This morning, I turned on my television at 0700, conditioned to expect the oddly comforting drone of the vuvuzelas and one of ESPN’s plummy Anglo-Saxon accents. Instead: tennis. I have nothing against tennis, but the sudden absence of soccer—this lull between the World Cup round of 16 and quarterfinals—gave me a premature case of post-Cup depression. The end of soccer’s month-long festival always feels weird and empty, and today provided a foretaste of the desolation.
The only obvious cure is to think up ways to improve the World Cup. Oh, some would argue that the current tournament’s massive TV ratings prove that there’s nothing wrong with the World Cup. That view ignores one of the World Cup’s key attractions: there is always something wrong with the World Cup. There are too few European teams, or too many. We need video replay, or we don’t. There’s too much rough play, or too many red cards. The important thing is that there’s always, always, always something that needs fixing, i.e., debating at length.
So far in this World Cup, some problems have solved themselves. Portugal, for example, is out. But other problems loom. At the moment, I’m considering the Problem of Paraguay.
Paraguay, in many ways, is an admirable side. Ferocious. Committed. Organized. Their success in this tournament, as they are bound for a marquee quarterfinal match-up with Spain, testifies to those knottier aspects of football science that I called the weapons of the weak not long ago. One must admire a team from a small, poor country that rides its grit, determination and stubborn skill all the way to the last eight. And I like tight little teams that don’t surrender goals, in part because they piss off shallow American sportswriters.
But the problem is that Paraguay could actually, conceivably, win the World Cup playing this way, and that just won’t do. Whatever the ‘Guay’s steely virtues, their 120-minute 0:0 draw with Japan yesterday was a form of living death. (As Run of Play tweeted from the depths of this game’s existential crisis: “I think the abyss just gazed into me.”) If the CIA didn’t force inmates at all their worldwide black sites to watch that ‘un, they missed a trick in the enhanced interrogation sweepstakes. And yet, without scoring a goal in knock-out play, Paraguay plows on.
Here’s my bright idea: Install a special rule for the World Cup’s first knock-out round. This rule would stipulate that after a 0:0 draw in this round, a penalty-kick shootout is held as per usual. The loser of the shootout is out of the tournament, obviously. However, the winner of the shootout is not guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals. They have to wait. If any other team is eliminated on penalty kicks after scoring a goal in either regulation or extra time, those two teams meet in a special supplemental game scheduled for one of these two fallow days between knock-out rounds. (In other words, if Spain v. Portugal had finished 1:1, the shootout loser would play Paraguay tomorrow. If the US had held Ghana but subsequently lost on penalties, the Americans would play Paraguay tomorrow.)
If an odd number of teams meets these criteria (shootout winner after 0:0; shootout loser after any goals scored), the team with the fewest goals scored in the round—or, as the next tiebreaker, over the course of the tournament—is out.
See what I mean? Of course, as it turned out, none of the other seven games went to penalties, so the point is moot this time. But in the future, this rule would provide a massive incentive not to settle for a 0:0 extra-time draw. If an 0:0 result had already occurred in the round, teams would hesitate before settling for any draw. No players or managers would seek out an extra World Cup game. However, this rule would occasionally provide bonus entertainment for fans and extra revenue for cash-strapped FIFA and Sepp Blatter’s cabana-boy gratuity fund.
I’m sure there’s a flaw here, somewhere. But right now I am too blinded by my own genius to notice.