Monday, July 10, 2006

Scores are Down but Excitement Is Up

In the wake of the Cup many people are complaining about how there wasn't enough scoring and the games were boring. I think this is all hogwash. Scoring is down for a slew of reasons that have little to do with a decline in talent of the game. In fact, I would argue that scores in the games are going down because of the exact opposite: An increase in talent.

Think about it, in the 1982 World Cup Hungary defeated El Salvador 10-1, Poland defeated Peru 5-1, Scotland defeated New Zealand 5-1. In 1986 the Soviet Union defeated Hungary 6-0 and in that same tournament Denmark defeated Uruguay 6-1 and Spain, the home team, later defeated Hungary 5-1. In 1990 Czechoslovakia defeated the U.S. 5-1 and West Germany defeated the United Arab Emirates 5-1 also. Fast forward to today's game and I can only think of two games that were a true no contest: Germany's 8-0 victory over Saudi Arabia and Argentina's 6-0 win over Serbia & Montenegro. Otherwise, the smaller countries have equipped themselves well on the big stage. Trinidad tied Sweden and played England even for 84 minutes. Angola tied Mexico and lost 0-1 to Portugal. We also saw Ghana defeat the Czech Republic 2-0. and the U.S. Italy needed a last second penalty to beat Australia while Ivory Coast hung tough against both Argentina and the Netherlands

What I hope the foregoing shows is that the smaller countries are getting closer to the bigger ones and therefore the cricket scores that we used to see back in the day no longer happen. There are no more whipping boys. Although you may occasionally see a game like Argentina played against Serbia & Montenegro, it is no longer the norm. The reason for this is that the increasing globalization of the game has brought parity. The game is no longer Balkanized with South Americans playing in South America, Africans playing in Africa, and so on. Players from all over the world now ply their trade in Europe and this has enhanced the experience of players from smaller countries. They get an opportunity to play in the top leagues and compete against the top players. By the time the World Cup comes around they are not in awe of these players because they have either played against them before or have some of the players from bigger countries as teammates.

By way of comparison you can look at the development of international basketball since the first Dream Team. In '92 the world was in awe of the dream team in Barcelona and the result was that the U.S. pounded every team. At the time there were few foreign players plying their trade in the NBA. I remember Drazen Petrovic was there and few others. Fast forward 14 years and the NBA is replete with foreigners playing against Americans and getting better every year. The result of that in the 2004 Olympics that it was Argentina and not the U.S. who ended up winning the Gold Medal. One could argue that U.S. basketball has gotten worse over the past 14 years and although I think it has a better explanation is that the rest of the world is catching up in basketball and as a result our scoring in the olympics has gone down. The next step then for soccer is for one of the smaller countries to actually win the World Cup. Unfortunately, we may be a generation or two away from that happening.

The improvement of the smaller sides is not the only thing that has contributed to the reduction in scoring. The dreaded 4-5-1 formation can also be blamed for this. Thirty years ago many teams played 3-4-3 then gradually it became 4-4-2, which at the time was regarded as a defensive formation. Today, the 4-5-1 makes the 4-4-2 look like an offensive onslaught. It makes me wonder what's next? The 5-5-0? The 4-5-1 is really a negative move because it crowds the midfield and stops the ball from flowing freely from end to end. Teams are employing two defensive midfielders(see france with Vieira and Makelele and Italy with Perrotta and Gattuso) instead of just using one. This has probably contributed to the scoring going down as much as the smaller nations getting better. I think coaches are using this formation because the game is more result oriented today than it was before. Granted Brazil still talks about playing the beautiful game but had they won the World Cup Nike would have paid them 20 million dollars. Such a financial payoff can lead to coaches employing negative tactics just to get the results. The emphasis on free flowing attacking football has taken a backseat. When you see a team like the dutch playing like thugs as they did against portugal, you get the feeling that the game is moving in a new direction. Miroslav Klose won the golden boot with just five goals. You have to go all the way back to 1962 to see someone win it with a number that low.

Along with the smaller nations getting better at playing the game and teams using defensive formations I think the play acting and chicanery that has snuck into the game must be removed by FIFA. The play acting that exists in the game is shameful, but I can't blame the players. When you step on the field your only goal today is to beat your opponent. Italian players got 330k per game for winning the World Cup. You think they care if they have to flop to get it? Me neither. When players flop and go down as if they've been shot and the stretchers come out, we lose almost 3 minutes of game time and in the end we only get 1 minute of added time. We spend less time playing the game and therefore don't have enough time to score goals as we otherwise would. What FIFA can do to get rid of this is an automatic yellow card if the ref thinks that you dove. Diving then becomes a cost benefit analysis and we will probably see less of it. However, right now all we have are rewards for diving. If you fake it you make get a penalty if you don't you can milk three minutes off the clock. If I were a player I cannot say I would not do the same thing under the current rules. FIFA needs to take a hard look at the game it is selling and think of ways to improve it. There's nothing you can do about the overall improvement of talent nor can you stop coaches from employing negative tactics but a low scoring game isn't the end of the world. The Germany v. Italy game was scoreless for nearly 120 minutes and it was exhilerating stuff with open, end to end soccer being played. I don't mind a 0-0 scoreline if both teams are going for it. It's like a Bears v. Packers game in December. There's beauty in the 6-3 scoreline for hardcore fans of the game but the casual fan would rather watch a 42-14 game indoors on turf. FIFA needs to change the game to not alienate it's core fans while at the same time trying to draw in the casual fan so they can stay around long after the drama of the World Cup is over. However, the suggestion I heard floated that we should increase the size of the goals because today's goalkeepers are bigger than they were before is, well, hogwash. We don't increase the height of the basketball hoop because players are getting taller, do we?

Even though scores are down, the game is in a healthy stage. This World Cup garnered more viewers than any other. There seems to be a greater buzz in the U.S. about the World Cup than there was in '02 even when the U.S. did much better than they did previously. The success of the sport in America is inevitable. The only question now is when will it happen.

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