[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 14, 2007 at 8:34pm] Trackbacks
The Universal Game:

One of the joys of soccer is its universality, both geographically and temporally. Throughout most of the world, players abide by the same rules, and aficionados savor the same trove of historic moments. This pair of connections allows fans from all over the world to recognize footballing genius when they see it and, like well-tutored lawyers, to situate such brilliance in its rightful historical genealogy.

So, for instance, when the 19-year-old Argentine Lionel Messi scored for Barcelona in a Spanish cup match against Getafe last month, spectators everywhere immediately appreciated both the goal's majesty and its startling similarity to the one Maradona scored for Argentina against England in the World Cup 21 years ago. (England fans will also clarify that we're talking about the legitimate Maradona goal as opposed to his "Hand of God" goal "scored" earlier in the same match.)

(A number of clips juxtaposing the two goals exist on YouTube, but I couldn't resist choosing the version with the original play-by-play call from Maradona's goal, which I translate to include such sentiments as "genius, genius, genius," "I want to cry," and "Holy God, long live football!")

This pair of classic goals also demonstrates another aspect of soccer's broad appeal: players from a wide range of statures can excel. Messi and Maradona are both around 5'7". Peter Crouch is 6'7". Thierry Henry is as thin as a baguette. Wayne Rooney is built like a couch.

So can this footballing universalism overcome American exceptionalism? I think so. Although professional soccer here will long struggle against the four dominant sports leagues, all those hordes of soccer moms must be chauffering around a massive young generation of soccer children. And America has produced very thoughtful writing on the game by such literati as Dave Eggers and Franklin Foer. Even America's favourite economist Steven Levitt has studied the game.

In light of this well-established uniformity across time and space, we need to be careful about attempting to change the rules. But we needn't be paralyzed, particularly when a sport so beloved is suffering. So here is an agenda for a discussion of related topics over the coming days:

Tomorrow, I intend to identify a few specific proposals for improving both the way in which the game is officiated and the rules by which it is played. Naturally, the ensuing discussion will be extremely contentious, as I expect reformers to focus inordinately on rules that address ways in which their favorite teams were most recently betrayed, while purists will deny the need for any such discussion with objections such as "we simply need to enforce the existing rules" and "some rules are new so we just need to give them time to work." In sum, I'm looking forward to the classic legislative sausage factory.

On Wednesday, I thought we could turn to a broader, cultural discussion of why certain countries and regions play the game --- and perhaps game the play --- in certain styles. Here, I anticipate gross nationalistic caricatures that impugn large groups of people. Nevertheless, I hope the topic will still manage to be a fruitful one as well as a way to ask the larger question whether soccer would benefit from a greater degree of federalism than it enjoys under the current monotheism of FIFA.

On Thursday, I hope to expand the discussion of rulemaking and adjudication from soccer to additional areas, such as corporate law and securities regulation.

Finally, on Friday, we might wrap up with an exploration of further topics to explore within the beautiful game itself, such as the classic handball debate: I-Didn't-Mean-To v. I-Didn't-Get-An-Advantage.