The big flop

A fantastic World Cup was marred last weekend.

And the sad thing was, it was inevitable, really.

With four games of the quarterfinals between eight mostly equal teams, the other side of the coin with soccer turned up.

While the group stages and Round of 16 games put forth a wonderful display of soccer’s elegance – Lionel Messi, wnder gols, slick passing combinations, a clash of styles, more Messi, unfiltered emotion, nail-masticating drama, more Messi – the quarters gave us tight, withdrawn play sprinkled with a healthy dose of flopping, fake injuries and acting that belongs on a daytime telenovela. It was an ugly display from the beautiful game.

Flopping is a funny thing. Casual soccer fans or non-soccer fans use it as the sword with which to skewer all debates had over soccer. How can you enjoy a game with that much BS, the thinking goes? Where is your self-respect?

Of course, passionate soccer fans don’t actually disagree. We find it just as distasteful and irritating and soul-destroying. If anything, true soccer fans hate flopping MORE, because it is a constant presence we have no control over in a game we have dedicated untold hours to. Much like I imagine rational conservatives treat Ann Coulter.

But, soccer supporters often view flopping – and all the histrionics that come with it – as a necessary evil, like taxes or jogging or kale. You have to put up with it, to get to the good stuff. Without soccer, there is no Messi (or James Rodriguez). And with no Messi, life has a little less joy.

So you grit your teeth and bear it and yell at the TV, much like NFL fans do after a phantom pass interference or hoop heads do when Dick Vitale opens his mouth.

And almost ubiquitously, this is where all rational discussion of soccer ends (and the name-calling begins). Some can stomach it, some can’t.

Of course, there is a third option.

Find a way to change the rules so flopping is minimized.

You see, soccer players don’t flop because they are European wussies or South American whiners or whatever other nonsense is tossed around by Internet commentators. They flop because they want to win.

Their objective is different than ours. Fans want to see a fair contest, one that rewards the most inventive and skilled and hard working. Soccer players could give two yellow cards about that. They just want the ‘W.’

So if taking a dive and acting like someone just removed just removed your kneecap gives you just one percent better chance of winning, they do it gladly. And will keep doing it until they are incentivized not to.

Boiled down, the entire study of economics is built around this concept.

Human beings respond to incentives. Good or bad. From Adam Smith to Steven D. Levitt, the entire field is based on finding the correct mix of incentives, and letting the marketplace roll from there.

For flopping to be minimized in the game, we don’t need a screed from a columnist or a FIFA #sportsmanship campaign. We need to change the rules. Change the incentive, and the behavior changes.

This could come from a variety of angles.

Punish floppers retroactively with suspensions. Make it so any time the game is stopped for an injury, said injured player has to spend at least five minutes off the pitch. Of course, there are likely problems and unintended consequences with both approaches, so let’s just take the most direct route.

Stop the freaking clock.

Almost all of the rolling on the ground and faux agony comes as a result of time wasting. The offender wants to break up the rhythm of the game, and drain precious seconds off the clock. Eliminate that possibility, and you eliminate a good chunk of flopping.

The most lamentable thing about soccer isn’t the flopping. It is the inherent stodginess of the game.

Soccer comes to change only through great tedium and long after it’s needed (see: goal-line technology). For a variety of factors – most notably the difficulty regulating something that is spread throughout the world – soccer moves more slowly than an ant in molasses when it comes to innovation.

But imagine basketball without the three-point line. Or hockey without the removal of the two-line offside pass. Both are much better off for what is a more dramatic rule change than just stopping the clock.

The 90 minute moving clock is considered sacred by soccer traditionalists. But tradition for tradition’s sake has given us a whole host of despicable situations across all sports. Even a FIFA official should be able to see that.

Change the incentive, and you change the game.

Until then, we will have to deal with a whole lot of ugly.