Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Problem with Soccer


This is a post about soccer, kind of. I will start by saying I’m no expert on soccer. When forced to play it in gym class I was completely incompetent, and other than occasionally watching “Soccer Made In Germany” on PBS as a kid, I’ve never been much of a fan. Most of the games I’ve seen have been those of my daughters—hardly representative of the professional sport. (I’m not one of the rabid soccer parents. Though I’ve been tempted to offer an occasional suggestion to the coaches, I’ve never had the nerve. My main idea for improvement was linguistic: the post-game cheer “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” should be “2-4-6-8 whom do we appreciate?”)

That said, I feel I can offer a legitimate perspective on what’s it’s like to be a newcomer to watching the World Cup. Since seeing the second half of the final game a week ago Sunday, I’ve pondered the experience at length, and think I can offer a couple of insights into why this can be a tough game for a non-aficionado to watch. I’ve even done a little research so I won’t be commenting from a position of complete ignorance. If I’m way off base, you can savor the pleasure of silently excoriating me, and/or giving me a piece of your mind via the comments feature below or e-mail.

Disclaimer: in this post I’m going to talk about men’s soccer, because I’m basing my opinions on the last game I saw, which was the men’s World Cup event, and because I can’t be bothered with the clunky “he or she” construction. Rest assured that what I have to say here would apply equally to men’s and women’s sport (so far as I know).

The viewing experience

I watched the World Cup game simply because my family was visiting friends, self-proclaimed huge soccer fans, when the game was on. I’d been curious anyway, and it was great to watch with those who could explain what was going on.

I enjoyed the game, but if I had to describe the experience in one word, it would be “stressful.” This surprised me, since I wasn’t really rooting for one team over another. The continual heartbreak of one missed goal after another really stung me emotionally. Our hosts weren’t heavily invested in the outcome either—they just wanted to see a good game—but they seemed stressed as well. I’ve talked to several others who watched the game, and they had similar reactions. I even found an article online warning of World-Cup-related heart attack risks, citing a 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which reported that “watching a stressful soccer match during the 2006 World Cup more than doubled the risk of a cardiovascular event.” 

The players look really stressed, too; where calm and cool would seem to convey poise and confidence, players instead tended to fall to their knees and tear at their hair after a missed shot.
Most team sports involve a certain amount of frustration and excitability, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I mostly follow cycling, and watching it is a completely different experience. Even when I care hugely about who wins, there’s excitement but no stress. Even the racers often describe their state of mind as “tranquil.” During this year’s Tour de France—the biggest event in cycling—veteran racer Damiano Cunego told, “We are preparing for the coming stages with extreme tranquility.” Going into the pivotal final time trial of the 2008 Tour, race leader Carlos Sastre said, “I am relaxed for tomorrow. I am healthy, I am in good physical condition and I am tranquilo.” Even during the most crucial moments of a Tour stage, the top contenders generally wear a poker face. Not for them the tortured, almost exaggerated look of anguish I saw so much in the World Cup coverage.

Why such stress?

So why the stress in soccer? I suppose much of it must come from the barebones strategy intrinsic to soccer and other ball sports: score as often as possible. (In a bike race, meanwhile, the strategy may be more complex; you might let a rival go up the road in a breakaway, hoping he’ll use up too much energy fighting the wind, while your team shelters you, so you can attack later.) And since it’s so damn hard to score in soccer (I’m basing this on the World Cup statistics and what I saw on TV), each scoring attempt seems to have the whole game—and whatever honor that game represents—hanging in the balance. Contrast this to basketball, where each shot sunk represents only a few percent of a team’s final score for the game.

It probably doesn’t help that soccer games seem so totally unpredictable, due to the vast number of factors that can keep that rare, precious shot from going in. During a game that is scoreless even well beyond the regular time, you have the prospect of what a New York Times columnist calls “the dreadful lottery of a penalty shootout.” Our hosts for the World Cup game also used the term “lottery.” I’m sure the role chance plays adds to the tension of the game. By contrast, we can often feel comfortably fatalistic about other sports, especially races of various kinds, where an athlete’s best is either good enough or it isn’t, where our hero tries his best and either has the goods or doesn’t.

Who cares?

Naturally, everything I’m saying—in addition to possibly being demonstrably false—is very unlikely to dissuade the soccer aficionado. He is going to love soccer and keep watching no matter what happens to his blood pressure, no matter how anguished he may be to see his team lose 0 to 1 after an agonizing ninety minutes or two hours of missed opportunities. So who cares what the experience is like?

