2022 FIFA World Cup: Was It Soccer or American Football?

European football is losing its spectacularity because many players
play by the rules of American football, and the referees don't notice that.

Image by Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Next in turn FIFA World Cup has come to an end recently. It was held in Qatar, a small, very rich and basically non-football country, which was very much eager to attract global attention.
I will refer to soccer as “football” in this article, not soccer, as it is common in the US, partly because of an old habit, partly because I cannot recognize an American game where the ball is kicked by legs several times while playing as actually the “foot-ball”.

I haven't watched FIFA World Cups in quite a while, despite I've never missed them before. However, I do sincerely love this game. The last World Cup I watched (on TV, of course) was held in Germany in 2006. Now I have watched almost all of the 2022 World Cup games in Qatar and realized why I had lost a little bit of my interest to football.

The spectacularity of any performance is literally about the visibility of the whole action. The better you see what is happening on the field/stage - the more spectacular the performance is, the more you are involved and, therefore, the higher the attractiveness (and, by the way, the profitability) of some sport or art becomes. Football, for example, is more spectacular compared to hockey because the puck is simply much less in size than the ball, but less spectacular compared to basketball because the basketball court is smaller than the football field which means better visibility, so the game is more dynamic, and the ball is larger than the football one. Similarly, striking techniques (box, kick-boxing, muay-thai) are more spectacular than any kind of wrestling (judo, freestyle wrestling or jiu-jitsu) simply because the beauty of the techniques is not seen due to the tight contact of the wrestlers. It's all a matter of viewer comfort, which greatly affects the popularity and revenues of different sports.

People watch football just because of the spectacularity. They always wanted and want to see the individual play of great players – Pele, Yashin, Eusebio, Gerd Müller, Cruyff, Maradona, Platini, Maldini, Messi, Ronaldo...

The beauty and spectacularity of football (even though it is a team game) is still the individual dribbling, the forward’s ability to beat several opponents and score or assist. Lionel Messi (Argentina) distinguished himself with such a breakthrough in the semifinals of the World Cup in Qatar against Croatia. He tricked Croatian defender several times, despite that the latter was pushing and grabbing him with his hands, reached the penalty area (where pushing or grabbing is very dangerous because of the penalty) and gave a scoring pass to his partner, who easily redirected the ball into the goal. Messi did everything just fine, you can see that yourself here.

It was a very typical moment for modern "professional" football. I am referring to the moments when defenders grab and push the attackers with their hands. This is forbidden by the rules, but, of course, it helps to stop the attacker completely. The coach sets the task to his defenders just in that way: not to let the forward play. And defenders carry out the task very professionally by any means - pushing, grabbing with the hands and hitting on the legs. Hitting on the legs is basically understandable (there is a ball somewhere there), but grabbing with the hands... The better a forward is, the more he is not allowed to play by pushing, grabbing or just knocking down the moment of receiving the ball. That's why I often get the impression that European football players really play by the rules of American football, where you can grab, push and pull your opponent anytime. It's impossible to beat (dribble) such a defender because he's not targeting the ball (European football rules), but the player (American football rules).

That's a kind of football I personally don’t like. American football is even more honest in this sense - you can immediately grab a player with or without the ball in a way you like. That's why I almost stopped watching football. I'm not interested in watching the football players professionally preventing other players from playing football.

I have always disliked the word "professionalism." Usually it means that something is done fast, of average quality and very expensive. In football, such “professionalism” of players leads to the loss of spectacularity.

But... The observance of the rules by football players is the direct responsibility of the match referee.

Here the 2022 World Cup showed that the referees became more unprofessional. They often make opportunistic decisions and simply cannot send a football star worth tens of millions of dollars off even for an obvious violation of the rules. This literally unties the hands of players and after everyone suffers - players, fans, referees and the game itself.
A fish rots from the head.

After watching the World Cup in Qatar, I came to the conclusion that 30-40 years ago football referees were better at making players follow the rules. In football (like in life in general) it is very important to write good rules, but it is also very important to make people follow them (unfortunately, they won't do that themselves) and here the role of the person who is put in charge of upholding the law is extremely important. Injustice can destroy any union or agreement. A lot depends on judges. They can make football game a festival and pleasure for players and spectators, or they can turn it into a stupid fight.

Once I have been amazed by the great judging of a Brazilian referee at 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. The ideal is when the referee is almost invisible on the field and all the attention of the spectators is on the game. When the referee is very much noticeable and constantly stops the game with his whistles, he is a bad referee and the game will be bad, too. That referee at the 1986 World Cup was very skillful in mild controlling the game, I remembered him and found him now on the Internet. His name was Romualdo Arppi Filho. I remember that he very quickly brought order to the 1/8 finals match between Mexico and Bulgaria and made them play within the rules with no talks. After the match, several players (from both teams!) came up and shook his hand wholeheartedly, which was a rare case. So, I haven’t been surprised that later Romualdo Arppi Filho was appointed to officiate the final match of this championship, in which Argentina defeated Germany 3-2 and became the world champion. That match was difficult, but the referee coped with the task brilliantly, allowed the players to fully prove themselves and showed several yellow cards (warnings), including the great player Diego Maradona for dissent (!) with the referee. I really enjoyed the game, which was a success thanks to this refereeing.

In 1987, Romualdo Arppi Filho became the first winner of the "Best Arbiter of the Year" award from International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS). He ended his judging career in 1989 and received the judging award from International Association Football Federation (FIFA) in 1996.

I think the quality of refereeing is down at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar compared even with the 2000s. Almost all players are grabbing their opponents with their hands in defense, turning European football into a version of American football. Yes, Messi's pass in the Argentina-Croatia match is even more valuable then, but I personally hate to see the dirty tricks of defenders. And how many of such beautiful passes were thwarted by such "professional" (i.e. off-rules) actions? How many players were injured? How much fun (and goals) have the spectators missed? How many words and nerves have the players and coaches spent crying out for justice? How much hatred has been sown between players and fans of the different teams due to that injustice? Referees turn a blind eye to endless violations and repeatedly warn the offenders before issuing warnings (yellow cards) instead of sending the violators off.

Referees also allow players to challenge their decisions and do not penalize them for debate and rude tone. At the 2022 World Cup, players were constantly arguing with the referees. It also takes a lot of time and nerves of all. I personally find it very strange that the players teach the referee how to judge. The referees need to start teaching players how to play and it will be a complete theater of the absurd. I spent many years playing water polo and knew that any appeal to the referee might quickly end with a removal from the field for a while. It is a big disadvantage in water polo and almost a sure goal. So, as our coach used to say us, "dive in, talk it out, and silently keep playing”.

Unfortunately, after a long break from watching football, I can clearly see that the rule violations have become a norm. This is a sign of decline for me. The worst thing here is that there are too many violators. You can't punish everyone. So, if the strict referee would send off all the offenders, he would probably end up with two goal-keepers. Isn’t it silly? Maybe, but that's what I would do. For the sake of spectecularity and the beauty of the game. And so would Romualdo Arppi Filho for sure, too.

Let whoever wants to play European football play by the rules of European football. And whoever wants to play European football by the rules of American football may cross the ocean and participate in the US National Football League championship.

P.S. Dear Reader! I am very much interested in your opinion on the subject of this article. Please, write a comment or ask a question if you want to clarify something.
Igor Chykalov
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