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Friday, December 31, 2010

Let Me Entertain You

In the final installment of our series on the future of football, Nobes looks at how he would both liven up and clean up the game.

Back of the net - isn't that why we go to watch football?

Over the past week, Lakes and Turls have outlined how they'd like to improve the game off the field of play.

From how the game should be organised in this country to looking to curb the financial problems that beset football, we all know there's plenty of room for improvement in the sport we all love.

Today, it's my turn. However, I want to focus purely on the sport side. After all, a sport can be well managed and not have clubs appearing in High Courts almost as often as their home ground, but it's the game itself why we fans follow football.

Having said that though, I fear there currently two major ills in the game which threaten to strangle its credibility and the enjoyment it provides to millions around the world.

They stem from the 'win at all costs attitude' which led to one of the most anaemic World Cups in history earlier this year.

Its manifestations are two fold - the negativity which pervades how the game is played, and the on-pitch conduct of today's professionals.

However, I believe both are areas which can be tackled and, in the process, restore the beauty back to the beautiful game.

Let me first outline how I would improve the game as a spectacle. There's a common phrase you hear in any debate surrounding footballers' wages - people say they get paid so much because they're part of the 'entertainment' industry.

As footballers' wages have skyrocketed though, so have the prices that clubs demand fans pay to watch this entertainment.

It's priced some fans out of the market but, for those who can still afford to watch their team, I would ask whether they are really getting value for money?

In a sport where managers know they are only a few poor results away from the sack, it's only natural that caution creeps into their thinking. They can only afford to think about results. Entertainment is just an added bonus.

However, if football isn't entertaining, we risk a future generation turning its head away from the game in search of something more appealing.

We already have a situation of overkill in terms of the amount of football available for our consumption on TV. Ally this with an increasingly sterile product, and I begin to worry.

Of course, there are different ways you can look to increase entertainment.

Creating fixed managerial contracts where both club and coach are locked in an inseparable bond for a certain length of time - with hefty punishments for those who break said commitment - is one way.

Managers would then be able to relax and experiment - knowing they had time to develop a brand of good football and, however results went, they had job security.

However, as well as being impractical, it's rather more 'stick' than 'carrot'. Having thought long and hard about the process therefore, I've come to the conclusion the only way to encourage and increase entertainment on the pitch is to actually reward it.

After a dour World Cup in 1990, FIFA - when they actually ran the game for its, and not their own, good - decided that change was needed for their big event in the United States four years later.

It saw them change the points system to award three for a win, rather than the two which had been used in Italia 90. It led to more open games and plenty more goals and excitement.

Teams knew that wins would make an even bigger difference compared to draws so they went for maximum spoils. Now, 14 years later, it's time for more radical changes to once again nudge the game towards positivity.

We can start by making a simple change in this country, teams level on points at the end of the season should, once again, be separated by virtue of goals scored rather than goal difference.

If managers knew that promotion or relegation could be determined by how many goals their team scores, it's simple logic to assume they will send them out with the intention of attacking.

It may well lead to more goals being conceded down the other end, but isn't that what we go to games to see - entertainment and the onion bag bulging? After all, wouldn't you rather see your team win 3-2 instead of 1-0?

Video technology can help punish players the ref misses in such scuffles

Reward teams for attacking, and they will attack. Similarly, is it about time we looked again at changing the way points are allocated? Could two points be awarded for an away draw or perhaps a score draw?

The first would encourage sides away from home to venture forwards rather than 'parking the bus.' The second would, again, reward sides for scoring goals.

You could even take it further and, as in other sports, award a bonus point when, for instance, a side scores five or more goals.

I can already hear the purists balking at the very thought of introducing such ideas into the game. However, I would task them with this question - would they rather watch a dull game by the old rules or an exciting one with my modifications?

From the use of substitutes to the back pass rule to what constitutes 'offside,' the laws of football have always been changing. If they would help produce a better, more attractive, version of the sport, then surely they should be encouraged?

Which leads me onto curing the second ill blighting football. I speak of the diving, cheating, play-acting, and general gamesmanship which constantly challenge the ideas of fair play.

It's something which we should be particularly keen on stamping out. Fair play is part of what makes us British. Like queueing, always talking about the weather, and never talking about sex - playing by the rules is in our DNA.

Unfortunately, playing to win, rather than playing fair seems to have taken hold of football. It's time to put a stop to this distasteful trend and bring some sportsmanship back into the game.

Consider for a moment just how ridiculous a sport is that punishes someone for removing their shirt when they score yet refuses to take action against a player who cheats to get a fellow professional sent off?

If it wasn't true, it would be laughable. Well, it's time to stop it, not only be over-turning that ridiculous shirt-removing rule. Indeed, any laws preventing celebrations of joy, rather than those designed to incite, should be repealed.

Then, once the lunacy has been dismissed, we can begin to properly crack down on the real problems - with the aid of technology. We have it, so let's use it for the right reasons.

For starters, the incorrect allocation of cards should be instantly overturned. It's pure pigheadedness to refuse to. Who cares if it would take a long time, this is about fairness.

Then, let us use technology to punish individuals - and punish them hard. Caught diving? A five match ban. Caught feigning injury or hurt to get another player sent off? A ten match ban.

Wave a card at the referee to get him to book a player? Miss two matches yourself, pal. Commit a sly stamp, or spit, or kick during a scuffle that the ref misses? Well, who cares if he details it in his post-match report or not, you were caught on camera and will be punished.

Sometimes you have to use the stick, and the only way to cut out such poor conduct is to punish it. Managers would soon rail hard on any player who tried to practice such dark arts if they knew they would be suspended for two months.

For those who, again, question whether such ideas could be put into practice and suggest anarchy would be rife, I would ask, are you really willing to put up with these shenanigans and not try to solve them?

It's like the old argument about stopping shirt pulling and the various manhandling which goes on in a penalty box while waiting for a corner or free kick.

If you have to give 20 penalties a game, then do it. Madness? Maybe. Madder than a sport which has such a problem yet refuses to do something to stop it? No.

Let penalty records be smashed and such conduct will soon be curbed. It would probably also lead to more goals being scored from set pieces, which ties in neatly with my earlier argument.

There will always be opponents to such change - as they doggedly refuse to adapt or, even worse, admit there's a problem in the first place. However, this is the kind of change that football needs.

Change which dictates a fairer game, and change which rewards a more entertaining game. Change, as Turls spoke about, which produces a more sensible game, and as Lakes argued, a financially sound game.

Just for a change, it's time to embrace it.

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