Friday, July 02, 2010

Random Thoughts about the World Cup

[This post was written before the start of quarterfinal matches this morning. I have left it intact and not altered it as a result of today's games featuring Brazil, The Netherlands, Uruguay, and Ghana.]

Just south of downtown Quito there is a bus stop named in honor of Jefferson Perez. Perez is a two-time Olympic medalist in the 20 km race walk and is the only Ecuadorian athlete ever to win a medal in the Olympics. Contrast Perez with American swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps won 8 medals at the 2004 Olympics and another 8 medals (all Gold) at the 2008 games. Despite being arguably the greatest Olympian ever, Michael Phelps is unlikely to have a D.C. Metro stop named in his honor. American swimmers won a total of 34 medals in Beijing in 2008. In other words, in one sport at one Olympics the USA won 17 times as many medals as Ecuador has won in their entire history of Olympic competition. The point I am making here is not a “rah rah” claim about the sheer dominance of American athletes in many sports. Instead, as I will explain later, this comparison has something to do with my feelings about soccer.

I have followed the 2010 World Cup a lot more closely than I have ever followed the sport of soccer. The reason for this is that I got to spend last fall in Ecuador during the peak season of qualifying matches for teams trying to make it to the World Cup. I got to see a lot of soccer. I talked with a lot of people about soccer. I got to see a country that literally shut down in the middle of the day while everyone watched the game. Even though Ecuador failed to qualify, I learned a lot about South American soccer. And, it is amazing to see just how dominant the South American teams have been these past several weeks in South Africa. The World Cup quarterfinals begin tomorrow. 8 teams remain. Four of those teams are from South America. An entirely South American “final four” is not out of the question.

This has been a fun story to follow, but let me say just a few more words about how good the South American teams have been. All five South American teams made it to the knockout stage. During the group stage, only one South American team (Chile) suffered a defeat. That defeat came in an inconsequential game against Spain, one the top ranked teams coming into the tournament. South America’s only other loss came in the knockout round in which Brazil defeated Chile. The quarterfinals include four of the five South American teams in the tournament, three of the 13 European teams, and one of the six African teams. I’m rooting for a championship match between Uruguay and Paraguay. (I bet you didn’t know that Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950!)

I am a big sports fan but I’ve never cared much for the sport of soccer. I admit this with some trepidation. In the cultured, liberal circles in which I run, it borders on blasphemy to say that you don’t care for soccer but do care for other sports. Not liking soccer is often seen as evidence of a kind of small-mindedness, an anti-global stance if you will. Not liking soccer can get you accused of holding nationalist tendencies of the ugly and ignorant variety. You say you don’t like soccer and others assume that you are going to say something along the lines of “We’re better than everybody else.” After the United States lost to Ghana in the knockout round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, somebody posted a statement on the internet that went something like this:
“Hey Ghana, how about a rematch? July 4th. On the moon. What? You need directions. Oh, that’s right. You’ve never been there.”
It is this kind of stupid statement that one expects to come out of the mouth of someone who says that he does not like soccer. The United States has never demonstrated competitive dominance in soccer, at least on the men’s side, and it is the essence of shallow nationalism to shrug soccer off. “Who cares that we stink at soccer? We’ve been to the moon. We invented the atomic bomb. Take that!”

Here are a few of the reasons why I don’t like soccer (a few of the same criticisms appeared in an ESPN.com article I read):

Reason #1: Not boring, just excruciating
Non-soccer fans frequently claim that soccer is boring. But “boring” is the wrong choice of words. It isn’t boring. Soccer is sometimes mocked for its futility: one team brings the ball down the field and they manage a weak shot on goal. The other team brings the ball the other way and manages a weak shot on goal. Repeat for 90 minutes and the game ends tied 0-0. Actually, after watching a number of World Cup matches, this description isn’t very accurate. It doesn’t do justice to the excruciating nature of the sport. When the ball is in the middle of the field, I actually find the passing and ball movement to be quite elegant. But, as a team moves into scoring position, the elegance usually disappears. Players bunch up. Ball control gets choppy. Players push and trip and get tied up. This is supposed to be exciting, but it seems like the aesthetic quality of play diminishes the closer a team gets to scoring.

In my mind, the corner kick is a blight on the game. The ball is kicked from the corner into a scrum of players who all jump, attempting to hit the ball with their heads, and hoping the ball will ricochet into the goal. It is not pretty.

Reason #2: Not low scoring, but unbalanced
A frequent criticism of soccer is that it is low scoring. This is actually a bad criticism. Low scoring games can be fascinating. I love a good pitchers’ duel in baseball. And, let’s face it, soccer is low scoring. Of the 48 games in the group stage, there were only eight games in which a team scored three or more goals. And, all of those games were “blowouts” decided by two or more goals with the exception of the match between Slovakia and Italy.

