Fiddling with the World Cup

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJun 27, 2006 8:54 PM


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So a lot of visitors have been coming to CV to read Mark's post on the Physics of Beckham. What's more, the rest of the blogosphere is thick with commentary on the World Cup -- 3 Quarks Daily has Alex Cooley reporting and Jonathan Kramnick grumbling, the Volokh Conspiracy has David Post enthusing and Todd Zywicki critiquing, and Crooked Timber has been hosting rollicking open threads. Who would have thought that people were interested in soccer? It'll never be as popular as string theory, but there's definitely some interest there. Actually, philistine American though I may be, I love the World Cup. And I myself was doing Beckham blogging long before it had become fashionable. The World Cup is everything the Olympics should be, but isn't. It's a spectacle of true international importance, featuring a sport that people care about even in the off years, full of compelling personalities and a rich history, in which a country can't dominate simply on the basis of a superior entertainment-industrial complex. And I have no desire to change the rules of the game to suit my uneducated predelictions. Even though basketball is my sport of choice, I have no problem with the paucity of scoring; just as I can appreciate the ebb and flow of the scoreboard and the drama of big runs and quick turnarounds in hoops, I can also savor the exquisite rarity of goals in soccer, with the attendant ebb and flow of anticipation as scoring chances are mounted and frustrated. I have no problem with the offside rule, nor would I want to see the goal size increased. Nor am I one of those postmodernists who would turn the whole thing into hockey. I don't even have any problem with the idea that the world's best team has a star named Kaka, or that the French think they can compete by fielding exactly the same players that won the Cup eight years ago. That is to say, I am not a hater. So let's nevertheless admit that there are a couple of things that everyone, from the most clueless newbie to the most knowledgeable expert, can admit are dramatically wrong with the game. And, perhaps, easily fixable. The first is the refereeing. Not something Americans can feel culturally superior about, as the refereeing in the NBA or NFL is just horrible. But still, the quality in the Cup thus far has been atrocious, and not just because the USA was jobbed against both Italy and Ghana. (Against the Czechs they got what they deserved.) For one obvious thing, there is only one guy out there, expected to police every hidden elbow and maliciously-aimed foot? The notion is absurd on the face of it, and it's hardly surprising that the difference between an innocent tackle and a game-altering penalty kick is basically a coin toss. (Has anyone before me noticed that the home-field advantage is really quite considerable in these games? They have? Okay, good.) And then you give to these subjective judgments an absolutely tournament-altering power -- red cards not only send off a player, but keep him out for the next game, and force the team to play shorthanded for the rest of the match? The situation ensures that the amateur-thespian histrionics after a touch foul for which the Italians are infamous will always be amply rewarded. It's not an admission of weakness to try to improve this mess somehow; surely nobody wants NFL-style reviews of the calls, but there must be ways (more referees, more latitude with the severity of sanctions) to make the games more fair. But the real travesty, which I am absolutely convinced must be roundly despised by everyone in their right minds, is the shootout. I mean, come on. Some of the world's best athletes run themselves ragged for over an hour and a half, with half the planet hanging breathlessly on the result, and it's decided by a few free kicks from the penalty mark? That's just insanity. The first World Cup final that I watched live (on TV) was Brazil-Italy in 1994, featuring a scoreless tie after regulation and extra time, the excitement of which was thoroughly destroyed by the shootout decision. This is embarassing, and has to stop. Especially because there is a completely obvious solution: let them keep playing! Sudden-death overtime. Some folks might worry that such an overtime period would just drag on forever. So, fine, let it! It won't really go forever, because the players will get tired (and their number will be declining due to red cards!), and the ensuing sloppiness will make goals increasingly likely. And the excitement level would be amazing, adding to the drama of the world's greatest sporting tournament rather than completely undermining it. So come on, FIFA, do the right thing. Adjust a few knobs here and there on this World Cup thing, you may actually have something.

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