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Soccer Coaches:

Soccer is an almost-entirely improvised affair -- another one of the things that makes it the greatest of sports. Anyone who thinks that basketball is the great improvised sport -- "like jazz," as the cliche has it -- has never watched a soccer game. [And I mean that not as some kind of moral judgment, but as a simple empirical claim]. Soccer coaches can't really do very much at all during the game; their job is more-or-less complete when the whistle sounds, their team is either ready or not. And they only get three subs the whole game. At the professional level, coaches (or 'managers,' as they're usually called) sometimes even sit up in the stands during the game -- the better to see what's happening, since there's not a whole lot they can do down on the field anyway.

But Argentina's manager, Jose Pekerman, managed to lose the match for them yesterday, pretty much single-handedly, I'd say. It was quite unbelievable. Remember Grady Little, and the Pedro Martinez affair, when everybody in America knew that Pedro had to come out of the game except his manager? Multiply by 100 or so (because this is the World Cup, and so much more is at stake for so many more people). Argentina is up 1-0 and, to my eyes, in complete control of the game. Their 'keeper has been injured and subbed out. With 20 minutes to go, Pekerman takes out Riquelme and Crespo -- Argentina's two best offensive players. Strange . . . but he does have wonderful substitutes on the bench: Pablo Aimar (one of the great creative midfielders in the world, a perfect sub for Riquelme), and Lionel Messi, who has had a sensational tournament and who will soon be, by common consensus, the best player in the world.

The problem is, he doesn't put either of them in the game -- he puts in Cambiasso, a defensive midfielder, and Julio Cruz, a 2d rate striker. AND NOW HE'S OUT OF SUBS. Neither Aimar nor Messi can see any action at all in Argentina's most important game of the last 20 years. So when Germany, predictably, scores and they go into extra time, he's got the wrong damned team out there. The rest was completely predictable.

I cannot even imagine how angry I'd be if I were Argentine. If you have Argentine friends and want to display your deep sympathy for them, just walk up to them and say "Julio Cruz? Julio Cruz??" Tears should be welling up in your eyes as you do this.

This Argentine team deserved better -- they had the talent, and showed in snatches the ability, to play at truly heavenly heights. Though at least the Germans, this time around, are playing some beautiful attacking soccer. If the Germans had won the last time it would have been a travesty -- even die-hard German fans admit that the team's presence in the Final was more the result of having an easy draw (getting the USA and S. Korea in the quarterfinals and semifinals ain't exactly tough going -- and the US outplayed them, to boot) than great soccer playing. But this year's team is, I have to admit, fun to watch.

DNL (mail):
The Pedro "mistake" wasn't necessarily one. Even if he was gassed, who was Grady supposed to bring in?
7.1.2006 11:40am
David Post (mail) (www):
that's the thing -- if I remember correctly, he had Alan Embree (a LEFTY, for god's sake, to pitch to Matsui) and Mike Timlin warm in the bullpen -- neither of whom had given up an earned run in the entire series.
7.1.2006 11:45am
pedro fan:
I have trouble believing all of these people who claim they would have taken Pedro out. In crunch time, you want your best pitcher out there. Pedro was clearly their best, and is one of the greats of this era. When it's Game 7 of the playoffs, I'll take the hall of famer. It's easy to scream "take him out" when you're sitting at home watching on TV, but if the decision was actually in your hands, you'd leave him in, too.

If Grady had taken him out and Embree or Timlin had lost the game, the firing would have been even quicker. Basically, Grady was screwed if the Red Sox lost, and a genius if they won.
7.1.2006 12:54pm
Joel B. (mail):
Pedro fan is right...one of those ugly situations were whatever you do is wrong if you lose, and right if you win. And the choice, is chance of each under either scenario is about 50/50.
7.1.2006 1:07pm
Edward Lee (www):
Opponents also batted .370 against Pedro after 100 pitches in 2003. In his book, Bill Simmons claims that Theo Epstein ordered Grady to remove Pedro from the game after seven innings or 100 pitches. I was screaming for Pedro to be taken out before the eighth inning, and I wasn't even sure if he should have pitched the seventh (when Jason Giambi hit a home run).

