Business & Technology Nexus

Dave Stephens on technology and business trends

World Cup Break

with 4 comments

Ever since Dave and I started Coupa, it has been crazy. Ups, downs, some more ups, a couple more downs and so on. Unpredictable and draining. It’s hard to find time for anything but work, sneaking a few hours with the family for dinner and putting the kids to bed…and then getting back to work.

But since June 9th, I have taken a few hours each day to watch World Cup soccer. It’s the game that I’ve played since I was 4 years old. And although I play some hoops and hack around on a golf course occasionally, soccer is my true love. If a big game is scheduled with teams that I like – US, Brazil, Argentina, England, Netherlands – I try to head over to Rudy’s Pub in Palo Alto to watch it on the big screen. If the game starts early, like 6 or 7am, then there are only a handful of us. For the US-Italy match, there were probably over a hundred. Sweet HDTVs, cheering fans, good food. Now, nothing compares to being at a World Cup match, but since I’m not in Germany, Rudy’s is my place. As a matter of fact, I’m there right now…wireless access is a wonderful thing.

As I’ve watched probably 50% of the games so far, I wonder how much soccer is changing with time. Purists would say that it doesn’t need to, but I’m not convinced. The game is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago. Athletes are training better – becoming stronger & faster. But the game itself is stagnant and that’s going to affect popularity. Now, of course, there’s a huge fan base to begin with. But could soccer be doing more? Without question, there will be more distractions / other things competing for the interests of kids in the next generation, and it would be a huge mistake to take this fan base for granted.

Let’s start with some of the easy things. There are so few goals, only 2.3 per match in this year’s World Cup. If a ball enters the goal, it should be a goal. Tell that to the French team that obviously scored against Korea, as the goalie knocked the ball out while standing a good 2 feet inside the goal. The ref couldn’t tell, so no goal. France would have taken a 2-0 lead, an almost insurmountable lead…instead they ended up with a 1-1 tie. Would it kill them to put a camera on the goal line?

Offsides is one of the most difficult to call, but a very common violation in soccer. The linesman has to watch when a ball is passed (possibly 80 yards away from him) and then immediately check to see that no offensive team member is in an offsides position. But the offensive player is trying to time his run perfectly which complicates matters. And to make matters worse, an offensive team member could be interpreted as “not involved in play” bringing in the passive offsides rule. I would say that the best linesmen probably miss 2-4 calls per game. Could RFID on the player’s cleats help out? Possibly.

Let’s talk more about the refereeing. I’m not going to complain that the US got screwed, but I do think that FIFA (soccer governing body) needs to look at the way games are handled. You’ve got one referee out there. True, you have 2 linesman / assistant referees that mostly call out-of-bounds and offsides. But the main ref makes 90% of the calls on fouls. Is he/she able to watch the 22 players on each side, keeping up with some of the finest and most fit athletes in the world on a field that is much larger than a football field? Football has 7 or 8 officials on the field for 22 players, plus the instant replay guys in the booth. Baseball has 4 umps (6 for the playoffs) in a game that is so static, you could probably reduce the number. Basketball now has 3 refs for 10 players, while hockey has 4 refs for 12. The amount of grabbing and holding in soccer is killing the offense in the game.

Is FIFA doing enough to change the game? You can be the judge by the latest rule changes back in early 2005. They agreed to test a system to verify if the ball crossed the goal line. But it won’t be in place for this World Cup 18 months later. They clarified the offsides rule, which clearly isn’t working. The other changes involve the number of substitutes a team can have, limiting when the referee can change his mind and saying that defensive players need to be at least 2 meters away from the thrower on a throw-in. Not exactly earthshaking. They introduced a new ball that acts a little like a beach ball on a windy day. Makes the long shots more interesting. Good start, but it’s time that soccer does some more tinkering and innovating to improve the flow of the game.

What is soccer going to do to make the game more fan/TV friendly? An activity like poker probably did a ton of things, but the most obvious is introducing a hole camera. Poker now gets huge ratings on ESPN, despite not being live action. I’m sure alot of the poker players didn’t want the TV audience and (after the event) competitors seeing how they played their cards via the hole cam…but in the end, it’s good for the game. I certainly don’t have all the answers for soccer, but they need to figure out a way that major populations pay attention to the sport more than once every 4 years.

I don’t think that Dave thought I would hijack his blog to talk about soccer, so I’ll throw out something gratuitous statement like software companies need to innovate for their customer base or else risk alienating them. :-)

PS. If you are one of those few people with a combined interest of business applications, open source software and soccer, you might want to check out Matt Asay’s blog. His prime focus is the open source enterprise content management firm, Alfresco, but he throws in several posts about his love of soccer and Arsenal. Matt probably fully disagrees with my post.


Written by Noah Eisner

06/26/06 8:48 PM at 8:48 pm

Posted in Opinion

4 Responses

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  1. Noah,

    Nice post, save me a seat at Rudy’s next time I am in SFO! Thanks to the best modern invention in years (Tivo), I have been able to watch almost every match at night. I too, spent much of my life playing soccer and “retired” a couple years ago, much to my dismay. I think a few cosmetic changes will have some marginal benefit here in the US but doubt much could get approved through FIFA since the rest of the world likes the game the way it is.

    I could write a book on this subject with ease but there are two main problems, neither are truly fixable. 1) The MLS is a minor league (although much better than the old NASL) and the competition is made of lower level talent and washed up stars – watch Beckham and Ronaldo show up to cash checks soon. Ultimately, this means US players are not getting challenged like they would in European Premier Leagues. 2) Americans dont like losing or playing in events they cannot win! Even the 49ers could destroy the best non-NFL team and I think down deep we like the fact that we have no equal.

    Just listen to any sports talk flunkie, they all rip soccer with very weak reasons for their argument and are playing to the audience. Soccer is boring??? Ok, lets watch roided up baseball players spend 3 hours watching grass grow…

    David Bush

    06/27/06 4:14 AM at 4:14 am

  2. Great Football blog Noah….I still like to say Football but being here in US for last 12 yrs has trained my mind to say ‘Soccer’. Oh well….

    But I am loving the world cup a lot this time….although I been England Team’s Fan for a long time…I don’t think they have that good of a chance….unless they get the midfield passing game improves drastically…

    This was definitely a good blog for a change!!!


    06/27/06 1:34 PM at 1:34 pm

  3. David, i’d love to grab a beer when you come out to san francisco. i’m not sure what can fix soccer in the US…it would take the perfect storm. but i see hints of unrest internationally with the game, and that’s a bigger issue. the Wales Football Association had a proposal to FIFA in 2005 to only enforce offsides in the penalty box. it was withdrawn, but it served a purpose. the flopping, the faking, the tugging, the grabbing, the capricious referreeing…it’s turning the ultimate game of skill into too much of a game of chance. i’d rather see a 6-4 game where the rules were enforced correctly. there’s no way that happens with the current setup. btw, did you just catch the France win? the go-ahead goal was setup by a foul on Henry…some could argue the spanish defender had position, but everyone agrees that Henry flopped to draw the foul and a card. pitiful that this is what one of the greats has to do.

    DPac, I’ll be rooting for your team. they haven’t looked good, but with Deco out and C. Ronaldo questionable, they have a leg up in the next match. maybe lampard will actually put one on goal soon.


    06/27/06 2:21 PM at 2:21 pm

  4. Anonymous

    06/27/06 2:45 PM at 2:45 pm

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