A penalty in stoppage time decided Sunday’s World-Cup game between Mexico and the Netherlands. Mexico’s Rafa Marquez made contact with Arjen Robben in the penalty area, and Robben went down. The referee awarded the penalty, and Klass Jan Huntelaar put it in the back of the net to give the Dutch the win.
Naturally, the colorful Mexican head coach had some fun things to say about both Robben and the Portuguese referee, and the Internets followed suit. Immediately blogs, articles, tweets, and Facebook updates trashed Robben for cheating Mexico out of the win.
I’m going to go in a different direction. Not only do I applaud Robben for throwing himself on the ground, I think that flopping in the penalty area is the best thing ever to happen to soccer.
I’ve heard so many Americans complain about soccer being boring. I’ve also heard those people complain that soccer players flop too much. Flopping, especially in the penalty area, might be the cure for boring soccer.
In case Ann Coulter is reading this, I better explain some fundamentals. A “flop” is when a player tries to convince the referee that he was fouled. Players have to convince him because in soccer it’s nothing until the referee says it’s something. Referees have authority to interpret both the rules and the events on the field pretty much however they wish. I know that makes some of you football-instant-replay fanatics uncomfortable, but if you just accept that there’s no objective reality in soccer, I know you’ll be much happier.
A foul in the penalty area is serious business in a soccer match. (Ann, the penalty area, also known as “the box,” is the bigger of the two rectangles in front of the goal.) A foul anywhere else on the field results in the referee awarding a free kick to the wronged team. The other team has to stand about 10 yards back, and the kicker can either shoot or pass. It’s an advantage, but it doesn’t always change the game.
But a foul in the box is a game changer. The wronged team gets a shot on the goal from 12 yards in a one-on-one contest with the goalkeeper. Bad news for the goalkeeper. The outcome of a soccer game usually hinges on a point or two so a penalty kick can win or lose a game.
Outside the penalty area, referees let the players get away with roughing each other up a bit. It is a physical sport, after all. However, in recent years referees have gotten touchy about any contact at all inside the box. If a defender touches a striker in the penalty area, and the striker decides to go down, there’s a good chance that the referee with award the penalty.
“What?” you ask. Are the defenders just supposed to let the guy score? Well, it’s pretty much come to that, and I don’t feel sorry for those defenders in the least. If those defenders were doing their jobs then the striker wouldn’t have gotten the ball in the penalty area. Are you complaining about your opponent flopping in the box? Then keep him out of the box. But he’s so fast? Well then you deserve to get beaten.
Having a zero-tolerance policy for contact in the penalty area makes soccer more exciting. Breakaways become more dangerous and more goals are scored. Defenders will have fewer options for stopping the striker, and they have to defend with skill rather than brawn. I think all these things are good for soccer. Thank you, Arjen Robben.
Oh, and it might be worth pointing out that statistically the Dutch players roll around on the ground for “injuries” a fraction of the time that the Mexicans do.