Historically, the first, round-robin, section of the World Cup has tended to be a dull affair. Weaker teams played defensively, hoping for a tie or a lucky break. Stronger teams took their time warming up, not pushing themselves too hard in the early going. The result was a plethora of crowded midfields, packed defenses, and half-hearted attacks, giving rise to no-goal or one-goal games - not the best advertisement for what should be a glorious sport. One of the worst examples was a group in the 1990 tournament (England, Holland, Ireland, Egypt) in which eight goals were scored in six games - and three of the teams went through to the elimination round.
The 1998 World Cup has witnessed a complete transformation. Teams have been playing with fervour and inventiveness from the start. Even the first game, usually a tense, low-scoring affair, was packed with action and witnessed three goals. Many games have practically dispensed with midfield action and have been exciting, end-to-end affairs with the number of goal attempts reminiscent of a hockey game. In one game (Columbia vs. Tunisia, I believe), the BBC commentators, sounding exhausted by the continuous action, exclaimed "it's almost like a basketball game!" In the Belgium vs. South Korea game - not normally an inspiring matchup - the last fifteen minutes were played with each side having five players on one side of the pitch, and five on the other. After an attack was broken up at one end, the ball was simply ferried to the other end to start a counter-attack. The midfield was basically deserted! The result has been a cornucopia of goals. Even when one team is dominant, it has often kept attacking, resulting in far more games in which one side has scored four or more goals. Conversely, when teams have chosen to sit back and try to preserve a lead, they have often been punished. Even games which have been tight midfield struggles have often witnessed three or more goals, while the number of scoreless or one-goal games can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.
What can account for such a transformation? FIFA, soccer's governing body, has instituted various rule changes to encourage attacking in the game. Goal keepers can no longer pick up back passes from their teammates; the offside rule has been relaxed; and tackles from behind are being punished more harshly. All of these changes have helped, but they can hardly account for the depth of the transformation. FIFA has also adopted an innovation from the English League, by awarding three points for a win and only one for a tie in the round-robin part of the tournament. The rule has has some effect - teams with a win, a tie and a loss now progress ahead of teams with three ties.
These rules were for the most part in place in 1994, however, and yet they did not improve games all that dramatically. The key change has been the expansion of the number of teams from twenty-four to thirty-two. As a result, only two teams from each group of four can progress to the elimination round. Previously, several third-place teams - including teams with three ties - would go through to the round of sixteen anyway, so a team could mess up or play stifling soccer and still go on to the next round. For example, under the old structure, Spain and Belgium - two surprise failures in the first round this year - would both have snuck through. There is no longer such a safety valve, and teams now have to play all out from the beginning if they want to make it.
In addition to the joy of soccer fans everywhere who can watch intense, exciting football from the opening kickoff, two small lessons of more general application can be derived from this transformation (I have to talk politics a little). First, a fairly small change in rules or organization can create a significant transformation. Sometimes, big problems are caused by small blockages. Sadly, the converse is also true, as is being proven by the Mike Harris government in Ontario. Hidden behind all the big cuts the Tories are imposing on the province are a series of minor regulatory changes, largely unnoticed, which are opening up the opportunity for unscrupulous corporations to wreak havoc on Ontario's environment, cities and employees, causing as much damage as the more visible changes in health, education and taxation which serve to distract the public's attention.
The result of these weakened regulations can already be seen in the increase in labour, governmental and environmental conflict which now beleaguers the province. Such chaos will inevitably be bad for the economy in the long term. The Tories would do well to observe the second lesson visible in the World Cup's transformation: good competition leads to good action, but it is good regulation that leads to good competition.
June 25, 1998
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