I didn't see the last 20 minutes of the Argentina-Germany match, but my relatively uninformed opinion is that 20 minutes is too long to be playing in a defensive shell. Maybe with 10 minutes to go it's a better idea, I don't know.
7.1.2006 3:31pm
pedro fan:
When the season is on the line, you go with your best guy. Randy Johnson pitched some games for Seattle and Arizona with only a couple days rest that defied all conventional wisdom on how much rest a pitcher needs to pitch effectively. Granted, Pedro and Randy are very different, but I think they are comparable in terms of overall quality. Unless my future hall of famer says take me out, I'm leaving him in.
7.1.2006 4:45pm
BobDoyle (mail):
Pllllllleeeeeaasssee! Don't insult a great game -- baseball -- by comparing it in ANY way with soccer, even -- Whoop-De-Doo -- World Cup soccer.
7.1.2006 4:52pm
Witness (mail):
I've never heard anyone use this supposed cliche that basketball is the "great improvised sport -- 'like jazz'". But anyway...why in the world would the extent to which a sport is played improvisationally contribute to or detract from its "greatness"?
7.1.2006 6:21pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
Baseball? A great game? In what universe?

Basketball used to be like jazz, before TV-timeouts and coaches had fewer opportunities to interrupt the game. Part of the reason the U.S. is having so much trouble beating teams from around the world now.
7.1.2006 6:26pm
Anon44:
Has any explanation been offered for the Cruz substitution? I suppose he was trying to match size with size, since Cruz is his biggest striker, but that seems to play directly into Germany's hands. Germany had bigger defenders than Cruz anyway, so the only hope was to out-quick them rather than jump over them. It's not as if Argentina replaced a striker with another defender to play more conservatively. They simply replaced striker with striker.

Of course, at least Cruz made his goal during the shootout. That's more than England can say about its last minute substitute.
7.1.2006 7:09pm
Dylanfa (mail) (www):
That's what the Argentine's get for hiring Dominque Villepin to coach their team. Why he thinks the shorter hair will fool anyone mystifies me.
7.1.2006 7:55pm
EricRasmusen (mail) (www):
Like Witness, I wonder why being improvised is a compliment. Isn't it better to have a game in which strategy matters? Otherwise, it's more like the long jump or the 50 yard dash.

It's odd that football is both the most violent and the most intellectual of pro sports.
7.1.2006 10:12pm
Lev:
"If you look at soccer and the way that it's played, whether it's in the men's game or the women's game, it's fascinating. We're moving a ball up and down with our feet." US women's soccer coach

Yeah, fascinating. Like TV test patterns.
7.2.2006 1:10am
Tumbling Dice:
Seriously, who cares about the World Cup? The England-Portugal game was as boring a sporting event as I've seen in a long time AND IT WAS DECIDED ON PENATLY KICKS (or, rather, the inability of the English to make any).

Hockey can be exciting at times, primarily because the field (ice) of play is so small there is a constant back and forth. Soccer is just, um, boring. And I was the captain of my high school soccer team my last two years. Fun game to play, gets you in great shape, but horribly boring for spectators.
7.2.2006 2:48am
SP:
So soccer is great, because it has little or no strategy (oh, wait, there's that "nuance" I am sure I am missing about the beautiful game). Ok, I will grant you this. But one thing I like about basketball is that, when it is tied, they keep playing until someone wins, instead of a free throw contest. And baseball has extra innings, instead of a home run derby.

Actually, this gets to another problem with soccer - random rules like limitations on substitution that make the game difficult for a team that suffers a rash of injuries. It is one thing to say a player can't return, but it seems rather pointless to make it so difficult for teams to adjust by taking their bench away from them.
7.2.2006 2:50am
PeteRR (mail):
You what's a good sport? Women's College Softball. I could spend hours watching.
7.2.2006 3:24am
Mark F. (mail):
Soccer? Worst sport ever. Period.
7.2.2006 4:41am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Women's College softball is good, but Womens's baseball would be better, and for watching hot chicks high jumping and pole vaulting wins hands down.
7.2.2006 10:01am
Erik Voeten (mail):
Soccer has a lot of strategy but much of it has to be determined before a game and is rather abstract. What you do not have is "set plays" that coaches can call during time-outs. I love watching basketball but the frequency of time outs is one thing that really bothers me there (by far the worst rule in basketball is that you can call time-out to prevent a turnover, for instance because the ball is going out of bounds or because a player is trapped).
7.2.2006 12:50pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
For a site that purports to have an educated readership, it's a bit embarassing that literally every thread touching upon the subject of soccer devolves to one degree or another into a shitfest of why soccer is the worst (or greatest) sport ever.

So much to all of this is subjective. David thinks that improvisation is a good thing in a sport. Others think that in-game coaching is better. How can the comparison really be made, as an objective value judgment? It can't.

Soccer is like boxing. Unless you really know what's going on, it's not that exciting to watch, for most people. As it happens, you learn what's going on by playing, and the whole world plays, except us, India and Pakistan.