Now, it is possible to argue that this lack of blowouts means that the games were closely fought and, therefore, more exciting. This is a valid point. But, let’s look at one game in particular, the match between the United States and Ghana in the first stage of the knockout round. In this game Ghana scored quickly and played ahead until just after the one hour mark. Throughout the early going Ghana really controlled the ball and they had several chances to add to their lead. Later in the first half and into the second half, the United States rebounded and looked like they might add an equalizer. They eventually did tie the score, but the tie came on a penalty kick. The US player dribbled the ball in close proximity to the goal. The Ghanaian defender made contact with him. The referee blew the whistle and called a foul. It was a subjective call but by no means a bad one. The foul meant that the US got a penalty kick, which they easily converted.

Herein lies the problem. Only three goals were scored in the entire contest and one of those was a virtual freebie. Had the defender made a little bit less contact, what is the chance that the US player would have scored on his own? 25%? 10%? 5%? What are the chances of scoring on a penalty kick? 75%? It was not a bad call but it is a bad rule. The entire competitive balance of a low scoring game was swayed by a very arbitrary call. It is like a pitchers’ duel in baseball during which a power hitter comes to the plate and gets to hit the ball off of a tee instead of facing the pitcher. Other sports have their own version of the penalty shot. Basketball has free throws, but free-throws usually account for around 25% of a team’s scoring. In the match between the USA and Ghana, penalty kicks accounted for 100% of the scoring by the United States. The closest analogy to the penalty kick in soccer is the pass interference in the end zone call in American Football. When a wide receiver runs a route into the end zone there is almost always some contact and some jostling. If defensive pass interference is called in the end zone, the team on offense gets a first down at the one-yard line and is virtually guaranteed a touchdown. But, even then, such an unbalanced penalty might account for 25% of a team’s scoring. In a game in which goals are rare, a penalty kick makes the game too unbalanced. The arbitrary should not determine the outcome.

Reason #3: Poor use of available technology
In my section above I talked about how a penalty kick makes the game competitively unbalanced. In a sport where goals are rare, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the sport to minimize the impact of arbitrary calls by the referee? In Germany’s 4-1 victory over England in the knockout stage, the referees failed to call a goal by England. It didn’t affect the outcome of this contest, but in most games it would have. And, there is really no excuse for that. Soccer needs an instant replay system for calls of this nature.

Reason #4: The flopping
During the group stage of the World Cup I was also watching the Boston Celtics reach the NBA finals. The NBA has become famous for its floppers. Two players bump and one player throws himself backwards and lies sprawled out on the court. It is an attempt to fool the refs and draw them into calling a foul. It is the epitome of bad sportsmanship. But it often works and this makes it good strategy. And yet, good strategy and good play do not always go hand in hand.

In soccer the flopping is even worse. The players roll around on the ground clutching an ankle or grabbing a knee. They wince and writhe. Usually the player gets back on his feet and is running without a hitch fifteen seconds later. This is good strategy. If you can coax a free kick or a yellow card out of the referee you’ve changed the game. If you can get the referee to upgrade the call from a yellow card to a red card, the other team has been put at a serious disadvantage.

Quite apart from the ethics of flopping, there is the aesthetics of flopping. Author David Foster Wallace once reviewed the autobiography of star tennis player Tracy Austin and asked why the autobiographies of athletes are often so insipid. He wrote, insightfully, that it is not because athletes are unintelligent. Rather, Wallace claimed that athletes are deeply focused in such a way that most other human beings don’t understand. They are unconscious in the sense that they are not aware of the types of details you and I might find interesting. Austin describes other top tennis stars in the blandest of terms. She does this, Wallace argues, because she is so focused on playing that what the other person is like as a person doesn’t sink in. This is why flopping is so egregious. In a moment of total athletic focus, an athlete becomes transcendent. The focus on perception—the attempt to control how one is seen by others—is antithetical to the purposes of sport.

Reason #5: The ties
In the group stage of the 2010 World Cup there were 48 games. 14 of those games (almost 30%) ended in ties. Ties are utilitarian, a way to earn an extra point in order to advance to the next stage of competition. But, there is something inherently unsatisfactory about them. In American Football, the NFL and the NCAA have flawed rules for resolving games that end regulation in a tie. But, soccer would benefit from a system like in hockey where both teams benefit from playing to a tie, but there is also a fair and competitive way for determining the winner.

