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Jul 16 2010

World Cup musings

Although I am not a soccer fan, I watched the World Cup soccer final between the Netherlands and Spain. I had nothing better to do last Sunday afternoon and thought that I should at least see the culminating event of something that had been engrossing the entire world for a month.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, although the game itself was not that great and the amount of roughness was excessive (especially by the Netherlands), even allowing for the absurd histrionics of players who collapse on the ground (referred to as ‘flopping’) and writhe in agony when tacked for the ball, as if they received a fatal injury, only to jump up and continue playing normally once the referee has penalized the tackler. Surely veteran referees must be aware of all this gamesmanship and discount it when awarding penalties, so for whose benefit is all this acting?

Some of the tackles were genuinely vicious and it surprises me that more players do not get actually hurt. The one time where the Spanish player was kicked directly in the chest with what seemed like a martial arts kick was such a flagrant foul that I was amazed that the kicker was not immediately red-carded and ejected from the game but apparently the referee’s view was obscured and so could not see how bad it was. I started the game with no team to root for except a mild preference for the Netherlands but the nasty style of play by the Dutch players made me switch my allegiance to the Spanish.

I really like the fact that the game moves so fast, with no breaks in the action, so that a 45-minute half actually lasts for only 45 minutes, with no time outs, stopping the clock, endless replays, challenges to referee calls, etc., the kind of things that drag American football out so that an allegedly 60-minute game actually can go on for well over three hours. Even though I am not a connoisseur of soccer and there was no scoring until almost two hours of play at very end of extra time, I was not bored at all, and was surprised at how quickly the time went by. Of course, this means no time for commercials except for the ones that are in the stadium and form part of the background to be captured by the cameras.

Another thing I like about soccer is that it is so simple. The players wear no special padding or helmets or other equipment. There is just one referee whose call is binding with no second-guessing involving replays or consulting with other officials, other than depending on the two line judges for offside calls. Although players do argue with the referee, the chats are quite short and the threat of the dreaded yellow card is enough to deter them from making too big a deal.

I am not sure why Americans do not prefer soccer to football. Soccer players look like regular people who happen to be athletic. They are normal-sized, quick and skilful, and fit enough to run around on the field non-stop for 45 minutes at a stretch. Anyone can aspire to being a good soccer player and still look a normal person. Who would want to be like the behemoths in football who pant heavily after a single run and have to go and rest on the bench after a few plays, or the absurdly tall basketball players?

I suspect that the very cheapness of the game and the lack of advertising opportunities during play works against it, since it prevents businesses from making huge amounts of money from it. Basketball is even simpler than soccer, requiring fewer people and less space but the way it is played in the US allows for a lot of stoppages for commercials, which may explain its appeal to sponsors. But given that soccer has managed to attract strong commercial support in the rest of the world, it is perhaps only a matter of time before it becomes a major sport here too.

The paranormal played an unexpectedly large role in the tournament. I found hilarious the soap opera surrounding the French team’s collapse and ignominious early exit, along with their coach’s dependence on astrology in selecting his line up. He will apparently not play people who are Scorpios and is dubious about Leos on defense. His faith in the stars did not do him or his team much good but I am sure that he will continue to be a firm believer.

Meanwhile, what about the Paul the Prophet? The octopus in the German aquarium correctly predicted all three of Germany’s group matches (2 wins, one loss), plus their next three games (victories against England in the round of 16 and Argentina in the quarter finals followed by the loss to Spain in the semis), and then wrapped it up by predicting Germany to beat Uruguay for third place and Spain to beat Netherlands in the final. That’s 8-for-8 with odds of only 1 in 256 of getting it by chance. That’s pretty impressive and has, I am sure, impressed at least some superstitious people that Paul has real powers.

But as with most paranormal claims, on closer examination things are not so impressive. There is some selection bias at work. Given the intense interest in soccer in the world, Paul was just one of many candidates that people were seeking signs from and it is only those that were successful in the early rounds (say the first four) that attention was focused on as prognosticators, and all the others were ignored. (See my earlier post on these kinds of selection effects. You can read about some of the failed animal oracles here.) Paul started getting real attention only later in the tournament, after Germany beat England. That means only the last four picks should be considered as real predictions, and that works out to 1 in 16 chance of success, which is good but not spectacular.