Sports aren't objectively worse (or better) for having more scoring, or more violence, or fewer breaks, etc. They are what they are, and they find their fan bases. The only thing I can think of that could make a sport objectively worse is lack of sporting elements - arbitrary outcomes, lack of competitiveness, etc. (Boxing comes to mind again, but soccer doesn't, nor does baseball for that matter).
7.2.2006 6:35pm
Mark F. (mail):
Of course what sport is best is highly subjective. So what? If you are entertained by an hour and a half of people kicking a ball around and hitting it with their heads, and where scoring is about as likely as Ted Kennedy becoming a Republican, be my guest.

There is a good reason why most Americans hate soccer: it's boring to them. I understand soccer strategy and it's still boring. Boring, boring, boring. As for the rest of the world -- well, most of the rest of the world thinks Jerry Lewis is a great comedian.
7.2.2006 8:28pm
unapologetic (mail):
"There is a good reason why most Americans hate soccer"

Why is soccer then the fastest growing sport in America? Why has TV viewership double since the last world cup? Whether you want to admit it or not, it is just a matter of time before soccer becomes as popular as Football and Basketball (two sports I enjoy very much). Most of those suggesting soccer is the "worst sport" have never actually played the game. And by playing I mean at a decent level.

"scoring [in soccer] is about as likely as Ted Kennedy becoming a Republican[.]" It is true that in general soccer is not high scoring. Some games will have low scoring while others might not, take for example the first game of the world cup: Germany 4 Costa Rica 2, or Argentina 6 Serbia Montenegro 0. And by the way, what is it with Americans and high scoring. A 1-0 soccer game with many chances to score is more intersting to me than a 80 to 93 basketball game. And there isn't much difference between a 3-1 soccer game and a 21-7 football game.

If you don't like just don't watch it.
7.2.2006 9:48pm
Michael Jennings (mail) (www):
The greatest game in the world is (obviously) cricket. But we won't go into that because we are talking about the World Cup.

Argentina had this attitude that Lionel Messi is a young guy who hasn't paid his dues yet, and therefore he was not entitled to a place in the starting lineup and that he would be given a few minutes at the end for the sake of "experience". The fact that he was coming on with ten minutes to go and play utterly brilliantly didn't seem to affect this inflexible thinking.

This wouldn't have mattered if Messi was there on the field when he was needed, but he wasn't. The plan of giving Messi "experience" didn't seem to come into the plan of winning games. Pekerman simply needed to keep one substitute available, and he could have then sent Messi on to win the game after Germany equalised. But he didn't. It was bizarre.

And France were glorious against Brazil. At least the people in charge there know how good Zidane is.
7.3.2006 7:22am
Anon44:
Soccer haters cling to the notion that "most Americans hate soccer," but I wait for the evidence. I have to concede they may be right, if they mean that soccer might get a higher unfavorable (as opposed to neutral) rating than other sports if a political poll test was used. It also seems true, though, that soccer's favorable rating is growing, perhaps moreso than other sports. Has there been any objective empirical studies on the question of American sports following? World Cup ratings are one piece of evidence, and there is no denying that they are higher, not only than the 2002 cup (when times were unfavorable because of the location in South Korea/Japan), but also the 1998 cup when it was in France. Moreover, it's fairly clear that hockey has sunk, not even deserving a network renewal and ending up on OLN. Combined english and spanish language soccer viewers exceeded Stanley Cup viewers recently. Still, this doesn't necessarily reflect non-World Cup viewing of MLS games and worldwide league games on Fox Sports World, since the World Cup is a spectacle and non-soccer loving Americans may be tuning in as a curiosity. It's also not fair to judge based on MLS attendance, since that's like using attendance at AA minor league games or NFL Europe games to judge the popularity of baseball and football.

I tend to think the unfavorable (as opposed to merely neutral) soccer rating is coming primarily from the same people who are opposed to immigrants and to Europe generally for their non-help in Iraq, but I haven't seen any opinion polls conducted to verify this. The reality is that soccer is destined to move up in the rankings of sports in America in the same way that Hispanics are increasingly becoming a majority-minority in this country. There are simply a growing number of people here who grew up watching (not just playing) the game, whether in this country with MLS or in their country of origin. That probably hacks the above-described anti-immigration, anti-Europe people off, but networks have already taken note. That's why ABC paid triple for the next two World Cups than it did for the last two.
7.3.2006 11:58am
AK (mail):
Stop the madness. Seriously.

