Getting it Right

As I’m settling in to watch some more fabulous Champions League soccer tonight (and for those of you who know what I’m talking about, if you have a chance to see replays of yesterday’s Arsenal-Olympiakos and/or Barcelona-Kiev games, don’t pass it up; spectacular stuff, that) it occurs to me that nothing about soccer is more extraordinary, or goes further to define the difference between America’s sports (American football, baseball, basketball) and the Rest of the World’s Sport, than this:  in a good healthy weekend’s dose of soccer-watching (say, 3 or 4 games), you will see, guaranteed, anywhere from a half-dozen to twenty incorrect offside calls.  Not “possibly wrong” or “arguably wrong,” or “judgment-call wrong” — just wrong, plain and simple, as shown on the slow-motion replays.  A study published in Nature several years ago confirmed what every soccer fan knows – the linesmen get a lot (around 20%) of the offside calls wrong.

Now, for those of you who don’t watch a lot of soccer, the interesting thing about that fact is this: this is not at all like, say, a blown “offside” call in American football, or a blown call at 2d base in baseball. Offside calls are very, very often game-changing (and you can easily have a game with 4 or 5 potentially game-changing blown calls). The offside flag, as often as not, takes away a clear goal-scoring chance, frequently a spectacular goal-scoring chance, from the attacking team, in a game in which one or two goals almost always is the margin of victory. It’s as though football referees routinely blew 20% of field goal calls, or baseball umpires routinely screwed up 20% of home run calls.

And the really extraordinary thing is: it’s not going to get fixed anytime soon, or ever. Nobody is proposing video replay for offside calls, and soccer fans would revolt around the world if they did. Not that we like all these mistakes, exactly — we yell and scream and moan about lousy offside calls all the time. But in a very strange way that I only vaguely understand, that’s kind of the point, and it makes us love the game even more than we otherwise would. It’s just a part of the game, like random bad bounces and slips on wet turf and the sun in your eyes and other random factors that bear on who wins and who loses. Outrageously bad calls are part of the game — it gives you something to yell and scream about (which is, after all, the whole point of the enterprise, no?).

This, I realize, is simply inconceivable to most American sports fans. The whole point of having referees is to “get it right” – it seems obvious — and so we’ll do whatever it takes (including having — what, 8 referees or so on the field at once!) Nothing is more hilarious to those of us who love soccer than to see the kerfuffle that ensues in American football when the referees stop the game to decide whether or not the quarterback’s knee touched the ground milliseconds before the ball squiggled lose from his grip, or not.

I think if you could really put your finger on what this is all telling us about the world, you’d know something valuable.

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