On Watching Soccer

The month-long drama of the World Cup – and, indeed, it is drama! – is giving me an appreciation of international soccer (“football,” to the rest of the world) and one very significant way it differs from American sports, or at least the way Americans watch sports. The big difference: games are often decided by something other than which team plays best, and everyone accepts that. When Portugal lost to Uruguay, Cristiano Ronaldo calmly said, in his post-game news conference something to the effect of, “I thought we were the better team today, but they scored more goals, and that’s football.”
In the games I’ve watched, relatively few goals have been scored by players passing the ball to each other until someone shoots it in the net. First, there have been a record number of “own goals,” where a player inadvertently causes the ball to go into his own net. Next, an inordinate number of goals come from penalty kicks, which more often than not result from an insignificant hand ball or foul – “insignificant” in that the play would not otherwise have resulted in a score, or even a scoring chance. Third, a good number of goals come off free kicks and corner kicks, which again involve plays that otherwise would not have produced a score. Hitting a ball off an opponent so that it goes across the end line is a whole lot easier than hitting it through the defense and past a goalie.
You can say that the better team is more likely to get more corner kicks, free kicks and penalty chances, and that is true and the law of averages would play out in a game that ended up, say, with a 5-3 score. But the last four World Cup matches have been 0-0 at the half, and one goal is often all that is needed for a victory.
In past World Cups there was also the issue of human fallibility in the form of the referee, who might or might not see a hand ball, who might or might not think a challenge in the box warranted a penalty kick, and soccer fans all recognized that this was an integral part of the game. Now the World Cup has added instant replay, or VAR (Video Assistant Referee), which all but eliminates the prospect of egregious blunders. On the other hand, it has increased the chances of calling fouls that would have escaped the naked eye, much like instant replay in baseball that reveals a base runner momentarily losing contact with a base.
In baseball, basketball and football, one team can exert its superiority (for that day) over the course of a game; it is unlikely that one fluke play will determine the outcome. If it does, the American fan will feel aggrieved and complain bitterly that he was robbed. In soccer, the fan will shrug and say, “that’s football.”
I could point to any number of games to support my thesis, but I’ll just mention the most recent game I watched, England v. Colombia. England was methodical, Colombia flashy, but the course of play mattered little. England’s one goal combined three of the factors mentioned above: a corner kick, a referee’s interpretation and a penalty kick. The 1-0 score held until the last few seconds of stoppage time, when Colombia scored off a corner kick. The game was then decided by yet another matter of chance more than skill: a penalty kick shoot-out. I say “chance,” because a goalie’s ability to thwart a penalty is solely a result of his guessing where the shooter will aim.
Or I could point to today’s other game, in which Sweden defeated Switzerland, 1-0, when a Swedish player’s shot deflected off a Swiss leg into the goal, despite Switzerland’s controlling play for more than 60% of the game. There have been some great goals resulting from wonderful team play, but just as often there has been luck. Only it’s not considered luck. It’s considered football.
I watched a half-dozen more games without any new revelation or any reason to adjust my analysis. Take only the example of today’s final, won 4-2 by France over Croatia: France’s first goal came off a set piece set up by what the commentators called a dive just outside the penalty area and it went in, an own goal, off a Croatian head. France’s second goal was a penalty kick, resulting from an accidental hand ball. Croatia controlled a majority of the play and, again in the commentator’s words, played better. France’s play, he thought, was disappointing; but they scored four goals – a rarity in the tournament – and therefore won. What a sport!

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