Social observers are looking for causes of and answers to the Brussels soccer disaster of May 29. Unfortunately, they may be holding their telescopes the wrong way. Perhaps the root of the problem at the spectating level lies in the game itself.
Forget the "world's most popular sport" tag. It's true that more people watch and play soccer worldwide than any other sport. But the main reason for the popularity is economic in origin. All you need to play soccer is a piece of grass and a round ball. In a pinch you can dispense with the grass.
Yet while the rules are simple, the nuances are complex. This leads to two provocative notions: People in the sport believe they can interpret the rules correctly, and they usually get them wrong. And some of these rules are blatantly ridiculous.
Take the penalty-kick rule, for example. As a result of an innocuous trip or push on the outside edge of an area comprising 756 square feet, the offended team may be awarded a free shot from 12 yards out, with the goalkeeper required to remain immobile until the ball is in flight. This is like letting Joe Theismann lob a pass to Charlie Brown in the end zone with a single defender pegged to one spot until the ball is in the air. Charlie, of course, can move all he wants.
In a tie game with just a few minutes left, such an award is tantamount to giving the match to a particular team. Players know this, and as the final whistle gets closer there seems to be a greater instance of "acting jobs" (faking being pushed or tripped in the penalty area). Referees are aware of this and tend to award penalty kicks less readily (read honestly) as the tension mounts. Toward the end of a grudge match, a player has to be almost mortally wounded or give a virtuoso performance to gain his penalty kick.
This is reflected on the spectator, who is largely unaware of, and couldn't care less about, an official's reasons for awarding or denying penalties for minor infractions. All he sees is his player writhing in agony as a result of a foul or an opponent giving an Oscar-quality impersonation of the death blow. Both make him equally mad and he looks around for something or someone on whom to vent his rage.
There are other rules, such as offside, the technicalities of which are not always understood by spectators or even players. The misunderstanding inevitably leads to anger and, by extension, to violence.
An estimated 75 percent of all organized soccer games are won by a one-goal margin. This has the consequence of making each score a potential winner, thus increasing tension in the stands and the proclivity for violence.
The governing body in soccer, the Federation Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA), could change this by making it easier to score goals. They could, for instance, increase the area between the goal posts. A match in which each team scored between 10 and 20 goals would allow spectators to rid themselves of pent-up frustration by vociferous cheering. How many fights does one see in the stands at a basketball game?
It will not be easy to get FIFA members to consider changing some rules. Traditionally, they have always held the view that what has stood for 100 years must be all right. However, with the series of disasters and tragedies befalling soccer recently, perhaps the time is ripe for a fresh approach. If they really have the welfare of the game at heart, they ought to know that the next casualty may be the sport itself.