Monday, June 21, 2010
World Cup Notes
World Cup 2010 is into its second week. Each team has played twice - 32 games have been played in all. Here are some random thoughts and reactions.
The Nick Hornby Scale: USA vs. Slovenia
USA vs. Slovenia had a little bit of everything. According to Nick Hornby, a truly memorable match has the following features.
1. Goals (as many as possible)
2. Outrageously bad refereeing Decisions
3. A noisy crowd
4. Rain, a greasy surface, etc.
The pitch in Johannesburg seemed fine, but otherwise, the conditions were met. The game saw 4 goals - quite a lot by the standards of this tournament. The average goals-per-game in this World Cup is 2.09. (The average was well below 2 before Portugal's 7-0 drubbing of North Korea). It had an outrageously bad refereeing deicsion. The U.S. dramatically came back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to tie the game and only a horrible refereeing decision, a phantom foul disallowing Edu's goal, prevented them from winning it. But doesn't this kind of terrible officiating ruin the game? Not according to Hornby:
"Indignation is a crucial ingredient of the perfect footballing experience; I cannot therefore agree with match commentators who argue that a referee has had a good game if he isn't noticed...I prefer to notice them, and howl at them, and feel cheated by them."
Mission accomplished. The third element - a noisy crowd - was also satisfied. Between the lunatics of Uncle Sam's Army and those damn plastic vuvuzela horns, there was no shortage of noise. That's 3 out of 4 on the Hornby scale. Not bad.
I was correct in predicting a draw between the U.S. and the impressive Slovenians but I can feel only the slightest degree of satisfaction. The good news is that the U.S. has broken a trend - it played a team from Eastern Europe in the World Cup and for the first time, it did not lose. The better news is that the U.S. still controls its destiny. A win against Algeria and they advance to the knock-out stage.
What Sucks About Soccer
For my money, what sucks about soccer isn't the money, or the politics, or the draws, or the penalty kicks, or the low scoring. It's this stuff. A player from the Ivory Coast runs into Brazil's best player, Kaká, and then pretends he was elbowed in the face. The referee is fooled by the act, and issues a yellow card which means that Kaká will miss Brazil's next game against Portugal. Ivory Coast was considered the strongest of the African teams and I was pulling for them at the start of the tournament. Not anymore. This was a disgrace.
I picked up "Soccernomics" by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. I enjoyed Kuper's earlier book, "Football Against the Enemy," a fascinating study of the way that cultural identity, politics and even ethnic hatred is expressed through the international game of soccer. Soccernomics is a bit different. It's a cross between Bill James and Steve Levitt. A dispassionate statistics/economics approach to the game that promises to shatter conventional wisdom about the game and the business behind it. I don't think it works all that well, largely, because soccer is not like baseball. It is less susceptible to the kind of number-crunching and meaningful statistical analyses that Bill James brought to baseball through his pioneering of sabermetrics.
One of the trends observed by the authors is the dominance of Contintental Western European nations when it comes to International play. (Follow the GDP!) For example, in the 2006 World Cup, not only did Italy meet France in the final, but no Western European nation lost to a team from any other part of the world. The only exception was when Ukraine beat Switzerland in penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie. Well, we're only halfway through this year's edition but we've already seen Mexico beat France, Serbia beat Germany and Chile beat Switzerland. The story for this World Cup might be the fact that no South American team has lost yet. In fact, the only team from the Western Hemisphere that has lost a match is Honduras.
The Run of Play
Judging by present form, the two teams that look the best are probably Argentina and Netherlands. Netherlands was impressive against Denmark and Japan and have already advanced. Argentina, which features the world's best player, Lionel Messi and the world's maddest coach, Diego Maradona, looks to be the most dangerous side. But it's too early to read much into it. In 2006, Argentina also looked dominant in group play before stumbling in the Quaterfinals. And Netherlands, for all of their orange brilliance, tends to find a way to self-destruct. But if there is one lesson of economics that can be applied to soccer, it is this: Past results are no guarantee of future reults. You have to play the game.