Monday, June 28, 2010

The Beautiful Game's Flaw

[This is the fifth in an unplanned series called The Volunteer Commissioner, in which I fix broken sports. In previous installments I singlehandedly fixed pick-up basketball, women’s softball, and men’s lacrosse. You’re welcome. Unfortunately, swimming is unfixable.]

Soccer, obviously, isn’t broken. According to ESPN, 147 zantillion people on 64 planets spread over 9 galaxies will watch every single minute of the 2010 World Cup. (And if they’re not watching in further galaxies, I’m sure they can hear those damn horns). Nothing this popular needs the help of the Volunteer Commissioner.

But that never stopped me before.

If you’re a fan of the beautiful game, you probably assume I’m an uncouth, red-necked, barbaric, gun-toting, beer-swilling, pot-bellied ugly American who wants higher scoring games because I'm aesthetically incapable of allowing a sport to slowly reveal its beauty. Well that’s not true. I don’t own a gun.

But my complaint is not the lack of scoring. That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind the occasional slugfest. I love a pitching duel in baseball, where two hurlers trade wits and skills for three hours backed by graceful and acrobatic fielders. But not every frickin’ game. Would it kill these guys to throw out a 6-5 score once in a while?

But still, I’ve learned to appreciate that a goal in soccer is special precisely because it is so hard to achieve.

And it’s not the officiating, though I wouldn’t mind if the officials explained what they’re calling once in a while. The disallowed goal in the U.S.-Slovenia game was so frustrating not just because of the injustice, but because nobody was charged with a crime. Habeas corpus, anyone?

And it’s not the overdramatic flops, though I find it ludicrous to see a player act like they’ve been chest-shot by a high-powered sniper rifle as they graze an opponent’s jersey. When the delightfully named Brazilian star Kaka received a red card for this, I felt the urge to don my Volunteer Commissioner cape.

But I decided that all sports have their own ethics*, and those ethics come from specific places in the sport. In football - I'm sorry, American football - a defensive back is considered wily and shrewd if he can grab a receiver’s shirt as long as he shields it from the referee. So what’s the difference?

* Golfers take great moral pride in the fact that they call penalties on themselves. But this is not because they are at their core more honorable people, but rather that in a sport played over many miles, self-policing is a must; the social mores of the sport grew out of its geography.

No, the flaw in the beautiful game is the ties. Through the first two weeks of the World Cup, nearly 1/3 of all games ended in a tie. The United States nearly advanced to the Sweet 16* without winning a single game. Their opponent in the knockout phase, Ghana, made it through their group without scoring a single non-penalty goal. Get a bunch of ties, and you’re in.

* Yeah, I know it’s not called the Sweet 16. I also am aware that the game is called football and that a 1-1 game is a draw, not a tie. You use your vernacular, I’ll use mine.

I’m willing to concede that there is something about American culture that makes the whole idea of a tie harder to accept. After all, the animating idea of communism and socialism (two philosophies that, like soccer, found more fertile ground in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa than they ever have in the U.S.) is to, as much as possible, create an economic draw among all its participants. Free market capitalism, on the other hand, is built on the idea of winning: if you reward society's strongest contributors, you create the incentive to perform at a high level, which benefits the entire society.

In fact, I think it was Adam Smith who coined the term "A tie is like kissing your sister". Karl Marx, meanwhile, posited that if the owners of the means of production had a 2-1 lead, the officials should allow the proletariats a penalty kick.

So what do we do about this problem? I know that shootouts aren’t the ideal solution, but if they are good enough to settle games in the far more important knock-out phase, why aren’t they good enough to settle them during Group Play? (I have no idea if I’m using the right terminology now…but work with me).

On the other hand, 147 zantillion people disagree with me, so maybe I should shut up.

1 comment:

BAMstutz said...


BAMstutz here. First of all, I am glad to know you are still blogging. I had thought that you stopped after joining L-F, but had lunch with McCarthyville last week and learned that FreeTime was still alive. Excellent. I have some catching up to do.

Specific to this post, I agree with you about calling it the sweet 16, (and final four) and hating all of the ties. But I hate the shootout even more. It seems pretty random, and although tense, not really indicative of the pace or promise of the game itself. Eleven people running their hearts out for 2 hours and it comes down to a bunch of free kicks?

As an alternative, I propose the removal of the goalie in a second extra golden-goal period. This completely changes the complexion of the game, yet keeps the advantage on team skills, not someone's lucky guess, or errant kick.

At the same time, I am all for the shoot-out OT format in College Football and advocate for it on the pro level. It's forced excitement and tension much greater than the current sudden death format.

Peace out brother-