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Americans, Soccer, and Scoring con't:

Bobo makes some very interesting points in a comment on my earlier posting about soccer referees. He/she writes:

Problems I, as an American, have with soccer:

[SNIP]

3) Too much randomness. Scoring just seems too "lucky." . . . So much has to go right just to make a shot go in. . . . if I get 3 clear shots on goal and score 1, am I really better than the team that gets 4 shots but doesn't score any?

4) The infrequency of scoring. Not because "we Americans need action", and "action = scoring". But because, like someone above said, 1-0 is a blowout, and 2-0 is the beating of a lifetime. Basically if I'm losing by 2 with 10 minutes, I have such a small chance of winning that it's not even worth playing. There's no suspense. Game's over. . . .

More evidence, I think, that the things soccerphobes dislike about the game are the very things that fans love about it.

Re the infrequency of scoring: Nick Hornby, in his wonderful soccer memoir "Fever Pitch" (highly recommended), has a wonderful list of the ingredients that go into making a truly great soccer game, the kind of out-of-body ecstasy that soccer can induce and which all soccer fans understand. Some of the ones I recall (I don't have the book with me): home game for your team; home team wins, 3-2, after trailing 2-0; outrageously bad penalty call against your team [followed by a missed penalty kick by the other side].

So it is absolutely true: if you're losing a soccer game 2-0 with 10 minutes to go, you have a mighty slim chance of winning, and you are almost certainly going to be walking out of the stadium depressed and disappointed. But . . . it does happen. Teams do come back. And if this is the game in which it happens, you will never, ever, forget the experience of watching it. It will be roughly equivalent to having sex with all of the other fans, simultaneously.

In 1999 Man. U scored two goals in the last 4 minutes of a Champions League Final -- unlike the World Cup final, which will be watched by ten times more people than watch our "Super Bowl," the Champions League final is watched by only 4 or 5 times more people than watch our Super Bowl. It's kind of a big deal. I'm not a Man U. fan -- but I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to be a Man U fan in that stadium that night.

You might have to watch many, many games before it happens. You may go a lifetime and only experience it once or twice -- or, god forbid, never. That's why you go to a lot of games -- to be sure to catch it when it happens.

When I first discovered soccer, I, too, came up with lots of great ideas for how to get more scoring. Widen the penalty box -- make the net bigger -- etc. etc. But then it hit me. Soccer is the great team sport because it is a test of team will, and it is a test of team will precisely because it is so damned hard to score a f**king goal. You have to run down that field, time and time and time and time again, knowing full well that there's "practically no chance" anything will come of it. Again and again and again. You might have to do it for ninety minutes and get nothing, and then you have to do it again in the next game. It is exhausting, physically and, even more, mentally. But you have to keep doing it, because the moment you stop doing it -- the moment anyone on the team starts to think about not doing it -- you lose.

Character and belief and determination and will become very, very transparent in these circumstances, and soccer, more than any other sport I know of, is about these things. Scoring is incredibly difficult -- but if you let yourself believe that you can't score, you will not score. It's why you'll see soccer fans sometimes giving their team a standing ovation after a 0-0 draw -- because character and determination and belief are very transparent, and can be detected even when no goals have been scored (perhaps best, actually, when no goals have been scored).

And not only is scoring a goal incredibly difficult, just as a matter of technique and athletic skill -- did you see the goal that Argentina's Maxi Rodriguez scored against Mexico to win that game??? I know people always say that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, but come on ... try this at home: on the run, take a ball coming towards you from 40 yards away onto your chest, bring it down and before it hits the ground smack it into the upper corner of the net, 30 yards away, with your off-leg (i.e, righties have to do this with their left leg, and vice versa --- it even has an element of total randomness to it. That's life, as they say.

Donavon Pfeiffer Jr (mail):
When it's played properly, scoring in soccer is not random but inevitable. Anyone who's watched Arsenal when they're on their game has watched the build up from the back by players like Toure or Campbell through midfielders like Lundberg and Pires to the miraculous feet of Henry and Bergkamp and knew from the first touch, five passes before the goal, that the only question was who would score and how, not if. You will see the same thing from Argentina and Brazil. The imposition of will by a truly world class team is breath taking. When it is combined with the sublime skill of a Ronaldinho, Riquelme or Henry it is a true celebration of the joy of sport. I am sadly disappoint that Oranje didn't bring this type of play, the "Total Football" for which they're known around the world, to the Cup this time. Losing to Portugal is one thing, losing while not showing what your nation has brought to the sport is another.
6.27.2006 9:22am
John Jenkins (mail):
Nice use of scare quotes around Super Bowl, for no apparent reason. (Do you scare quote World Series too? Just wondering).

