Why is Soccer so Frustrating to Watch?

Has this ever happened to you?

You turn off the game (or exit the stadium) in a murky mood of discontent. It wasn't that your team lost, or that there was blown call. Two evenly matched teams dueled back and forth for ninety minutes, and most of it didn't matter. The game itself wasn't very satisfying.

Every time I sit down to watch a game, I am setting an expectation that the game will be played fairly, the actions made throughout the game will have consequences, and the team that made the most good plays in the game will emerge the victors. If you've ever watched high level soccer, you already know where I'm going with this.

Teams win and lose on corner kicks.

An Oscar worthy flop disrupts a team's drive down the field.

A breakaway is called back because the striker's nose extended beyond the backside of the defender.

Soccer is filled with make or break moments by design. When high level players use and abuse these systems, they make the rest of game irrelevant.

Set Pieces

Set piece plays are far and away my chief complaint with soccer at the highest level.

A set piece is defined as a moment where play is restarted after a stoppage. These include:

These pieces are so potent in high level soccer play for these two reasons

  1. Strikers exhibit supernatural ability to bend the ball and place it wherever they want
  2. Every other player gets an opportunity to stand still next to an opponent and commit a foul

I take no issue with striker abilities. Watching a striker bend the ball around a wall and bury it top corner is one of the most beautiful plays in any sport.

The issue is never with the striker. It's everyone else on the field.

How many corner kicks have you seen where the ball floats down into the sea of jumping heads and takes a seemingly random bounce off one, either saving the day or popping the ball into the net? It seems to happen at random, doesn't it?

There is no denying the skill it takes to drop the ball into the crowd to give your tallest guy the chance. The problem lies in the scrum leading into the kick. Everyone is grabbing arms, tugging jerseys, and pushing for position.

When a player scores off a corner, it's because they weren't fouled hard enough. Someone failed to grab their jersey or push them off balance to prevent them from getting clean contact with the ball. This can be seen in every slow motion replay of corner. These fouls just aren't called because the game would never end if they were.

The good news here is that corner kicks rarely work. The crowding in front of the net only results in a goal about 3% of the time. In American Football terms, it's about as fun as watching an onside kick.


Offsides exists in most field based sports. I get why it exists. It helps to constrain the action to small section of the field. Moving up and down the field is part of the game and shouldn't be skipped over because one team left a player alone in a corner to cherry pick their way to a score.

Here's a quick overview if you need it

Offsides in high level soccer play comes down to these two issues:

  1. Skilled defenders can collapse the field, making a breakaway nearly impossible when you factor in the speed of these players
  2. Referees are too precise in their calls

For the first issue, defenders will intentionally push up the field towards the center line in order to limit the mobility of the forward attacker. This is usually a balancing act of limiting the attacker's field of play and preventing the possibility of a breakaway play.

This rule breaks down in high level soccer play when a defender will see that their opponent is driving down the field and then intentionally move in a manner where the attacker will be offside. Defenders have gotten so good at this, that I expect an offside to be called whenever there is a quick transition in possession in the final third of the field.

One of the reasons this has become such a potent strategy is due to the precise calling of the offsides with the assistance of high fidelity cameras that allow goals to be reversed when a scoring play is reviewed. Those quick one pass goals where the striker breaks free fall under an inhuman level of scrutiny that takes all of the fun out of these kinds of plays.


Soccer is not alone when it comes to players complaining to the referee. Basketball is equally guilty. Football games often feature highlight reels of head coach tantrums, with headsets thrown and clipboards snapped. However, in these other games, the complaining is always done during a clock stoppage.

Since Soccer runs on a clock that doesn't stop, the complaining time is often pooled together with the legitimate stoppage time for injuries, substitutions, and set pieces. With that in mind, it might benefit a specific team to chew on a referee's ear to prolong a game for as long as possible, giving the other players a much needed rest.

Complaining offers a free "timeout" mid game and sets a poor example for the young players watching.

I wish more sports would take after how Rugby officials handle backtalk.


Draws, or ties, are widespread in soccer. One source shows that the high level leagues average 23% of games. Some people may be satisfied when two stout defenses lock the game in a 0 - 0 draw. I am not one of them. I want closure. I want to see one team rise up and one team fall.

There is no single reason why draws are so common in soccer, but the most obvious reason is that soccer, by nature, is a low scoring affair.

Opportunities to score are rare in any given game, and most opportunities don't result in a goal. This is very different from almost every other sport, where scoring opportunities are plentiful.

When scoring opportunities are low, it is all the more frustrating when the ticky-tacky offsides call is made, or momentum is stopped due to an "injury".

What can be done?

So now that I've completed the airing of grievances, I'd like to offer a non-expert's take on what can be done to make soccer more watchable and satisfying, without deviating from the spirit of the game.

Add in a blue line

Adding in a blue line will go a long way in removing the stifling offsides calls that kill game momentum.

Blue lines are player friendly. They are easy to see, unmoving, and provide a strict line of reference to play against.

Defenders will be forced to make harder decisions. Do I defend the player standing on the blue line as a pass is coming in, or do I drop back and play space as they move into a scoring position?

The blue line fundamentally changes the nature of defense in soccer. Some will argue that it is too big of a change. To that I ask these questions?

Do you enjoy breakaway one one battles between a striker and goalie?

Do you like seeing a skilled defender crush forward momentum with a well timed interception?

Do you crave that physical inflection point of attacker and defender, where the attacker has space to make a play, and the defender has to gamble with aggressive action?

All of these will become more prevalent with a blue line.

Mouthing off is a yellow card

There needs to be a balancing act with a player voicing legitimate complaints, and those that are lobbying to soothe their egos and stall for time.

Referees can learn from Rugby officials here. Establish a standard, and be consistent with judgment.

Hold players accountable. Set a good example for conflict resolution when there are young minds watching.

If anything needs an in depth conversation, you can even consider gasp stopping the clock to resolve it.

Limit the players in the goal area

There is no set of referees working today that can fairly call the chaos that is corner kicks as they exist today. Making a corner kick a fair and clean play is a tall order. We can get most of the way there by creating rules that don't incentivize standing in close proximity with another.

Allow a few players in the box, and force everyone else to play for space on the run as the ball is kicked. You'll get far fewer jersey tugs and arm bars, and those that happen inside the box will be much easier to spot when fewer players can obstruct the penalty.

A tie is a loss

If I could wave my magic wand, draws would not exist in soccer. You either rise up and win, or both teams take a loss.

I've watched several matches where one team is playing to win, and another team is playing to not lose. A shuffling of the points system in most leagues to disincentivize draws would help to create more games with meaning.

Love it even if you can't fix it

Whatever state soccer is in now, it's still The Beautiful Game. I will still marvel at the plays being made. I'll geek out over those midfield touch passes that lead to runaway goals. I'll gasp at the diving saves. Soccer is mostly still great. I just may stick to the highlights for awhile.