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Soccer and Uniformity Costs

William Birdthistle’s soccer dispatch today concerns the complex relationship between “national culture” and soccer stereotypes, both on the field and off.  For soccer fans, one of the beauties of the sport is the diversity of styles of play represented in international tournaments under the umbrella of a uniform set of rules, that is, laws, administered by the international federation:  FIFA.

In an earlier post, William wondered whether that uniformity produced costs on the pitch.  Perhaps some local experimentation with the rules might endenger productive reforms that could be adopted more broadly?  On that point, I want to raise a note of caution.  Heterogeneity has its costs.

Exhibit A in this regard is the old North American Soccer League (NASL), which had its heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s.  My family were season ticketholders from the first season of the original San Jose Earthquakes to their bitter NASL end.  I even went to an Oakland Stompers game or two.  I got to see some extraordinary players — Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best (not at his best, believe me), Eusebio — and a lot of not-so-extraordinary ones, players who had worn out their welcome in England’s Second Division.

And I also got an up-close look at rules experimentation.  The NASL was obsessed with making soccer “fan friendly,” which meant:  more goals.  So it moved the offside line from midfield to a line 35 yards out from each goal.  It invented the “shootout” to resolve tie games during the regular season (not to be confused with the misnamed “penalty kick shootout” in use in cup play everywhere else in the world).  It invented a standings scheme that factored in “goals scored.”

Aside from the conflicted feelings prompted by watching fabulous international soccer stars play a game that closely resembled soccer, the rule changes had some more subtler but ultimately more important effects:  They marginalized US soccer on the international stage.  And international soccer, of both club and national team varieties, is where the action is, both competitively and financially.  College soccer in the US, which had different rules variations, only made the situation worse. 

Through the early 1990s, the US national team was composed of collegians, a handful of Americans playing in the NASL, and the occasional oddball with a limited amount of international club experience.  On the field, when those teams competed internationally, their lack of international experience was compounded by the fact that they were accustomed to playing by different rules — literally.  Off the field, the US lobbied long and hard before being awarded the 1994 World Cup, the event that was supposed to launch a new era of American soccer.  It succeeded only when the US agreed to play by international soccer norms.  Among the conditions imposed?  Organize a Division One professional soccer league — and one that played by FIFA rules. 

Major League Soccer hasn’t knocked off anyone’s socks financially, but the league is basically stable and, more importantly, it’s a credible source of players both for the US national team and for clubs in other countries looking for talent.  Playing by FIFA rules, among other things, has helped make American soccer part of the international soccer community.  Without question, subscribing to international soccer uniformity has helped to make American soccer more competitive at all levels.

UPDATE (5/17):  William Birdthistle has some interesting comments in response to this post.