The #1 reason I don't like soccer is the offsides rule. It's antithetical to everything that is good in sport. The faster, stronger player who gets to his spot first loses out and the other side gets the ball. Shouldn't you be *penalized* for not keeping up with the guy you're defending?
6.27.2006 9:29am
Jeff the Baptist (mail) (www):
I think the American problem with Soccer/Football is that we keep comparing it to our Football. It isn't a comparison that really works. American Football is a contact sport that has players smacking into each other play after play for most of an afternoon. Football has not only touchdowns and field goals, but also intermediate goals like first downs that occur more frequently. Soccer doesn't really have any of this.

Hockey might be a slightly better comparison in that the dynamics of scoring is similar to football, but it is still a contact sport many people watch for the fights and checks.

To really understand soccer, you have to compare it to something like baseball. Both are games of anticipation. The next at bat could be a hit or a home run. The next offensive drive could be a goal. But in general not much is happening. The soccer ball goes back and forth between teams. The batter hits the ball and an outfielder catches it. Etc.

Now cricket, there is a game that makes no sense whatsoever.
6.27.2006 9:33am
Juan Notwithstanding the Volokh:
>try this at home: on the run, take a ball coming towards you from 40 yards away onto your chest, bring it down and before it hits the ground smack it into the upper corner of the net, 30 yards away, with your off-leg

Yes, it's perfectly fair to compare a singular feat in a world-class competition with what every baseball player is asked to accomplish in every game. Generally speaking, a soccer ball is big and light; it doesn't move all that fast and is fairly easy to kick. A baseball is small and hard, goes faster than its legal to drive a car and you have to hit it with a round stick that's smaller than the ball.
6.27.2006 9:49am
soccerphobe:
The only thing more aggravating then watching soccer players take a dive when an opponent light brushes them is that the refs actually call penalties for it.

And why not make the penalty shot a little longer, so that it is not a 95% certainty of scoring?
6.27.2006 9:49am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Are you perhaps referring to the end of the Australia/Italy match? Defender slides on the ground, and the Italian goes out of his way to sort of trip over him. Refs call a penalty which then decides the match?

I guess that made up for red carding the Italians for no reason and leaving them a man short for much of the match. Even as soccer goes, that was totally pathetic.

And it was nice to see it followed by the Swiss being knocked out of the tournament, without ever letting up a goal. That was a truly convincing 0-0 win.

Duffy
6.27.2006 9:55am
Broken Quanta (mail) (www):
OK, so this post answers my signal-to-noise complaint from an earlier thread. But I've got one more thing to ask.


unlike the World Cup final, which will be watched by ten times more people than watch our "Super Bowl," the Champions League final is watched by only 4 or 5 times more people than watch our Super Bowl.


Can any of the soccer fans in the house tell me why y'all are so invested in the popularity of your sport? This little passage is a great example of a recurring theme in all discussions of soccer: "everybody's doing it!". It's kind of bizarre. So a billion or so South Americans and Europeans love soccer. We get it. It's also true that a billion or so North Americans and Asians love baseball, and that a billion or so Indians and Pakistanis love cricket. As a general rule, though, neither baseball nor cricket fans sell the popularity of their sport as ironclad proof of its inherent coolness. This appears to be an almost exclusively soccer-based phenomenon. What's going on here?
6.27.2006 10:05am
Consigliere (mail):
What's going on here?


A need for validation. Also a distinct difference in the respective fan bases.
6.27.2006 10:15am
Joel B. (mail):
And if this is the game in which it happens, you will never, ever, forget the experience of watching it. It will be roughly equivalent to having sex with all of the other fans, simultaneously.

Maybe I'm lost, but is this something I'm supposed to want? Is watching and getting hooked in to soccer, something like the near certainty of contracting some STD. Aren't the odds at that point like 60,000/ over some smaller number. Weird. I read that and more or less just shudder. Yup, I think I'm staying away from soccer for sure.
6.27.2006 10:23am
Bob The Lawyer:
John: the point of the offside rule is to prevent strikers simply standing by the opposing goal and waiting for the ball.

Soccerphobe: there is certainly not a 95% certainty of scoring from a penalty - more like 70%. The Swiss missed all of their kicks yesterday.
6.27.2006 10:27am
DNL (mail):
The problem with soccer is that it's hard to watch alone. David pretty much laid that out for you. It's a sport where the mob's desire is infective, and it spreads. The tenor of the game changes on a dime, as goal-scoring is so rare, and therefore, so does the mood of the crowd.

American sports are easily watched alone. You get home from work, collapse on the couch, pop open a beer, and watch baseball or MNF. No one need be around. That's part and parcel of American culture, with our longer work hours and similar social differences.

