During the Euro Cup final between Spain and Italy yesterday, ESPN commentators said that they were hoping for a spectacular game to show off the greatness of soccer to an American audience– as opposed to the ugly final between Spain and the Netherlands at the World Cup two years ago. As it turned out, the final showed the worst of soccer.
As anyone who watched the game can tell you, it was unwatchable after 60 minutes. All the air went out of the balloon because Thiago Motta, an Italian midfielder, suffered a hamstring injury and had to leave the field. Because Italy, down 2-0, had substituted three of its eleven players at that point, and three is the limit under soccer rules, Italy could not replace the injured Motta. So it played with ten men for the rest of the match. Those ten men were wiped out, and Spain scored two fairly easy goals. The final score was 4-0.
You would think that the final 30 minutes of the most important game in international soccer over the last couple of years would be the most gripping 30 minutes of all. The two teams were well-matched, I still hoped that Italy would climb back in. The loss of Thiago Motta made the game a farce. My friend and I switched to the Yankees game and Wimbledon.
The substitution rule is crazy. I understand the warlike discipline of the rule, but it damages play in countless ways. For one, you see only about 15 members of a much larger squad in these tournaments, and that’s not much fun. For another, the great Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who is 33 and was flagging yesterday, might have played more of a role in the final if he got a breather.
The lack of substitution also affects soccer’s great limitation, the lack of goals. In the last few days two major scoreless games had to be decided by Penalty Kicks — a warm bucket of spit (to quote John Nance Gardner), a shootout between offensive players and goalkeepers after 120 minutes of playing expire with a tied game. Spain Portugal semifinal was 0-0 till Penalty Kicks. So was the England Italy quarterfinal. The Times lead on the Italy England game: “Neither team wanted this. Not the caprice of penalty kicks.”
I don’t want it either. Soccer would be a much better game if they allowed unlimited substitutions. We’d see a lot more players, the quality of play would not sag off quite as wearily as it does now in the second half, and the farce of yesterday’s final would have been averted.
You want Americans to watch this game; change the capricious rules.