Soccer is a beautiful game, but four relatively simple rule changes could make the sports even better.

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Soccer rules! Still, it could use a few rule changes.

For instance, under certain circumstances, ejected players should be replaceable. Removing one’s shirt during goal celebrations also should be OK. Balls that cross the boundary in flight, but land in play, should not be considered out of bounds. The game clock should be stopped for injuries and substitutions, and the timekeeping should be public.

Ch-change 1: Players ejected for two yellow cards can be replaced if there’s a substitution left.

Refereeing is a thankless job, largely because it’s so subjective. Ideally, a foul is a foul no matter where perpetrated on the pitch, but I do appreciate a referee applying a slightly more stringent threshold inside the penalty area. Some players are really sneaky at feigning fouls, and if the ref falls for their cunning, the consequences may be irreversible. So it’s best to err on the side of caution in the box.

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With that exception, we should limit a referee’s discretion as much as possible for the sake of something everyone appreciates: more consistency.

Referree Wolfgang Stark, left, talks to Wolfsburg’s Naldo during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and FC Cologne in Wolfsburg, Germany last month.
Referree Wolfgang Stark, left, talks to Wolfsburg’s Naldo during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and FC Cologne in Wolfsburg, Germany last month. (Michael Sohn / The Associated Press)

Issuing cards is tricky. A player with more exuberance than malice knocks over his opponent and gets an early yellow card. That’s bad in itself because now he has to tread on eggshells, potentially limiting his effectiveness and encouraging opponents to taunt him. Eventually, he may avenge his tormentor with true malice, scything his legs. With a justified second yellow looming, subjectivity deteriorates into utter inconsistency, and the ref might inexplicably wave for everyone to play on.

Sometimes the reverse is true, but for the same reason: the ref doesn’t issue obvious
yellow cards early for fear of having to issue a red card later.

In basketball, a player sent off may be replaced. Perhaps in soccer we can split the difference: A player who is sent off for two yellow cards can be replaced, but only if his team has a substitution left. That’s easily manageable by the fourth official and will add an interesting twist to coaching tactics.

Refs won’t be as inconsistent in adjudicating fouls because everyone knows the ramifications if a team has no subs left. Moreover, they’ll be free from the dire consequences of imperfect judgment.

Ch-ch-change 2: players who remove their shirts during goal celebrations will not receive a yellow card.

This seems so obvious that even the old fuddy-duddies that set the rules should “turn to face the strange,” in the words of iconic rocker David Bowie. Actually, what is strange is the rule that a player who removes his shirt during a goal celebration receives a yellow card. Do the rule-making pinheads prefer we play soccer like a bunch of unemotional Spock-like automatons?

I suspect that whoever concocted this rule is a pompous twit who never experienced the thrill of sport directly. How on God’s green pitches can a player be cautioned for being human? We are not talking about taunting, unreasonably inciting the opposition’s fans, or undermining safety. We’re talking about jubilant players reeling away swinging their shirts over their heads. It’s almost reflexive, but they are issued a yellow card that jeopardizes their continued participation in the match.

Not many goals are scored in soccer compared to other sports, so let’s rejoice in them. Its entertainment. Don’t deprive the players’ their celebrations, which are sometimes more fun than the goal itself.

Ch-ch-ch-change 3: A ball that crosses the line in the air, and comes back into play before hitting the ground, should be inbounds. This rule would add some needed excitement to corner kicks (now the percentage that result in goals is in single digits).

In other sports, a ball that crosses a boundary in the air is not automatically ruled out. This elicits great skill from golfers, who hook their shot around an out-of-bounds obstacle onto the green. Basketball players leap across the sideline while swatting the ball, mid-air, down the court for a fast break. Football receivers torsos can be over the sideline while they get both feet inbounds while making a tightrope catch.

Noel S.
Noel S. Williams

So why do we deny soccer players with the skill to curl the ball over the line and back in play before hitting the ground? I just saw a nice headed goal by Lamine Kone of Sunderland from an out-swinging corner against Manchester United. Imagine the entertainment value as a goalkeeper like Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet is flailing at an out-swinging corner majestically swerving inbounds over the bar and right over his noggin.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-change 4: The referees’ official clock will be mirrored on the stadium clock, which will pause for injuries and substitutions. The game will end on the first stoppage of play after 90 playing-minutes have elapsed.

As Bowie said: Time my change me, but I can’t trace time.

I’m sure officials can do without agitated coaches prancing out while pounding their watches in the dying minutes. Besides, anything we can do to limit a ref’s discretion — and to relieve them of more criticism — is worthy.

We’ll still get a full 90 minutes of action — the official clock will stop for injuries or when substituted players saunter off the field. But there will be no nebulous injury time, no infamous “Fergie Time” (extra time added when former Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson’s team was losing). No ulcer-inducing uncertainty. We will be able to trace time.

Soccer is the beautiful game, but refereeing can be ugly. If these changes are incorporated, after evaluating in the lower leagues, they will ensure that players’ artistry is not usurped by refs.

Soccer rule-makers: don’t be immune from our consultations, be quite aware what we’re going through. Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

Noel S. Williams is originally from England, but is now a U.S. citizen who served 12 years in the U.S. Navy. He grew up a Crystal Palace supporter, and believes he could have turned pro. Instead he’s an information technology specialist who lives in Lakewood, Pierce County. His email is nwilliams211@comcast.net

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