Don't believe me? Go to a place where dozens of soccer fans are watching a game, and you'll love it. You can't help but appreciate the game. Similarly, go to a Red Sox bar in October, during a Sox playoff game. Even if you're not a baseball fan, you'll be energized or depressed.

Then try and watch the same at home, alone. Soccer will bore you, as the game itself lacks lynchpin events and high drama. It needs the crowd. But baseball -- well, when David Ortiz comes up with two men on in a close game, it could be the third inning and you can feel the tension.
6.27.2006 10:40am
sid (mail):
I haven't watched that much of the world cup, but it's the most soccer I've ever watched. I've enjoyed it somewhat and feel like I'm beginning to develop some understanding of the strategy etc, though admittedly I probably miss 90% of what's going on. Here are my major problems with it though:

1) ties. The only thing worse than a tie is a shootout to decide the game.

2) refs seem to have more influence over a game than any other sport. Why, for example, does a red card mean you're team is down a man (instead of say a five minute power play or something) AND you're out for the next game.

3) It's not the lack of scoring that bothers me, it's the fact that a team who is ahead completely changes their game plan/formation etc. If a team is up 2-0 it's almost like they stop trying. When a football team is up 14-0 -- for the most part they keep on trying to score. I'm not doubting that it's sound strategy, but that only makes it worse becuase it's fundamental to the sport.
6.27.2006 10:45am
soccerphobe:
This article suggests it is around 75-80%, although higher for the better players.

Even using your numbers, though, it's pretty stupid (in the sense of being boring and unfair at the same time) to let players take a chip shot like that. Move them back a bit and/or line up from different angles. That might help things. Except, of course, that the penalties usually result from players taking a dive or a bad call from the ref. Maybe that's the solution: Get rid of the refs!
6.27.2006 10:51am
Joshua (www):
The only thing worse than a tie is a shootout to decide the game.

Agreed. They might as well play rock/paper/scissors instead.
6.27.2006 11:10am
David Pinto (mail) (www):

You might have to watch many, many games before it happens. You may go a lifetime and only experience it once or twice -- or, god forbid, never. That's why you go to a lot of games -- to be sure to catch it when it happens.


I blog about baseball, and you get this feeling every day. You get a walk off home run, or a magnificent pitching performance. You get huge comebacks and razor thin victories. I could easily post 20 times a day on a slow baseball day.

Most importantly, in baseball, anyone can be the hero. That's not true of any other sport. When the clock is ticking down and you need to win, the best player is going to get the ball/puck whatever. In baseball, you never know what's going to happen. In the other sports, you always know how it's going to happen, even if the outcome is in doubt.

Finally, I think people would appreciate soccer more if someone explained how the game is played. When I started watching hockey in the early 1970s, Bill Chadwick was the announcer for the Rangers. He was a former referee. Hockey can be very difficult to follow at first, especially why refs are blowing the whistle. Chadwick would take the time to explain what an offside was, or icing, or a high stick. It would be nice if the soccer announcers did this once in a while, so those new to the game don't watch it thinking, "Why are those guys just standing around," or "What did he do wrong there?"
6.27.2006 11:21am
LTEC (mail) (www):
I have two questions about low scoring in soccer.

1) Has scoring always been so low, or is it a relatively recent phenomenon?

2) If low scoring is so good, why not change the game to make it even lower (for example, shrink the net)?

I suspect that most rules stay the way they are because of tradition and conservatism, rather than because they somehow optimize something.
6.27.2006 11:57am
Jody (mail):
Correcting an incorrect assertions...

The actual worldwide viewership of the 2002 World Cup Final was 217 million (See page 7, pdf warning)

Actual American viewership for Super Bowl 38 (2004) was 89.6 million. (same link, see page 1)

It is likely correct that more people watch the World Cup final than the Super Bowl, but it is definitely incorrect to assert an order of magnitude difference. At best there is no more than 2.5 times more viewers of the World Cup final than viewers of the Super Bowl.

Note: FIFA sometimes hypes the Final as 1.5 billion viewers and the NFL the SuperBowl at 1 billion, but those are potential viewers and actual surveys typically put the numbers much much lower.

Side note: What's up with the attempt at bandwagoning?
6.27.2006 12:19pm
Jonathan Dingel (mail) (www):
So it is absolutely true: if you're losing a soccer game 2-0 with 10 minutes to go, you have a mighty slim chance of winning...


I was at an English pub for the 2005 Champions League final, in which Liverpool was down 3-0 at halftime and scored three goals within 15 minutes, then won on penalties after extra time. The place exploded.

The excitement of sports is largely driven by anticipation leading up to achievement. This is constantly present throughout a soccer match - at any moment in a close match, the game-winning or game-tieing goal might be scored. In a basketball game, on the other hand, you watch three meaningless quarters just so you can get to the last 90 seconds and watch Michael Jordan do his thing.
6.27.2006 12:52pm
bob montgomery:
I love soccer. I play in a city league every week, year round.