Paul has a track record even before the World Cup, though. He made predictions in the 2008 Euro Cup, picking Germany to win in all six games they played but getting only four right, which is not that much better than chance. Also he seems to have a preference for selecting the container with the German flag, selecting them to win 11 out of the 13 games they played. Since Germany has a strong team (winning 9 out of the 13 games), this increases his odds of success. So I will have to conclude that the evidence is just not convincing that Paul can see into the future and stick with my theory that he is simply an astute soccer fan.

Paul has, however, retired from the oracle racket, which is a wise move since it means that he can go out a winner and preserve his reputation. What ruins it for most claimants to paranormal powers is that they go to the same well too often and eventually the odds catch up with them. And when prophets fail their followers, they often suffer nasty fates. I am glad for Paul’s sake that he quit while he was ahead.

POST SCRIPT: The football sniper

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Eric

    Mano –

    One of my favorite television shows, The West Wing, had this to say about why Americans don’t “get” hockey, and I think the same rationale applies to soccer:

    “I love sports, I just can’t get next to hockey. See, I think Americans like to savour situations. One down, bottom of the ninth, one run game, first and third, left handed batter, right hand reliever, infield at double play depth, here’s the pitch. But scoring in hockey seems to come out of nowhere. The play-by-play guy is always shocked. ‘LePeiter passes to Huckenchuck who skates past the blue line. Huckenchuck, of course, was traded from Winnipeg for a case of Labatts after sitting out last season with… Oh my God, he scores!”

    I think soccer is the same way, compounded by the fact that scoring is usually so incredibly low. Popular sports in America tend to have pretty high scores – a 0-0 tie in basketball or football is all but unheard of, and very rare in baseball. I think we like to see forward progress in our sporting events, and you don’t get as much of that in soccer.

  2. 2
    Mike Pirnat

    One thing I really love about soccer is how fluid the game is, the balance of power constantly shifting, always in flux. Even when one team appears to dominate, there’s always a chance that the other will break out and turn the tide. Once a good game is going, it’s hard to look away.

    I also really admire the sportsmanship on display in the World Cup (admittedly you didn’t see good examples of this in the finals). When a player falls or is hurt, it’s very common to see players from the opposing team helping the injured to their feet, dusting each other off, smiling, and so forth. There’s a lot of smiling and jersey swapping at the end of the games too. And then there are classy moves like Landon Donovan gently ceding the ball to Ghana after a Ghana player had taken a particularly nasty spill. Displays like these, if they’re ever seen in mainstream American sports like football, basketball, or baseball, are incredibly rare. It’s refreshing to see sports players actually being good role models.

    It’s too bad you waited until the finals to tune in–there were some really amazing and excellent games (the nail-biter between the US and Algeria that was 0-0 until the US scored in the 93rd minute, the 7-0 Portugal vs. North Korea blowout, and pretty much any game Germany was in).

    I ended up rooting for Spain as well–they really excelled in the semifinals against Germany, very skillfully shutting down Germany’s well-tuned counterattack machine. And it’s exciting to see a first-time finalist win it all.

    Hopefully now that the US has a major “name” player in Landon Donovan, we’ll start to see MLS take off here. Otherwise, it’s only two years until the women’s World Cup–I can’t wait!

  3. 3
    Wedding Invitations

    it’s always interesting to hear thoughts about “the beautiful game” from people new to it. You definitely missed some great games by tuning in to the tournament at such a late stage but better late than never. Just 4 years till the next one. :)

    All the over dramatic faking by the players *in my opinion) is due to the fact that the referees are not allowed to rely on instant replay. They have to make a call based on the action they see. If a player is fouled and the ref doesn’t see it and the player is not rolling around in apparent agony there wont be a foul called. better to fake it and give the ref something to think about :)

  4. 4
    Articles

    I don’t know a lot about soccer because it’s never held my attention long enough, but I’d say the game is too simple for American football fans. They kick, they kick, they kick, maybe they score. In football, there are downs, which show some progression. It just seems there’s more to the game. That’s just me, though.

  5. 5
    James

    Sometimes I guess knowing martial arts and playing soccer is advantageous however, it should not be abused because you can really hurt someone with your martial arts if not used properly. Knowing martial arts entails discipline and much will power to not use it if the situation does not require it. Well, leaving this topic aside, I really love soccer. It is a great sport.

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