Sunday, July 11, 2010

World Cup Postscript

First, I want to congratulate Spain for its World Cup victory: its team was at least as deserving of the honor as any other.

Next, I should point out that some new ground was broken by its victory (besides Spain's first championship, or its first entry into the championship game). This first World Cup in Africa brought the first win by a European team outside Europe, and the first win by a team which lost its first game in the tournament.

Except for the goal in the 116th minute of 120, which spared everyone the horror of decisive penalty kicks, the game bore a superficial resemblance to "the worst final ever", the 1994 Italy-Brazil match in L.A. The score was the same for most of it, but the quality of the game felt different (semi-bragging note: I was in the endzone seats for that 1994 game). In 1994, Brazil had all the offense; Italy's strategy seemed to be to play solid defense and wait for the end, or try to get lucky on a break (never close to happening)--in short, a successful strategy of forcing a stalemate, but not winning the somewhat random penalty kick result--which is why the game is rated so low.

The final yesterday was similar in the sense that Spain, like Brazil in '94, went for the ball possession game which it featured in all its games this year. The Dutch disrupted it, for the most part successfully, through tough tackling (and a whole bunch of yellow cards) in the midfield area, but Spain still had the possession edge throughout. What was different is that both teams had some serious chances to score. Until the end, though, it was nothing doing.

The referee (British) had a very tough job, given the circumstances and the Dutch choice of style of play. He gave out a number of yellow cards, particularly during a stretch midway through the first half, to players who were impeding the flow or making ill-timed tackles. After a while, though, his reluctance to send off players--a near-decisive event in a close match--meant that the major perpetrators, who all already had a yellow, were getting away with things. I think the players sensed it and it got even rougher.

The big break came after a questionable second yellow card on a Dutch defenseman halfway through the 30-minute extra time. After that, the Dutch were reduced to trying to hold on to try to finish the last 15 minutes scoreless, but about ten minutes later, the goal came. Iniesta, who scored it, had looked very likely (though perhaps more likely to draw a penalty with his frequent dives) along with Spain's late replacement, Fabregas. .

Game of the States
Followers of this blog will know I am no big fan of nationalism in general, and of nationalism in sports in particular. I make an exception for the World Cup, though.

In terms of quality of play, one could criticize the World Cup teams, and the ESPN/ABC broadcasting team would sometimes do so: compared to some of the top club teams, most national teams have a lower overall standard of player and less-organized attack schemes and set plays. On the other hand, the national teams' play often has more emotional content, a greater level of individual effort, and less of a mercenary feel. It's not that there have never been pay disputes around national teams' players, but there is a high level of pride shown, even in games that may be hopeless, in the sense of chances for the team's ultimate success; by comparison, sometimes the club teams' level of effort--for example, those doomed for relegation, playing on the road-comes up a bit short.

One of the more valid reasons political scientists give for the walls between peoples (usually figurative; US/Mexico becoming more literal) is that of preserving the distinctiveness of differing cultures. If it were all mixed together too much, something would be lost to humanity. In the international game of football, there are standardized rules but some interesting differences in the way people play (although, like world music, for example, there is a whole lot of transference, through watching others play, through coaching, etc.) Arguably, there are national "styles" of play, reflected in the differing skill sets of players from those nations, which wise national team coaches do well to nurture.

The World Cup, then, is a sort of World's Fair of different playing styles: there is some consistency over time to the nature of the way teams play, even as the identity of the players changes. I want to avoid cliche, or overly broad generalization, but a couple of quick examples: the East Asian teams are guaranteed to show great hustle and effort to the end; Italy plays solid defense, and looks for the counterattack; Brazil (and now Spain) will monopolize ball possession and make single-touch passing.

There is sometimes a pendulum swing in the overall level of World Cup goal-scoring; the balance between defense and offense is not a constant. I do feel that this year's Cup showed a good balance. Some teams were able, on a given day, to get an acceptable result without making any great effort at offense, just shutting down the opponent's offense: the result was usually, but not always, 0-0. Examples include Uruguay's effort vs. France, Portugal's in all games but the one against North Korea, Switzerland vs. Spain--which the Swiss somehow won, 1-0, and Paraguay's approach in most of its games. Despite that fact, the teams that did best in the tournament had both explosive offense and solid defense.

The US? Well, I'd say the style is still emergent; clearly, we produce good goaltenders, have good athletes, speedy attackers, and good late-game fitness--but also, and this year's Cup performance will reinforce this--a few holes in the game, a tendency toward unfortunate play at times.

Finally, there is England. The English papers may say there was no excuse for their failures, with their talent level, but I would say they have two good ones. The English teams play too many games in their season, and they looked tired and ready to head home early--which they ended up doing. Secondly, alone among the 32 teams, England is not a sovereign nation. It's not that they lack government support; in fact, keeping the governments out of the affairs of the national football federations was a frequent side theme this year. The problem is that England's team puts the other British components (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) in the shade, the English lose the possible additional talents and passion, and the other teams, in recent years at least, don't get through the qualification rounds.