Let's take these stupid, stupid arguments about the longest, awfulest game one at a time:

(1) Soccer is great because it's improvised and the coaches don't have much control after it begins. These are the same clowns who tell you that soccer has more strategy than chess, poker, and World War II combined. It can't be both rich in strategy and almost completely ad hoc. The soccer prophets counter with this gem: Soccer has a lot of strategy but much of it has to be determined before a game and is rather abstract. This doesn't even pass the laugh test. Soccer's vaunted strategy is "abstract"? Then it's not really "strategy" at all; it's more like central planning, which is why so many technocrats, EU bureaucrats, and third-worlders love soccer so much. There aren't any specific plays in soccer strategy, it's just a general, abstract approach. You know, stuff like "get a good night's sleep before the game" and "eat a nutritious breakfast."

(2) Preferring one sport over another is highly subjective. True enough. Some people prefer Coke to Pepsi, and I'm not going to tell them they're wrong. But the only time you hear this argument is after someone has pointed out what an objectively awful game soccer is. At that point, we're treated to a lecture on subjective taste. An example: this thread started with a post about how soccer is the greatest game in part because of its substitution rules. I don't deny that there's some strategy involved in making these substitutions. I suppose that after you take an insurmountable (1-0) lead, it makes sense to put in players who are more skilled defensively and play ball control, and I can see why you might want to hold back a sub in case a player gets hurt. But are soccer's substitution rules so different from and superior to those of other games? Do the rules have more of an impact on the game than the rules of other sports? Anything that can be said about the substition rules of soccer can be said about the rules in baseball. Even in sports that have free (football) or semi-free (basketball) substition, there is a lot of strategy that goes in to deciding who should play when. Soccer isn't special because of its substitution rules, and it certainly isn't superior because of them.
(3) Not yet mentioned here, but don't worry, it will come up: Soccer players are great athletes; those who play x are fat. Yes, soccer players have well-developed legs and lean frames. They also don't have any upper-body strength, and it wouldn't matter if they did. They can run (or at least lope) around for hours, but so can marathoners. So what? At least in other sports there's room for a diversity of body types. Soccer players come out of a cookie cutter, and they can't bench their own weight.
7.3.2006 12:23pm
AK (mail):
Oh, and as for soccer being the "fastest growing sport" in the US... I seem to recall that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the US. That doesn't mean it's not crap.
7.3.2006 12:26pm
BobDoyle (mail):
juris-impudent--

I am sorry, I meant to say:

Pllllllleeeeeaasssee! Don't insult a great game -- baseball, or any of the other great sports including basketball, American football, Australian-rules football, ice hockey, softball, golf, hurling, skiing, tennis, lacrosse, squash, ping-pong, swimming, diving, gymnastics, wrestling, bob-sledding, speed skating, volleyball, ..., ..., ..., weightlifting, beach volleyball, archery, badminton, fencing, figure skating, ice dancing, water polo, snowboarding, biathlon, synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline, kick-ball, skeet shooting, curling, dodge-ball, ballroom dancing, cheer-leading, rock-climbing, shuffle board, ultimate frisbee, jarts, darts, race-walking, jump-rope, spelling bees, tiddly winks, marbles, jacks, dominoes, mumbly peg, etc., etc., -- by comparing it in ANY way with soccer, even -- Whoop-De-Doo -- World Cup soccer.
7.3.2006 2:56pm
Waldensian (mail):
I'm able to watch soccer, and sometimes I even do. It seems to me the game has two enormous, and undeniable, problems: (a) the absolutely rampant faking of injuries greatly affects the course of many games and (b) important games must sometimes be decided by an essentially random and meaningless process of penalty kicks at the end.

Still, I'd rather watch soccer than baseball. Baseball is 2 minutes of action crammed into 3 hours. On a good day.
7.3.2006 5:43pm
noexcuses (mail):
"Soccer players are great athletes; those who play x are fat. Yes, soccer players have well-developed legs and lean frames. They also don't have any upper-body strength, and it wouldn't matter if they did."

Yet another stupid comment from someone who has obviously never played the game at a competitive level. I played soccer in college, and I can tell you that upper body strength is an essential component of soccer training at a competitive level.
7.4.2006 2:29pm
OK Lawyer:
Maybe someone here can explain to me why the hatred for soccer is so powerful?
7.5.2006 1:14pm
Thanks Opinonated Idiots:
The comments on this thread are laughably provincial and stupid. Thanks, insular dipshits, for explaining to us in great detail how little you understand about the sport that the rest of the world enjoys. Thanks.
7.7.2006 5:14am