Monday, July 12, 2010

The World Cup Was Awesome, Then it Wasn't

In keeping with our recent theme (to wit: professional sports that no one gives a shit about), I wanted to share my thoughts on the World Cup. Well, I actually wanted to share my thoughts on the World Cup several weeks ago, but I just didn't get around to it. If I had written this post a few weeks ago, it would have gone something like this:

Wow. The World Cup is really great. It is so fun and exciting to watch, and it is encouraging to see Americans really get behind the sport. Each match is quick (compared to say, a baseball game), lively, and totally action-packed. Unicorns, rainbows and hope. Hugs.

And I think I would have been justified in writing that post at the outset of the World Cup. People were excited about the American team, the games are a bit swifter than most U.S. sports, and they are punctuated with moments of incredible drama. The U.S. win over Algeria in extra time was incredibly exciting, and it really felt like all of NYC (at least where I was watching) had taken time out of the day to root for the team. Ergo, World Cup was great. The U.S. team's loss to Ghana was disappointing, but there was still plenty of great soccer left to watch.

But even then, there were some cracks in this happy facade. A U.S. goal against Slovenia was disallowed on a phantom call. And as frustrating as that was, it was compounded by the fact that the referee (note the singular - because there is only one fucking referee who is responsible for covering the entire match) was not required to identify the nature of the penalty, or the player who committed it.

And the flops. Oh those god-damned flops. How many times have we seen players lose their footing when they engage a defender, go flying through the air, and land on the ground writhing in agony, only to have a television replay reveal that there was absolutely no contact whatsoever? A good clue to this nonsense is often that the gie who looks like he is about to pass out from the pain one minute is happily trotting down the field the next. It has become so much a part of the game that it takes over the game; a good slide with no contact earns a yellow card, while a kick to the chest is overlooked by the referees. I think most U.S. fans find this incredibly unsatisfying -- refs miss penalties or calls in our sports all the time (just ask that gie for the Tigers) -- but it is very, very difficult to get used to the level of inconsistency on yellow cards, and the frequency with which these gies dive and just beg for penalties.

There is also the matter of "stoppage time." The concept makes perfect sense: the clock is not stopped during each 45-minute regulation half, so the referee has discretion to add a few extra minutes to the half to to account for any stoppage of play due to injuries, etc. But in practice, the clock is so loosely enforced as to make it laughable. There has never been a single World Cup game that has ended on a breakaway, or just before a corner kick could be taken, etc. Stoppage time always ends when the ball settles in the middle of the field, or rolls out of bounds, or there is some other natural break in play. It is almost as if the ref looks at his watch and thinks, "man, time is up, but I gotta see how this thing ends." The lack of precision with timekeeping is completely foreign in U.S. sports that play off of a clock.

But there is more. Because there is only one ref, he tends to miss really, really important things. Like goals. Like goals being scored against Germany by England. Like the one everyone in the world saw (even me, because Jet Blue is awesome) except the one guy who needed to see it. And yet, despite the incredible consequences a single goal can have on the match (though, in fairness, perhaps not that particular Germany-England match), FIFA has long maintained that they won't introduce instant replay (though that might finally, finally be changing). Even baseball uses instant replay now to determine whether or not a ball was hit for a home run. There are no good arguments left to allow goals to stand that were not goals, and to fail to award a goal when one was scored.

And there is still more. Remember those yellow cards? The ones that sometimes are given out when a player commits a penalty, but other times are given out for no particular reason at all. Well, if you get two of those in consecutive matches, you do not get to play in the next match. This is the equivalent of benching an NFL player in week six who was flagged for personal fouls in weeks four and five (Jeremy Shockey would have missed all of 2006 under this regime). It would be one thing if the yellow cards actually meant something, and were only handed out in response to truly dangerous play, or blatant rule violations. But as it stands, they are handed out so wantonly as to make the punishment (missing an entire game) completely out of whack with the crime. Just ask Thomas Mueller of Germany, who was benched against Spain because of a yellow card issued after an alleged handball. There can be little doubt that Mueller - the top scorer in the tournament and winner of the "Golden Boot" - might have helped Germany alter the outcome against the eventual champions.

The most frustrating aspect of this is how easy it would be to change most of it. Add another ref. Introduce instant reply on balls that may or may not have gone in the net. And, if a player gets two yellow cards in successive matches, review both yellow cards (after the games but before the next one) to determine whether a game suspension is warranted (the NBA does this now when a player is suspended for getting too many technicals).

Referees will always have an impact on sports, but the extent of that impact, and the extent to which the human element can just completely ruin a game and a tournament, can be minimized with little to no impact on the game itself.


Open Bar said...

I concur with the whole only-one-ref thing. Come the fuck on, man, it's a HUGE field and guys can kick the ball really far really fast. Of course one ref's not gonna be enough.

Instant replay is another no-brainer. It annoys me that when people talk about the "human element" being so important, "human element" is usually synonymous with "easily correctable mistakes."

I would also add a third painfully obvious fix for soccer: Get rid of shootouts.

Do this at least in the World Cup. The NHL uses shootouts after one overtime period in the regular season, but in the playoffs they actually make the teams play hockey for as long as it takes to decide which team is better at playing hockey. Sounds reasonable.

I like this comparison: A shootout in soccer is like playing one extra inning in baseball, and if it's still tied, holding a home-run-hitting contest to pick a winner. A home-run-hitting contest isn't baseball and therefore shouldn't decide baseball contests.

ChuckJerry said...

I agree. Definitely one of the reasons that this doesn't catch on in America is the lack of precision and the awful refereeing. Imagine if some of those terrible calls happened in a Mets-Pirates game in May. The papers would shit themselves to the point where baseball would have to do something about it.

Also I wrote a post during the 2006 world cup that sums up some of my other feelings about improving soccer.