Having been a soccer fan for more than 30 years, I have long since made my peace with being out of step with the majority of my fellow Americans.
I accept the fact that most sports fans in this country had different things to do on Uncle Sam's birthday than watch the final of the 2004 European Championship. I just don't understand how a sports fan could watch the three-week drama unfold and not be riveted.
Who was the second or third worst team in the NFL last year? The Arizona Cardinals, maybe? Can you imagine the Arizona Cardinals winning the Super Bowl next February ... well, maybe we should stop there. But no: Imagine the Cardinals winning the next Super Bowl and the USA reacting the way the Greeks are still reacting days after winning their first major championship. You can't. The nature of geography alone makes something like the Euro Cup bigger than anything we can do here. If baseball pulls off its "world cup," then and only then will non-soccer loving American sports fans begin to get a hint of what the rest of us love and why.
But watching Euro 2004 reminded me of another of my deeply-held tenets: the people who run this game do it serious damage by continuing to insist that big matches be settled by penalty kicks.
Despite the fact that my favorite single moment of Euro 2004 may have been the irony of Portuguese 'keeper Ricardo nailing the bonus-round penalty that eliminated England in the quarterfinals, and despite fans' good fortune that only two of the seven knockout-round games had to be settled by the ultimate insult, those games served to offer food for thought: (WARNING: HERESY AHEAD!)
FIFA president Sepp Blatter is right. Games should not end in draws.
Well, some games, anyway. Soccer has been played for so long, its traditions deserve to be respected. You want a tie game in league play, in a friendly, even in a big tournament round-robin? Fine. Everybody grab a point and head for the bus. You will never EVER popularize the game in the USA on the scale soccer lovers dream of as long as there are tie games. But you can't win 'em all, and popularizing the game in America isn't a big concern in the rest of the world, so OK.
But something CAN be done about the bigger abomination of penalty kicks deciding major competitions.
The reason penalties still exist as a tiebreaker is the worst reason for anything: that's how it's always been done. In the U.S., there's another reason, which might also be a factor in the rest of the world, but one suspects to a lesser degree: television. The priority for soccer here right now is the two-hour TV window. But let's leave that aside for a moment and pretend we're talking about the public following the sport the way the public does other big team sports here.
In MLS Cup and in the knockout round of competitions like Euro and the World Cup, if you don't use penalties, how should tie games be decided?
Here's how, and more heresy to boot: you decide it by playing. For however long it takes. You play.
I know, I know. The game the world knows as football is the most demanding on the athletes. No two-minute shifts, no tops and bottom of innings, no timeouts, no offense or defense on the sideline.
You know what that means? That means sooner or later someone would get tired and a goal would be scored. Remember the game that brought the Dallas Stars their 1999 Stanley Cup title? What was it, three overtimes in Buffalo? They played. When our good friend Lamar Hunt was able to celebrate a first championship for the Kansas City Chiefs, do you remember that it took a field goal from Jan Stenerud deep in a second overtime? They played. They didn't play for 10 minutes and then take penalties. They played until someone won, and that's what soccer should do.
You say it would be wrong to settle a game by a cheap goal in the 160th minute, or the 200th, because some defender was too tired to track a long run? I say it would be far better than having a game when players have scrapped all day and run their lungs out be settled because someone packed it in the last 10 minutes and decided to take their chances on penalties. Penalties have their place, but they're not what soccer is about. They are not why fans cross borders, why prime ministers are reduced to tears when their teams win improbable victories.
A loss by penalty kicks is far too cruel and unusual a punishment. The game is better than that.
Let 'em play.
Brad Sham is in his seventh season doing play-by-play for Dallas Burn television broadcasts.