World Cup Making Soccer Skeptics not Converts

published June 27, 2010

They tell me it’s the beautiful game, dazzling in its subtlety, enriched by the skill of its players, fueled by the passion of its fans.

I love sports, love drama, love excellence in all its forms.

But I don’t love soccer, and the World Cup’s not changing that.

It’s not the supposed lack of action; I’m a baseball fan, for God’s sake, and I watch golf on TV.  I have even, on trips abroad, watched cricket on purpose.

But the oh-so-marvelous cut and thrust, surge and parry, attack and counterattack on the pitch leaves me cold.

On an intellectual level, I wonder about taking one of the attributes that most distinguishes us from other species – our versatile, manipulable hands – and declaring it out of play.

On a strategic level, I look at the seeming randomness of the play and the scoring chances that arise as often from happenstance as from deliberate action, and I find it unsatisfying.

On a dramatic level, with goals so rare, there is disproportionate opportunity for injustice in the form of bad calls that change the entire nature of the game.

In World Cups past, whole offenses have been built around a team’s ability to fall operatically within the penalty area, leading to that greatest of awards, a penalty kick.  Since these are hardly ever missed, and scores are generally so low, they are the equivalent of giving a basketball team forty points for each free throw.

Anti-flopping rules have reduced though not eliminated this particular scourge, but the referees and linesmen have devised their own way of mucking up the results this year, through simple and widespread incompetence.

The goal disallowed in the U.S.-Slovenia game has been picked over by millions who couldn’t find Slovenia on a map if you spotted them Slovakia.  The outrage was mitigated, however, by the American win over Algeria, which propelled them into the second round.

No such relief exists for England and Mexico, who were each victimized by terrible calls yesterday and will have to wait four years for another chance.

In the morning injustice (U.S. time), England was robbed of a game-tying goal in the first half that clearly landed a yard behind the goal line, obvious to all observers in real time except those bearing whistles.  Kudos go to German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who grabbed the bouncing ball and played it without hanging his head and reacting, then continued the game without ROFL.  It’s inexplicable that no one is stationed permanently at the end line to make such calls; in American football terms, the officials were trying to judge a goal-line pileup from the twenty-yard line.

(The historically minded may consider this call payback for the ruling that gave England the 1966 World Cup.  In the final against Germany, England’s Geoff Hurst was credited with an extra-time goal that appeared to hit the crossbar and land on the line without going past it.  The Swiss referee could not tell if it had gone in, but Tofik Bakhramov, a linesman from the then-Soviet Union, insisted it had.  Asked on his deathbed years later how he could be so sure, the Azerbaijani official is said to have replied, “Stalingrad.”)

In the afternoon outrage, Argentina’s first goal against Mexico resulted from a pass in the penalty area to Carlos Tevez, who was a good two yards offside.  The linesman had a clear view of the play, but must have been distracted by the brilliance of Lionel Messi, who lobbed the ball over the keeper and two defenders between him and the cherry-picking Tevez.

Neither game wound up with a one-goal margin, but in world-level soccer, the trailing team must alter its game to attack as time dwindles, creating openings that would not be there otherwise.  Bad calls happen in every sport, but in a win-or-go-home setting, in a sport in which there is so little scoring, there is too much scope for mishap – to say nothing of outright mischief, as periodic game-fixing scandals have demonstrated.

At least the mistakes spared us the indignity of deciding vital matches through penalty shootouts, a tie-breaking method that reflects the supposed virtues of the game about as well as a coin flip would.

Don’t get me started on the vuvuzelas.

I understand I’m in the minority in the sport-loving world.  I’m glad that people of all nations can feel such passion for a single subject.  I appreciate any event that lets me contemplate matchups of Germany and Ghana, Japan and Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and North Korea.  The last few rounds may showcase the beautiful game at its most entrancing.

But it’s sure been ugly getting there.

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