Surely many people do care. I imagine a lot of soccer lovers in this country are disappointed that soccer doesn’t get the respect here that it deserves, especially considering how many kids play it. Of soccer in America, Wikipedia says, “It is the most popular recreational sport for both boys and girls and has been so for more than 30 years. As a spectator sport however, it is often overshadowed and not considered to be among the ‘big four’ major league team sports.” More evidence of soccer’s lack of popularity in the U.S. is here. Kids love to play soccer; why don’t they grow up into adults who love to watch it?

What is to be done?

I’m sure that sports broadcasters and promoters, at least in this country, have given plenty of thought about how to attract larger viewing audiences for this noble sport (which is, after all, the most popular in the world). At the risk of seeming hugely cheeky, I would like to suggest something, drawn from what I appreciate about cycling. I don’t believe we could change Americans, but why not tweak the game a bit to create a superior American version? (After all, one reason I’ve heard for soccer’s lack of popularity here is that we didn’t invent it.)

Needless to say it’s too hard to score in this game, which tries the patience of American audiences accustomed to viewing success on a continual basis during our beloved football, basketball, and baseball games. I don’t really know how to change that, other than making the goal bigger or no longer letting the goalkeeper use his or her hands. Those changes would of course be far too fundamental to put in place—the resulting game would no longer be soccer.

A simpler tweak, however, might really help the game. I’m thinking about the way penalties are handled.

The referee problem

What I’m mainly struck by, watching soccer, is how big an impact the referees have on the game. They keep penalizing players for what seem like minor infractions, and the penalties are severe. The ref’s calls interrupt the play, make the players angry, and provide players with outsized rewards for failing to avoid being bumped, tripped, or otherwise tampered with. The last World Cup game this year was lambasted for being “ugly”; since the Dutch drew more penalties, they got much of the blame. Me, I blame the refs.

Without the refs and their silly cards, I doubt I would have spotted any lack of beauty in that game. Could it be that the refs and the rules make the sport look ugly? A bunch of guys are trying to kick the ball at once, and they’re tired, and suddenly two of them are on the ground. Does it always have to be one guy’s fault? Can’t we just decide this is what happens when everybody is trying to accomplish the same thing, and let them get up and brush themselves off and keep going?

The die-hard soccer fan will defend his sport: “No, that guy clearly brushed up against the other guy! And his foot was right in the way! He wasn’t being beautiful!” God forgive me, but as a guy brought up with American football, where you clobber a guy because he has the ball, these penalties just look wrong.

Rules in soccer probably exist to keep the play relatively clean, but in reality they almost seem intended to interrupt the game. The offsides rule makes sense (now that it has been explained to me), as it prevents a player from loitering near the opponent's goal waiting for a sweet pass; it’s analogous to the “three seconds” rule in basketball. But why is there no equivalent to the shot clock in basketball, designed to keep players from hanging on to a slim lead by passing pointlessly to each other ad infinitum? Once a soccer team has a lead (there’s no concept of slim vs. huge lead in soccer, of course, given that all the planets have to line up for anybody to score any goals at all), there’s nothing to prevent players from dinking around the rest of the game to run out the clock, as we saw in the final World Cup match.

Moreover, many of the referee’s calls strike me as unnecessary, and the ref’s supreme authority (i.e., how his rule stands regardless of what the home viewer sees on the slow-motion instant replay) rubs me the wrong way. The referee, I read here, may cite a player at his discretion for “unsporting behaviour” for actions “that violate the spirit of the game, even if they are not listed as specific offences.” Isn’t this the kind of arbitrary authority we Americans left England to escape? The American viewer may well decide these pesky foreign refs are enemies of freedom.

The curse of flopping

And that’s just the refs. The players can be even worse. That there’s even a term—flopping—for pretending to be hurt, in order to convince the referee to penalize an opposing player, shows how much is wrong with this game. I don’t doubt that these soccer players are fine, upstanding individuals: but the benefits of getting that penalty kick, and eventually getting opponents ejected from the game, appear to be irresistible. So we get the pitiful sight, time after time, of a grown man flinging himself on the ground, clutching his knee, his face a picture of pain. Of course nothing ends up really being wrong with him, and he’s bouncing back into action seconds after securing his coveted penalty kick. Everybody agrees this is a disgraceful spectacle. To the would-be American fan, these players look like a bunch of namby-pamby bedwetting drama queens.

Why such dire consequences for non-violently interfering with another player? In basketball, fouls result in a free-throw or two, but the impact of the resulting points is diluted by the sheer number of points scored in a game. In soccer, meanwhile, appearing to get fouled is probably the best strategy to score, and there are so few points total, games can be won or lost based on how well a player can fake being hurt. The overall effect, for me, is the same exasperation I get during a long car trip when one of my kids or the other continually cries or whines to me about some minor offense the other has committed. “Daddy! She won’t stay on her side!” or “She’s looking at me!”