State of the Game
The critique of England is the same one that could've been made anytime in the last 40 or so years--the inertia of football is that great. Most true fans of the game fit in the category of being highly resistant to change to it; as a convert, rather than someone born to it, I am less that way. I'll now discuss a few salient issues of the game, as illustrated by observations from this year's tournament and final.

As I said before, I think the game is pretty healthy now; the biggest change in our lifetime came with the modified backpass limitation some 25 years ago when the game had shifted too far in favor of the defense. We do not have that problem now--I think the biggest problem is an overabundance of either intentional, or dangerous, near-intentional fouls (because one can't always tell intentions). In a normal pro soccer game, the final had two fouls (one a flying kick by a Dutch player, one an angry follow-up strike by a Spaniard) which would likely have produced immediate red cards. The referee was intimidated by the spectacle no doubt.

He seemed also unwilling to hand out penalty kicks for fouls in the box--not an unusual problem in today's game. The fear of giving a penalty is always present; if a referee wanted, he could call one on virtually every set piece near a goal. The fear of deciding games too often makes referees allow constant shirt-pulling and wrestling inside the box, as well as causing a lot of diving (to try to draw the penalty kick) on hopeless surges into the box, unclear hand-ball non-calls and the inevitable intentional trip just outside the box. There is too sharp a trichotomy: foul by defender inside the box=penalty; foul just outside=dangerous set play with much wrestling allowed; foul anywhere else=free kick and nobody cares (the only effective play at a distance is the quick kick, which sometimes leads to a breakaway situation).

There needs to be graduated punishments: the straight-on penalty kick should be limited to egregious fouls in the box (like the intentional handball of Uruguay's Suarez) or the goalie's trip of the attacker after missing the ball, or even, at the discretion of the referee, the last man intentional foul just outside the box. The next level might be today's direct kick for serious fouls outside the box, but also the indirect free kick (a rarity today, used for backpass violations) for lesser fouls inside it. Repeated fouls in the field need something stronger than a yellow card--a new penalty kick from a greater distance, 18 meters perhaps? That might also become a new skill to be used at the end of do-or-die matches. Much as I like the 10-on-10 game, when each team has a player sent off (the second one often follows quickly on the first), graduated punishments which make sense should reduce sending players off, and the number of fouls (not yellow cards) before that extreme punishment might be increased.

The most surprising thing I saw was just how good the line judges were for most offside calls. Basically, on a direct pass they always got it right; the problems, like with the Spanish winning goal (called correctly, though; Iniesta was offside for the initial pass to the center, but got onside when he drifted open for his pass. Again, it was called correctly, but put an intolerable strain on the Dutch defense, one man down) or Tevez' goal incorrectly given, come when the ball zigzags around like a pinball: the line judges will sometimes call the player offside when it is not played to him, or fail to notice that he had gone offside by the second touch of the play, which may go accidentally to a player who has drifted offside after the initial pass. I'm no offside expert, but the difficulty of calling these plays has made the offside trap increasingly dangerous as a strategy--will it be called correctly?

Finally, the question of instant replay. FIFA seems to be willing to consider it for the single question of whether the ball crosses the goal line (like on Lampard's first-half shot in the Germany-England game, though many of that type of calls are much less obvious than that one). Clearly, instant replay's cheaper than the more traditional no-brain response of stationing an additional official at each end to verify goals. I don't think it will go farther than that, though: the normal calls at the "touch line" boundary are difficult, but usually not too critical, and getting a machine to resolve offsides is way too difficult to program.

Me and Paul
Paul the Octopus whipped my butt. He went eight-for-eight in predicting games (seven games with Germany in them, plus the correct choice in the final); I missed four of those predictions (I picked a draw for Ghana-Germany, England over Germany, Argentina over all (and therefore in the semifinal), and Uruguay to win the third-place game), and I did not make a prediction for the actual final game (both teams I predicted for the final didn't make it). Paul found one of the worst spots in my (admittedly overall disastrous) picks, as I predicted poor results for Germany, when they turned out to be a surprisingly good team.

The best pick for both of us may have been Serbia over Germany in a first-round match (that may have been my best one of the whole tournament, in fact). That means either that they didn't try to pick out the tastiest clam to put under Germany's box for the octopus, or they selected the wrong clam, or Paul made a mistake in clam selection, or he either got lucky or knew something. Hitting eight-of-eight randomly would occur once every 864 tries (assuming the chances of a draw in the first round games were 1-in-3--in the actual event, they occurred a very high 14 of 32 games). Perhaps they had a couple dozen octopi, and only trotted out the one that had all of them right after a few games, as it was below my radar at least that long.

In any case, my commitment to reviewing the quality of my predictions post hoc requires me to make the following sour grapes comment: even a blind octopus can find the tastiest clam in a box once in a while.

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