would speed up play and add the element of surprise. A skilled kicker can drive the ball from deep in his territory all the way to the opposing goal. That never happens with a throw.

•Prohibit goalies from using their hands outside of the goal area. Currently, a goalie can range freely in the penalty area, as well as in the goal area. That gives him air superiority up to 18 yards in front of the goal. Take that advantage away and scoring will skyrocket.

Some soccer people have suggested widening the goal to give players a bigger target to hit. The rationale is that today's goalkeepers are taller than their predecessors and can cover more area. I'm not convinced that widening the goal is a good idea. The problem is the inaccuracy of today's shooters. In the 1990 World Cup, 53% of the 1,162 shots missed the mark entirely. Yes, some of those misses were forced errors, but at least 80% were truly bad shots. If we adopt other measures to encourage offense, the shooters will soon hone their offensive skills.

Another often-mentioned proposal is eliminating the offside rule. What good would that do? Defenders would soon adjust to the new situation. And I don't see any merit in introducing a shot clock or setting a time limit for getting the ball across the center line. Both changes would violate the fluid nature of the game.

I'm not saying that FIFA should adopt all of my suggestions at once. In fact, it might be better to experiment with them one at a time. But I think that if FIFA is going to do something, it should start now, not later in the decade. What better time to introduce new ideas than when a fresh audience—the U.S. and Canada—is plugged in and eager to be entertained? The 1994 World Cup provides a golden opportunity for soccer. Let's hope FIFA doesn't boot it.

Pelè, who retired as a player in 1977, travels the world to promote soccer.



For starters, Pelè would limit the goalie's right to handle the ball.