The cumulative effect

The cumulative effect of all these infractions and all this flopping is, I think, to turn the viewers into self-righteous prigs who routinely deride a team for not playing “clean.” Listening to the sportscasters after that World Cup game, I was shocked at how judgmental they were. “Well, the right team won, and the Dutch team only have themselves to blame for their loss, with all that foul play,” one said.
His co-commentator replied, “Yes, the rotten stinking Dutch really got what they deserved.”
“It really shows the hollow, soulless character of the Dutch people in general, I think.”
“Yes, they’re nothing but a bunch of heartless, soulless atheists. And now their ill-gotten dream is over and they can go back to their barren, hateful lives.”

I didn’t actually take notes during the broadcast, so I may not have that exchange exactly right, but I can quote verbatim from the New York Times editorial I mentioned earlier: “There has never been so foul an intent in the 40 years I have watched the World Cup.” The writer actually laments the “relaxed policing” of the game—he wanted more penalties assessed.

A soccer fan knows in advance of a televised game that the referees will play a significant role, and that part of the emotional reaction to the game will involve bad or missed calls. A friend of mine, before watching the final game of this year’s World Cup, put a pile of t-shirts on the floor: two orange, two red. Every time a ref made a bad call, or a player made an especially dirty play, she declared, they would switch their t-shirts to the other team’s color.

But what is “dirty” vs. “clean,” anyway? Without a ref showing cards and labeling things dirty, how many bumps, falls, and other minor skirmishes would the spectator decide were really dirty? Who created this zero-contact ideal? American audiences are accustomed to a certain amount of physical contact, and I think we would have extra respect for players who can look after themselves, absorb a bump from another player, and just keep the action going, rather than running crying to the ref for justice.

Just look at bike racing: despite the speeds involved and the danger of crashing, it is a sport fairly free of rules and penalties. Other than doping offenses, we rarely see rules or judges affect anything, even when the action gets rough. Of a recent Tour de France stage finish, reported of ace sprinter Mark Cavendish’s teammate Mark Renshaw, “Renshaw elbowed Thor Hushovd out of the way and then dragged Cavendish clear as the finish line loomed.” This was a simple description, devoid of any pejorative tone. After winning the stage, Cavendish said, “Renshaw did an incredible job, fighting with Thor [Hushovd], with Tyler [Farrar] and with Oscar [Freire]. I knew he’d drop me off at the right place.” No cards, no penalties, and no outcry from the media, the fans, or anybody else.

Even when sloppy riding causes a huge crash like this one, penalties are rarely assessed. As a commentator said after this crash, “Well, this is the rough-and-tumble of bike racing.”

That’s not to say riders are never disciplined for dangerous riding; on another stage of this year’s Tour, Renshaw head-butted one rider, then cut off another, during the final sprint, and was ejected from the race. But for several reasons, this was quite different from the red card scenarios we see in soccer. For one thing, this was the exception that proved the rule, being the first time a racer had been disciplined for head-butting since 1997. Second, the penalty wasn’t assessed until after the race, and didn’t affect Cavendish’s win (even though he’d benefitted from Renshaw’s aggressive behavior). Moreover, the action leading to the ejection didn’t have commentators, racers, or spectators up in arms. During the sprint finish, the Eurosport commentator David Harmon watched the head-butt and cried, “Renshaw gives him a good battering!” His co-commentator, the former bike race champ Sean Kelly, concluded, “That's your job in that situation, making sure your man doesn’t get crowded out.” The cycling world isn’t given to righteous indignation.

The alternative to penalty cards

A veteran soccer player, or spectator, might reasonably assume that without the referees and the specific rules, soccer would turn into a free-for-all, a series of brawls on the field. And who knows, maybe it would. But I think there’s reason to believe that it wouldn’t. Again, I turn to cycling to examine the frequency of infractions in a sport where it’s logistically impossible for a referee to keep a close eye on things.

I mentioned before that cycling doesn’t have a lot of rules. More accurately, cycling doesn’t have a lot of written rules. The sport actually abounds in unwritten rules, policed not by a referee but by the racers and fans themselves. For example, if your opponent suffers a fall or a bike problem, you’re not to take advantage by attacking him. There’s no rule saying you can’t do so, and a racer who breaks this unwritten rule wouldn’t be sanctioned in any way by race officials. Instead, a rider commiting such an act would risk being castigated by the peloton. This very scenario came to pass after a big crash during this year’s race, when a rider started to attack and was immediately upbraided by another rider until he backed down. (To see footage of this, click here and look about ninety seconds in.)

