Thursday, 17 June 2010

low scoring: much follows from this one fact

We've now seen 4 goals from Argentina and 3 from Uruguay in the last 24 hours. But before that there were many complaints about the low number of goals in this World Cup so far. What this reminds me of is that a large percentage of my fellow Americans still have no interest in the sport we call soccer, and that one of their main complaints is that the sport is boring. What I think they mean is that there isn't much scoring in a typical game.

Since many readers of this blog might not understand the rules of baseball or American football, I will be referring to basketball as a comparison. A typical score in an NBA playoff game might be something like 102-94. That's a lot of scoring. Even the losing team in a 105-72 blowout has succeeded in putting the ball in the basket many times during the night, and this is not true of the loser in a soccer match.

It is interesting to explore this theme of low scores in soccer (pardon me for using that word; "football" would be an affectation for me, since I never call it that in daily conversation). It is remarkable how many of the specific features of the sport of soccer follow from the pivotal fact that it is very difficult to score.

1. Patience is required when watching soccer. It's over 90 minutes of action, and you need to pay attention the whole time. During this World Cup alone, I have missed *three* interesting goals simply because I happened to be checking email messages on my iPhone: including, I'm ashamed to admit, the Clint Dempsey goal that went through Robert Green's hands. I saw that one on replay only. If you're watching basketball, and you're distracted by a phone call or a joke aimed at a friend, you might miss a beautiful play, but at least that beautiful play is unlikely to be the fulcrum of the entire game. But by missing Dempsey's goal in real time and seeing it only in replay form, I missed what could turn out to be the most interesting American moment in the Cup. Much patience and concentration is needed when watching soccer.

2. There is a much higher stress level when watching soccer than when watching basketball. Scoring opportunities are rare enough that one desperately wishes to capitalize on them. We were just reminded of this an hour or so ago, when South Korea blew a golden breakaway opportunity to tie the match 2-2 with Argentina. Instead, they crumbled after that botch and lost 4-1. If your basketball team blows a layup, they can still recover. But when South Korea blew that goal opportunity, I was pretty sure it might be their last of the day, and that turned out to be true.

3. A corollary of point 2 is that soccer seems filled with miracles generated ex nihilo. I'd rather trail by 12 or 15 points in basketball than by 1 goal in soccer. At least in the basketball case you can call timeout, change strategies and lineup a bit, and then measure your incremental progress over the next few minutes. "Oh good, we've cut the lead from 15 to 8 over the last 3 minutes. Momentum has shifted our way." In soccer, by contrast, goals come suddenly as gifts from the gods, and you can't tangibly measure your progress toward getting the next one. Just look at Switzerland in the 1-0 surprise over Spain, with commentators shaking their heads that the Swiss goal came "against the flow of play." In the NBA you could never say "that dunk came against the flow of play." A friend emailed me yesterday and wondered: "How on earth did North Korea score a goal against Brazil?" But obviously no one would ever ask of an NBA game: "How did a team as bad as New Jersey get a dunk against the Lakers?"

4. The deserving team doesn't always win. Yes, this also sometimes happens in basketball. You might find yourself once in awhile asking: "How did Miami win that game? It felt like Atlanta really outplayed them." Yet this can happen all the time in soccer, including in the World Cup. It is not that hard to dominate utterly in soccer and then lose 1-0 on a fluke goal, perhaps from a stupidly allowed penalty kick.

5. Subtle judgments of player performance are required. In a sport like professional basketball, there is a crude but useful tool for judging player performance: points scored. If someone scores 30 or 40 points in the NBA, that's a good game. It's true that points aren't the only thing, but many of the other features of a basketball game are also quantified by a sandstorm of statistical information. Even if Paul Pierce doesn't score a lot in Celtics-Lakers Game 7, if we read the following line we know he had a good game: 14 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 steals, 3 blocks, 1 turnover. Despite the mediocre point total for Pierce, numbers come to the rescue and help us form a picture of what sort of game Pierce had. And in baseball statistics have taken over to a crushing degree, thanks to Bill James and sabermetrics. (For the benefit of non-American readers, "sabermetrics" was the brilliant James's whimsical coinage based on the acronym SABR, or "Society for American Baseball Research." Sabermetrics is a sophisticated set of statistical analyses applied to baseball, one that was a fringe intellectual pastime through the 1980's and 1990's but is now taken so seriously that some of the best teams employ sabermetricians in the office.)

By contrast, in soccer many aspects of a player's performance can't really be quantified, and judging them often takes on all the subtlety of wine-tasting. And so you get things like this (from the Sun in 2006), which would be completely unnecessary in basketball since numbers would do the work:

"Ashley Cole. Got through the 90 minutes in hot conditions but question marks still surround his fitness. Got forward without ever threatening and was given a good workout by Nelson Valdez."

"Frank Lampard. Tried his luck on numerous occasions but found Paraguay keeper Bobadilla equal to all of them, his low drive towards the end of the game the pick of the bunch. Forced backwards as Paraguay looked for an equaliser but stood strong."

In short, the simple fact of soccer being a low-scoring sport generates a number of other peripheral features, and it's hard to say which of these five features is most to blame for the United States only gradually warming to the sport.

However, we really are starting to warm to the sport. To give just one example, my American friend Casey in Egypt, a huge U.S. sports fan, recently abandoned all of our traditional sports in favor of a satellite dish and the English Premier League. He doesn't even stay up all night for the Super Bowl anymore. 10 years ago this would have been eccentric, but it's now cutting-edge hip in the U.S. to follow the English Premier League, if still not entirely widespread. Bill Simmons now frequently refers to English football in his NBA columns.

And finally, I was shocked on my recent trip home to enter a K-Mart (that's a low-end retail store) and find FC Barcelona duffel bags for sale: in Iowa! Absolutely unthinkable before a few years ago.

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