Soccer's governing body FIFA is considering a series of drastic new proposals that could dramatically change the face of future World Cups, Yahoo! Sports has learned.
Following comments from Sepp Blatter on Thursday, in which the FIFA president admitted he was looking at ways to cut out negative play in World Cups, a source close to the FIFA executive committee revealed that several revolutionary ideas that are certain to spark heated debate among fans will be considered.
They include awarding four points for a victory in group games and implementing penalty shootouts (for group matches as well as knockout games) after 90 minutes of play, a measure addressed by Blatter.
"In the first few matches of the group stage in South Africa, we witnessed some teams that went out to avoid defeat, that were playing for a draw from the outset," Blatter said in an interview with FIFA.com. "We have to try to find a way to encourage free-flowing football in tournaments like the World Cup, with teams playing to win.
"We plan to take the opportunity to look at the concept of extra time as well. Often we see teams set themselves up even more defensively in extra time, in an attempt to avoid conceding a goal at all costs. To prevent this, we could go directly to a penalty shootout at full time, or reintroduce the golden goal rule."
However, there are many factors that will come into play before any World Cup rule change is implemented and Blatter will face a juggling act as wildly differing propositions are put forward. The thoughts and findings of FIFA's influential Technical Study Group – a pool of 15 former players and coaches – will weigh heavily.
Furthermore, according to the source, a collection of African delegates are in favor of altering the points system for group matches to award four points for a win, with still only one point for a draw. It is felt such a system would offer even greater incentive for victory and reduce the upside for teams content to play for a draw.
"This is not just empty words from Mr. Blatter," the source said. "There were very real concerns that the negative play seriously impacted the early part of the World Cup as a spectacle.
"Even more than standards of refereeing and goal-line technology, this is very much a priority for FIFA and its members. Entertainment commeasure with an event that is the biggest and best in world sport is very important. They will look at everything closely."
Let's take a look at the pros and cons of the various options FIFA will face.
Leave it as it is
How it works: In the group stage a tied game ends with one point for each team. If a match is level in the knockout round, 30 minutes of extra time is played. If scores are still level, a penalty shootout follows.
Pros: Generally seen as fair and equitable and normally rewards the teams who deserve to progress. Relatively simple to understand.
Cons: Too many teams play defensively in the groups, with weaker teams trying to hold on for a point. In the knockout round, extra time is often dull with both sides scared of making a fatal mistake.
Penalty kicks after 90 minutes
How it works: There are many variations of this simple format, which would see teams go straight to a shootout if scores are tied. If used in the group stage, it could be used to eliminate the draw – ensuring a straight win-loss formula to decide each group. In the knockout round it would scrap extra time and the hopes of nations would be determined immediately on the spot.
Pros: FIFA loves television companies (and the money they dish out) and television companies love drama. Love it or hate it, a shootout provides the most intense form of drama in soccer and would become a very common sight under this proposal.
Cons: A self-defeating idea. Rather than encouraging teams to be more offensive, there would be an even greater incentive for weaker sides to bunker down and hold on for a draw – and take their chances on PKs. FIFA will strongly consider this, but it shouldn't.
Four points for a win
How it works: Applies only to the groups. Awards four points for a win, one for a draw and none for a defeat.
Pros: Supporters argue it rewards positive play and encourages both teams to go all out for victory at all times. Would be more likely to keep a group "alive" until the final match.
Cons: Seen as being lopsided and would not necessarily mean the most deserving team advanced from the group. Would be at odds with how domestic leagues are run around the world.
How it works: Could only happen in the knockout stage. If the game is level after 90 minutes, it would be replayed two days later. This format was used in several early World Cups.
Pros: No advantage in playing for a draw.
Cons: Would mean a scheduling and logistical nightmare for organizers and fans. A non-starter.
How it works: If scores are tied after 90 minutes, the teams play an extra-time period. But if either side scores, they win and the contest ends. This could be used in the groups and the knockouts. Was implemented for the 1998 World Cup, where there was still a penalty shootout if 30 extra minutes could not break the deadlock.
Pros: In theory it rewards attacking play – if you don't score, you don't win.
Cons: In 1998 both teams were so afraid of instantly losing by conceding a goal that "golden goal" periods were generally dull. Only one of the four extra-time games was won with a golden goal. The other three went to a shootout anyway.
How it works: Similar to a golden goal. The only difference is that if a team scores in the first 15-minute period of extra time, the opponent must equalize before the end of that period or the game ends.
Pros: Incentive for attacking play.
Cons: Perceived as being unfair. Gave too much importance to certain periods of time compared to others (such as the last few minutes of the first extra-time period).
Take a player off
How it works: An unlimited extra-time period is played, with players removed at periodic intervals. For example, each team may be forced to take off one player after 10 minutes, and another 10 minutes later. Fewer players on the field would increase the chances of a goal.
Pros: Answers on a postcard.
Cons: A loss of credibility. Imagine a World Cup final decided by a five-a-side game.
How it works: Like a penalty shootout except that players take the ball from 35 yards out and have five seconds to score. Used in the North American Soccer League and in the early days of Major League Soccer.
Pros: Exciting and dramatic and possibly a more realistic test of soccer skill and nerve than a penalty shootout.
Cons: There is no way the international soccer community would accept what would be seen as an "American" innovation.
So what's the best solution?
The current format is not perfect and, yes, there were some World Cup matches that got bogged down by dull, defensive-minded play. Having said that, the system should only be changed if it offers fair and credible improvement – not because some checkbook-wielding television executive thinks it can boost his ratings.
Shootouts after 90 minutes would be a terrible idea and a clear case of pandering to television. Worryingly, this currently seems to be one of the most likely options.
For the knockout rounds, a return to the golden goal would not be such a bad idea. It would certainly not eradicate defensive play, but it would add an extra element of intensity to any attacking move in extra time, given the potential to win or lose a match in an instant.
Given that the negativity was more of a problem in the group phase, the "four points for a win" system does have merit and is the only option that would effectively guarantee more open play. It is hard to see the proposal satisfying the traditionalists and getting enough votes to be passed, but I wouldn't be unhappy if it did.