These unwritten cycling rules can be very complicated, especially during a race like the Tour de France where the race leader, easily distinguished by his yellow jersey, enjoys certain privileges. For example, during an early stage this year, the whole peloton stopped to let the race leader pee, even though there was a breakaway up the road. Breaches of such etiquette are mainly noteworthy for their infrequency.

For example, a few days ago Alberto Contador, widely seen as the favorite for overall victory, launched an attack while the race leader, Andy Schleck, was having problems with his bike. To attack any rider who has a mechanical problem would be questionable, but to attack the yellow jersey in such fashion was particularly discreditable. Contador was not cited or penalized in any way by the race officials, but he was booed by fans as he mounted on the podium later to accept his yellow jersey (which he’d taken from Schleck that day, his attack having been successful). As Contador saluted the crowd, his expression was like the cat’s who has eaten the canary.

The stigma factor

Following his unsportsmanlike behavior, Contador had two things to worry about. One, many in the peloton would judge him for his unsporting behavior. As a buddy of mine commented (in the long series of e-mails our bike club exchanged about this incident), “The peloton has a long memory. Contador will get his.” As the former pro rider Todd Gogulski said to me once, “It’s very hard to help somebody win a race, but very easy to make him lose.” Gogulski referred not to nefarious actions of the Tonya Harding stripe, but of perfectly legit behaviors like refusing to help a rider in a breakaway.

The other problem Contador faced was a bad reputation among his fans, which may translate into reduced popularity and the loss of endorsement opportunities. Cycling fans remember how riders behave in such scenarios; for example, in discussing Contador’s recent gaffe, several of my cycling pals recalled how, in the 2001 Tour de France, race leader Lance Armstrong waited for his main rival, Jan Ullrich, after Ullrich crashed, and how, two years later, Ullrich returned the favor when Armstrong crashed. Obviously Contador would rather be famous for his grace than infamous for his opportunism, and after initially defending his attack on Schleck in the race, he issued a formal apology on YouTube. A couple days later the two riders made up on French TV.

I strongly suspect that soccer players would be just as gracious if it weren’t for the system of penalties that exists, and the rigid enforcement of petty rules. I see a certain amount of cynicism in soccer surrounding these penalties. A player who flops, for example, gets groans from fans but also helps his team win, which seems to protect him from a reputation as a bad sportsman. Meanwhile, a player who breaks the rules may do so knowing he’ll get a penalty, but having decided it’s worth it.

The New York Times columnist wrote, of John Heitinga’s offence toward the end of the final World Cup game this year, “In some circles that is seen as a team-oriented act, deliberately accepting a second card to prevent what could have been the winning goal.” It’s as though the formal penalty takes the place of social stigma among players and fans, opening the door for cynicism on everyone’s part. The same columnist wrote, “Yes, the Spanish players retaliated, sometimes with kicks of their own. But when a team is in the World Cup final against an opponent that has said it was prepared to win ugly, it has little choice but to defend itself and show that it will not be intimidated.” Oh, so it’s okay to play dirty if the other side started it? Whatever, dude.

In a setting where infractions are quickly flagged and dealt with, cynical players will inevitably push the edge of the envelope, to see what they can get away with. In contrast, where social stigma is concerned a player might well have to err on the side of caution—that is, of putting sportsmanship first. That appears to be what we have in cycling.

I’m reminded of the study that Steven Levitt, the Freakonomics author, did with day-care centers, about how to prevent parents from being late picking up their children. The experiment was to enact a fine for any parent who was late. The effect, to their surprise, was that the number of late pickups actually increased—in fact, it more than doubled. The vague social taint of keeping the staff waiting was replaced by a set penalty, which the parents were far more willing to risk incurring. By accepting the financial penalty, they bought their way out of being stigmatized, to the ultimate detriment of the day-care center. “For certain types of misbehavior,” Levitt concluded, “social incentives are terribly powerful.”


I won’t say cycling should be a role model where U.S. viewership is concerned; for various reasons cycling isn’t very popular with audiences here either. But given the popularity of soccer as a recreational pastime in this country, I think events like the World Cup deserve a much wider American audience. If soccer players could throw off the shackles of the regulations and referees, and were free to wow us with their ability to stay upright and deflect defenders, all the while maintaining a stoic demeanor, they’d better match our American ideal of what a sportsman should be. The rules of the game, and the penalties, make these fine players into underhanded sneaks, willing to look like total momma’s-boys just to get a penalty kick, all the while chided and disciplined by den-mother-like referees, while we viewers learn to bask in righteous indignation at the players misconduct. Beautiful game, indeed!
dana albert blog

1 comment:

  1. I was hoping you'd comment on the vuvuzela! That's probably the main reason those players act the way they do, they're all stark, raving mad! Here's a funny video that makes the point: