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The goal was thrilling! The game’s still boring….

June 23, 2010

Sitting in front of the TV with something that’s increasingly looking like bronchitis, I had the chance to watch the US/Algeria World Cup game. A few observations:

  • Watching Soccer/Futbol differs from most of the major sports that I enjoy on TV (baseball, golf, late season basketball & football) in that it’s full of movement and energy yet very little happens of consequence.
  • The scoring captures very little of what actually happens on the field. Again and again plays which are obviously successful in their intent end up being dust in the wind. Compare that to the other put-the-ball-somewhere-that-it’s-difficult-to-put-it games (basketball, football) and soccer just seems like a piss in the existential wind (maybe that’s why the French love it so much….) You can knock baseball and golf as being slow, but a stolen base or a five iron stuck 3 feet from the pin mean something. Most of the impressive things that happen in soccer never make it past the moment and onto the scoreboard.
  • It’s also more riven by randomness and miserable chance than any other game I can think of. Great plays almost always go unrewarded. Now, to be fair, this dynamic occurs in any sport that involves a quickly-moving object. But the balance of randomness to intent is just different in soccer – in most sports, great feats of athleticism are rewarded more often than not by a result that influences the outcome of the contest. Not so soccer. The randomness trumps the players’ skill something like 90% of the time. That’s just aggravating.
  • Because of the effect of randomness, it’s absolutely the case that being the best team on the pitch (field?) has only a relatively inconsequential effect on the outcome. Maybe over the course of an entire season it all comes out in the wash, but that’s small consequence when you’re watching a single game, or even a double-elimination –  or whatever it is…still haven’t figured that out yet – tournament like the World Cup.
  • There’s a sense of fragility to the game (maybe that’s where the “beautiful” part comes from) that makes it very frustrating to watch… for most of the game guys run around the field trying to do things at which they fail. It may be similar to hockey in that regard, and that may also be part of the reason that I’ve never had much interest in that game (the other part being that the whole fighting/bloodlust thing just seems out-of-place in an age in which we’re supposedly trying like hell to rise above our more self-destructive instincts). I have a feeling that this is an American thing…I want solid ground to stand on and do battle. The thought of working so hard just to be struck down most of the time but the fates isn’t terribly attractive to me.
  • The dim relationship between the action and the outcome may also explain the hooliganism. After watching your team try like hell for 90 minutes with so little to show for it, it’s not at all hard to understand why you’d want to go out and beat the sh*t out of the other team’s fans.
  • The officiating sucks. Now, to be fair, the same can be said of almost all officiating in professional sports. But in soccer it’s much more damaging because the scoring captures so little of the quality of the play. In games where there are multiple scoring events, the impact of bad calls become a smaller influence in the outcome than in a game where you can play multiple games with no score at all. This may have jumped out at me more because in the only two games I’ve paid much attention to so far in this World Cup the US team was clearly robbed of the fruits of excellent play by horrendous calls. But that alone is a structural problem that makes it tough for me to think about making much of an emotional investment in the game.  From what I could tell from listening to the commentary, the attitude towards using instant replay on the part of the powers-that-be in soccer is something akin to a religious belief. If that’s the case, it’s completely asinine – in a sport in which the final score tells you so little about what went on on the field, you’d think that anything that enhances the ability of the best play to be recognized would be a godsend. I realize that instant replay makes things slightly less “beautiful”, and that the setup reflects that fact that life’s unfair, etc. But I don’t watch sports to be reminded that so many of my best efforts in life leave me with bupkis to show for it. If there’s one place where I’d like more justice than injustice, it’s in contests that are put on entirely for spectacle.

There are also a few insights involving the psychology of the fans and the things for which soccer serves as a proxy that I had while watching. But it’s kind of hard to breath at the moment so I’m going to leave that for another time (or perhaps you, dear readers, will run with that. I’d love to hear it).

I’ll probably keep watching the World Cup. There’s something undeniably compelling about nationalism played out on the world stage, and a once-in-80-years occurrence like the US winning its group is something I’d like to witness. But I have to agree with people who say that soccer is unlikely to ever capture the American imagination. Watching Rondo drive to the hoop, Pedroia reach out and slap a wide-by-a-mile slider into right center field, or Mickelson make a crazy improbable shot to put the ball on the green after a wild drive are just much more interesting than the sound and fury signifying very little that seems to characterize the world’s most popular sport. Oh well.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2010 1:39 pm

    Agreed friend, agreed. I can’t get into the whole soccer thing overall but I’m glad the US got one today. I’m happy the country has something to be happy about for a day and take their minds off the oil spill for like 5 minutes maybe…

  2. David Graves permalink
    July 13, 2010 10:44 am

    Well, it’s all over finally! I agree with a lot of what you said but at the same time I think we are coming from ignorant viewpoints of soccer. I was watching a game with a couple of English friends and their comments made me realize just how little I know about the sport. They were able to analyze every possession of the game. Most of it went over my head but it was a learning experience. There’s too much subtlety in the sport for me to appreciate. I can only see the goals and the flops!! It’s the world’s most popular sport so they must know something. It will still take a while to truly catch on in the States but that’s O.K., there’s plenty of sports for everyone as it is.

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