Sunday, July 16, 2006

Belated soccer thoughts

I apologize for the lack of posts; the past week has been a rather busy one for me.

Anyway, I've been watching a lot of soccer this year. This is at least partially due to the just-finished 2006 FIFA World Cup as well as the relocation of a Major League Soccer team to a stadium within walking distance of my house. Even back in January, well before the start of the MLS season or the World Cup, I found myself in a restaurant in Dubai, surrounded by rabid Egyptian soccer fans, watching an African Cup game between Egypt and Morocco. Needless to say, I've probably watched more soccer so far this year than I've watched in the last ten years combined.

Soccer can be exciting to watch. It can also be extremely frustrating. In fact, I think I find it to be frustrating more often than it is exciting. And the reason is simple: there's not enough scoring in soccer. This, in my opinion, is the biggest reason why soccer has not caught on in the United States even though it is the most popular sport in the world. Its emphasis on defense is unappealing to American tastes.

Case in point: last week's World Cup Final between France and Italy. The game ended with a 1-1 tie after 90 minutes of regulation. It then went into two fifteen-minute extra time periods with no change in the score. After 120 mintes, and with both teams thoroughly exhausted, the game was finally decided on a penalty shootout with Italy prevailing, 5-3.

That's right. The biggest game in the world. Over a billion people watching on television. And after two hours of conventional soccer that resulted in a 1-1 draw, it all got decided by the specialized mechanism of a penalty shootout: essentially, a contest to see which team's goalie could better stop a succession of opposing players from scoring from point-blank range.

It really seems like a contrived, unnatural and, frankly, disappointing way to end a game, and it really seems to be something unique to soccer. Off the top of my head I can think of no other team sport whose championship is decided in a similar fashion. In basketball, baseball and American football, the two teams keep playing under conventional rules until there's a winner. And it's not just American sports, either; I am not aware of any special overtime rules in rugby, Australian rules football, cricket or any other major team sport wherein ties can be broken by a mechanism which substantially differs from the normal rules of the game. The closest examples would probably be overtime in NHL hockey, which employs a shootout during regular season games (but not, notably, during the playoffs), and American college football, whereby a team lines up at the opponent's 25 yard line and tries to score (rather than marching the length of the field in order to score). But even then, the rules of the game and the number of players are the same as in regulation; the only difference is the team's starting position.

And why do soccer games, such as the 2006 World Cup final, get decided by the mechanism that is the penalty shootout? I think it's pretty obvious: the defensive nature of the game makes goals hard to come by, and this causes games to end in low-scoring ties (0-0, 1-1, etc.) with regularity. Sometimes, the tie will be broken after one or two extra time periods. But, sometimes, even those overtime periods won't do the job; hence, the penalty shootout. In the 2006 World Cup, four out of the sixteen games in the knockout rounds had to be decided by penalty kicks: Switzerland and Ukraine in the Second Round (which ended in a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes of play), Germany and Argentina in the Quarterfinals (ended in a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes of play), England and Portugal in the Quarterfinals (ended in a 0-0 draw after 20 minutes of play), and of course the championship game. In fact, more matches in the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup were resolved in penalty kicks than were resolved in extra time.

As I noted, soccer is by its very nature a defensive sport. Goals are intended to be a rare occurrence. But why should scoring be so rare that 0-0 or 1-1 draws - draws that ultimately get decided on penalty shootouts - are normal and acceptable, even in the sport's biggest game? Does the fact that fully one-quarter of the elimination games in the World Cup ended in awkward penalty kicks speak well for the sport, or does it indicate that there is a disappointing flaw in the game?

It's not just penalty kicks: it's a lack of offense in general. Consider that the 2006 World Cup averaged just under 2.3 goals per game - the lowest average since of any World Cup since 1990. Consider that out of 64 World Cup games, at least one team failed to score in 40 of them: 63% of the games ended in shutouts.

As I've said before, the dearth of offense can make soccer a maddening sport. Back in January at that cafe in Dubai, even though I had no rooting interest in the game, I nevertheless began to become just as exasperated as the Egyptians surrounding me as Egypt and Morrocco played to a 0-0 draw. The Quarterfinal match between England and Ecuador was just as frustrating; while David Beckham's free kick that perfectly bended its way into the corner of the Ecuadorian net was a thing of beauty - a shot that anybody who appreciates athleticism, even if they don't necessarily like soccer, can admire - it meant that the game was over even though a significant time was remaining on the clock; the defensive nature of the sport meant that Ecuador would never equalize and the game would end in a 1-0 decision. As I sat in Robertson Stadium the evening of the Fourth of July and watched a match between the Dynamo and the Columbus Crew, I actually felt badly for both teams, who ran up and down the field for ninety-plus minutes with nothing to show for it except a 1-1 draw. And, of course, I was disappointed that the World Cup itself had to be awarded on the basis of a goofy penalty shootout, because neither team was able to score more than one goal apiece in regulation or extra time.

Little wonder then, that soccer has never caught on in America. As this article at and an accompanying poll suggest, while soccer lags well behind baseball, basketball and football for a variety of reasons, the key reason is because there's not enough offense to make it interesting to the average American. This isn't to say that Americans don't like defense; we find the occassional pitchers' duel in baseball or defensive struggle in football to be entertaining.

But 1-0 baseball scores and football games where neither team manages more than a field goal or two are the exception, rather than the rule. Furthermore, both baseball and football have enough offensive components to make exciting comebacks or multiple lead changes commonplace; that's just not the case with soccer. If your favorite baseball team is down 2-0 in the sixth inning, there's still a chance they can mount a rally and win the game. If your favorite soccer team is losing 1-0 a few minutes into the second period, the odds of your team winning are slim due to the overwhelmingly defensive nature of the game.

Could soccer be modified to allow more scoring and make the games more exciting (and, as a result, less frustrating)? Perhaps soccer should do away with the offsides rule, which prevents the ball from being passed to any offensive player who gets "behind" the final defender, that is, between the last defender and the goal. If we had that rule in basketball, the fast break would be illegal. If we had that rule in American football, any pass to an open receiver who managed to get behind his defender would result in a penalty. Could you imagine how dull those two sports would be with those restrictions in place?

Of course, it could be argued that, if it weren't for the offsides rule, soccer teams would simply send a forward down to "camp out" in front of the opposing team's goal for the entire game, waiting for a pass that they could feed into the net. Maybe so. But is that such a horrible thing? If such a rule change results in outcomes of 6-4, rather than 2-1, is that really detrimental to the sport? After all, the more opportunities there are to score, the less likely it is that the game will end in a 1-1 tie after 90 minutes of regulation. At that, in turn, will result in fewer awkward penalty shootouts.

Of course, I don't expect the offsides rule (or any other major rule that contributes to the defensive nature of the game) to be eliminated or otherwise changed anytime soon. Soccer purists might in fact argue that soccer is "the beautiful game" precisely because scoring is so rare, because it places a premium on patient strategy and endurance. And FIFA's not going to change the rules of soccer just to make it more palatable to sports fans in the United States; some soccer fans, in fact, would argue that the sport's relative unpopularity in the world's only superpower is part of the game's essential character. The best hope, then, is that future coaches and players will envision more aggressive strategies that bring a greater level of offense to the game. But I don't see that happening anytime soon. Chances are, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will result in just as little offense, just as many low-scoring ties, just as many penalty shootouts, and just as many televisions sets in the United States tuned to something other than soccer.

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