But please stop already with comparing soccer to baseball, or the WC to the Superbowl, or whatever. Americans only have so much time, energy, and money for following professional sports; there is no special reason that the US isn't fanatical about soccer, just as there is no special reason that the US isn't fanatical about rugby, cricket, or any of a thousand other team sports. It just worked out that way. The biggest reason is probably that by the time the World Cup began (1930), the NFL had been playing for 9 years and major league baseball had been playing the World Series for almost 30 years (and pro baseball had existed for 30 years prior to that). Baseball and football just had a headstart.
6.27.2006 1:22pm
bob montgomery:
And to add - great comebacks and special moments aren't the exclusive territory of soccer, or even of the World Cup. Every sport can trot out great moments like that. Every sport can point to great moments in championship games.
6.27.2006 1:25pm
Zephan (mail):
"[Soccer] even has an element of total randomness to it. That's life, as they say."

I often hear soccer defended with statements like this. That "life is often boring and random, filled with long stretches of tedium rewarded with absolutely nothing, and soccer, with its 0-0 ties, teaches us this. Soccer is like life."

Perhaps. But I can't help but think that this is the same defense I have heard so often in regards to certain modern literature and films: "There is no natural climax to human events, there is no through-line leading toward epiphany, there is only tedium and death. My film is boring on purpose, you philistine, to demonstrate this point."

So soccer is like life. The question is: do we want our sports to be like life? Really? Life sucks right? Is there anyone alive who needs to be taught this?

I would suggest that the greatest art and the greatest sports are great precisely because they are the opposite of everyday life. They give a shape, purpose and beauty to human existence that is usually missing in the day-to-day. And hints that this beauty is possible in your dreary, tedious, meaningless slog to the grave.

Just a thought. I actually dig soccer.
6.27.2006 6:11pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Can any of the soccer fans in the house tell me why y'all are so invested in the popularity of your sport? This little passage is a great example of a recurring theme in all discussions of soccer: "everybody's doing it!". It's kind of bizarre. So a billion or so South Americans and Europeans love soccer. We get it. It's also true that a billion or so North Americans and Asians love baseball, and that a billion or so Indians and Pakistanis love cricket. As a general rule, though, neither baseball nor cricket fans sell the popularity of their sport as ironclad proof of its inherent coolness. This appears to be an almost exclusively soccer-based phenomenon. What's going on here?

What's going on is that you're starting in the middle of the conversation. The first move, as reported in the posting, is for Americans to start suggesting various rule changes based on their 2 weeks of watching the World Cup. The counter is to point out that zippity billion people like things just the way they are, thank you for your advice though.
6.27.2006 7:00pm
Vanessa (mail):
Just for the record...for Jody


Superbowl - 180 million viewers
World Cup Final 2002- 1.1 BILLION

Your "football" is our "futbols" pre-game show.

Just last World Cup, 28.8 billion watched a game from the World Cup.

And John Jenkins, the offsides is for fairplay. Not to give the offensive team an advantage. It just makes the game harder. Like your football's pass interference type thing.

To anyone who thinks that soccer is not a contact sport, and tries to argue that soccer players get a little push and fall, you obviously don't see the sliding, or the shirt pulling. You take two grown, lean, strong men, and push each other shoulder to shoulder and tell me thats not contact. It may not be like your wanna-be rugby, but we don't have on all the pads right? Oh, and I've heard the whole "football gear is heavy and weighs you down" crap.

I've gone to high school, and I've heard EVERY arguement.

But my question is what is with you're 2 minute warning breaks? they run for 10 seconds, then oh, what do you know? A water break.

Why don't you try to get off of your butt, and run, 90 minutes? Do you think that is so easy?

And to the person that was talking about how the Swiss got kicked out of the World Cup in penalty kicks. Thats a part of the game, if you're not good enough to put the ball in the back of the net when it counts, then you're out. Simple as that.

Oh and by the way for those of you who don't know this. In the World Cup, if you tie after 90 minutes, you go into two 15 minute overtimes (without a break), if the tie remains after the over time, it goes into penalty kicks. So 2 hours of running, with 3 subs the whole game.

Again, football, how many subs do you get to run a 10 second play?

Football is an American sport. And that's that. It will never be an international sport which is watched world wide by billions. Just admit that Soccer is more popular and get over it. Why do Americans try to win at everything? I'm sorry your sport isn't the favorite, the world likes soccer. Let it go. If you can't beat em, join em right? Just stope complaining, it gets rather bothersome hearing all these negative comments about soccer. If anyone ever goes to Europe, go to a soccer game, feel the love of the game around you. It's an amazing feeling.
6.30.2006 11:26pm