Reason #6: The weird extra time rule
Soccer, like most sports, is played with a clock. The clock can make the end of a contest thrilling or boring. As KU men’s basketball fans know, you don’t get Mario Chalmers sinking that 3-pointer without a clock. The last second shot in basketball. The Hail Mary pass in football. Of course, when the game is not close the clock can be annoying. Football quarterbacks take a knee and let the clock run. Basketball teams empty the benches and play “garbage time.” But, with so many close games, a thrilling finish depends on people knowing how much time is left on the clock. In soccer, the referee keeps track of “extra time”—time that ran off the clock when the game was stopped—and blows the whistle when the “extra time” is over. But players and fans have no idea how much time is actually left. Basketball players know whether they need to throw up a shot or whether they can pass and take a better shot. Football players know whether they have time to put together a drive or whether they need to take a shot at the end zone. There is nothing like this in soccer.

So far I’ve mentioned six reasons why I don’t like soccer: excruciating play close to the goal, a penalty structure that unbalances play, lack of replays, the flopping, the ties, and the weird rule about extra time. These all have to do with soccer in general. But, then there is something about the World Cup itself. It seems the no one else has asked it but I will: are we actually seeing the world’s best soccer?

The summer of 1992 was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school. In was that summer that the entire world tuned in to watch the Barcelona Olympics. A new rule allowed professional basketball players to compete and the United States sent the Dream Team: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, and, ahem, Christian Laettner. The Dream Team cruised, winning all eight games at the Olympics by an average margin of 42 points.

But, with no offense intended to silver and bronze winners Croatia and Lithuania, it seems to me like the USA could have easily fielded additional teams capable of finishing second and third. They could have created teams in 1992 from a list of NBA and college stars such as: Isaiah Thomas, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price, Joe Dumars, Jeff Hornacek, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, Hersey Hawkins, Dell Curry, Dan Majerle, Glen Rice, James Worthy, Sean Elliott, Larry Johnson, Dennis Rodman, Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman, Xavier McDaniel, Horace Grant, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, Hakeem Olajuwon, Brad Daugherty, Shaquille O’Neal, and Alonzo Mourning.

Despite the novelty of seeing the Dream Team, the 1992 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers was much more competitive than the gold medal game at the Olympics.

Similarly, baseball has attempted to have its own version of the World Cup. The World Baseball Classic was played in March in both 2006 and 2009. Japan won both tournaments. However, it should be noted that this tournament was played at a time when most Major League Baseball players are beginning spring training. Of the MLB players who did participate—and many did not—many of them used the WBC as a way to play their way into shape for the upcoming MLB season. Still others played at less than full effort; they played not to get hurt. The MLB playoffs in October are far more competitive than the WBC in March.

The World Cup isn’t exactly basketball in the Olympics. It isn’t the World Baseball Classic either. But, it seems to me like it combines a few of the negative elements of both tournaments. While I was watching one of the games I overheard the announcers talking about how one player from one country was teammates with another player from the other country on a team in a European league. Many of the players in the World Cup, and most of the players on the better teams, also play professionally in soccer leagues around the world. When I heard the announcer I wondered whether those two players were more used to playing as teammates than as opponents. Are some of these teams actually teams in the truest sense of the word, or are they more like a patchwork of star athletes who happen to all a particular national identity? Unlike the WBC it is clear that none of the players are “playing into shape.” But, are any of them just a little distracted as they look ahead to going back to play for the teams that have them under contract for millions and millions of Euros? Soccer is the world’s most global sport and it is also the most globalized, which would seem to make the nation versus nation concept a bit antiquated.

I began this essay by writing about a bus stop in Quito named in honor of Olympic champion race walker Jefferson Perez. It was in Quito that I became more interested in soccer than I had ever been before, at least interested enough to try to follow the World Cup. That bus stop, to me, signifies many things. It signifies the way it is possible for the citizens of one nation to completely stand behind their athletes. My counter-example, the Olympic triumph of swimmer Michael Phelps, signifies the opposite. Phelps epitomizes a country whose citizens achieve dazzling heights of athletic achievement, but where there is little unity. Maybe we’re spoiled. Maybe we are just easily distracted. But we certainly do not root for our athletes as a collective. Maybe it was different on the basketball courts in Barcelona in 1992 or on the ice in Lake Placid in 1980. Soccer may be the universal sport but we Americans live in a nation where nothing is universalizing. So, one nation shuts down while their team tries to qualify for the World Cup. Another nation flips channels while their team plays in Cup, looking for hints about where this year’s crop of NBA free agents might sign.

If you’ve read this all the way to end, it is now time for you to go find out the latest news about which team LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, and David Lee will each play for next year. And, if that story doesn’t interest you, you can check out tennis or golf or mixed martial arts or NASCAR or baseball. And, aren’t football camps starting soon?