Goals have been few and far between

FIFA ought to take a close look at their product with a view to brightening it up, writes Peter Roebuck.

Cricket is not the only game with a few headaches. Nor is it the only game seeking to retain the elusive balance between attack and defence. Sterility emerges when defences cannot be breached yet the sight of sides scoring points regularly can be almost as tedious. Football is facing the same challenge.

Many games reached their nadirs in the 1960's. Never mind that the fashionable were wearing mini skirts or that. The Beatles were engaging youth even as they alarmed barbers. Sport remained middle aged, a craft as much as an entertainment. Entire Test series passed with scarcely an uplifting moment. Elsewhere scrums, savage tackles and stalemates were common place. Of course it all seemed fun at the time but youth is easily swayed.

Cricket responded to its predicament by introducing short matches designed to be eventful and bound to produce a result. Amazingly the world did not immediately come to an end. Ever since debate has raged about the influence of these compressed contests. Connoisseurs are concerned that fast cricket has replaced the well cooked and digested variety. It is part of the dialectic process then when a movement begins it usually goes too far.

Rugby responded to its dreariness, and an audience with a wider range of options, by awarding more points for a try, reducing the numbers of scrums, mauls and rucks, and by discouraging kicks into touch. As George Orwell observed (though for some reason he was complaining) England has always followed the custom or turning sport into a form of torture. Once the rest of the world took charge players were allowed to run amok.

For its part, hockey realised that it could not ignore the times. Artificial pitches were the proffered solution and ever since it has provided a much more attractive spectacle. To watch a school match recently was to be amazed by the pace, power and precision on display, and to remember that goalkeeping duties are reserved for those treading the fine line between courage and insanity.

Now it is football's turn. The opening round of the World Cup was the lowest scoring on record. Admittedly these absurd balls seem more inclined to go over the bar than under it but that cannot alone explain the decline. After all the arenas are superb, the referees punish even mild tackles and 32 teams are taking part, so weak often encounters strong. And still goals have been few and far between.

Supposedly a celebration of football, Africa's first World Cup has made a slow start. Between patting themselves on the back about taking the game to a new venue, and conveniently forgetting about a ticketing debacle caused by their own inefficient system, FIFA ought to take a close look at their product with a view to brightening it up. Something is wrong when well organised defences can so easily repulse inspired attacks.

As in cricket all sorts of remedies have been proposed. Cricket contemplated wider stumps, thinner bats and smaller balls. Football has considered larger goals. Anything to hold the audience.

As far as can be told, though, no consideration has ever been given to changing the most basic assumption relied on in cricket, football and hockey. By some extraordinary coincidence, it seems that 11 is the perfect number of players for all these games, and will be until the crack of doom.

Might not football and hockey be more open with one fewer player aside? What about cricket? Is it so clear that 11 is the right allocation in all forms of the game that the matter is not even worth debating?