Friday, July 07, 2006

italy and france meet for world cup

For anyone who has been on Mars, the Italian soccer team defeated Germany, 2-0, on Tuesday and will play France, which beat Portugal, in the final in Berlin on Sunday. The azzurri broke a scoreless tie by scoring two goals in the last three minutes of the second overtime period of a previously scoreless game, an event statistically equivalent to, well, scoring two goals in the last three minutes of the second overtime period in a previously scoreless game. That lightning literally stuck the East Coast during the first overtime period, interrupting TV broadcasts at the low point for Italian hopes, added to the feeling of divine intervention in a sacred cause.

It is hard to capture the satisfaction that Italians feel from defeating Germany, on the latter's home territory, in such a dramatic fashion. Germany is the dominant country in Europe and tends to regard Italy as somewhere between Florida and Mexico, with the difference that the United States didn't carry out a bloody occupation of Florida in the early 1940s (we'll leave Mexico out of the equation for this purpose). To beat Germany in Dortmund, in the heart of the industrial Ruhr, in the closing minutes is something like a Cuban baseball team beating the Americans in Yankee Stadium on the basis of a ten run ninth inning, in a game that was previously a no-hitter for the Yankee pitching staff. (The Dodgers actually did this to the Yankees in 1947, although I think the game was in Brooklyn.) To be fair, the Germans took it in good spirits, although most of them will probably root for France in the final.

The World Cup has inevitably resulted in a lot of clever putdowns of international soccer, especially since the American team was eliminated two weeks ago. The principal complaints appear to be (i) that soccer is boring because there aren't enough goals, and (ii) that it is potentially interesting but ruined by silly rules. I consider these arguments in turn.

The first argument is made primarily out of ignorance. To say that a sport is boring because there aren't many goals is like saying that sex is boring because the participants only achieve one (or two, or three) climaxes. The key is how you get there: and here, in its beauty and unpredictability, a good soccer game has no parallels. Go to a bar or restaurant and watch observe the people watching a soccer game. You will never, see a serious fan leave their seat during the action, because at any moment there might occur an event--a goal, a penalty, a beautiful save--on which the entire contest turns. Soccer players are also the world's best conditioned athletes, running the length of two football fields with no time outs and virtually no substitutions in a 90 (or longer) minutes game. By contrast baseball and football players are inactive about 80 percent of the time.

The rules argument is somewhat more persuasive. Traditions are important, and quirks like the continuous action (no time outs) and limited substitutions rules are arguably vital to preserving the integrity of the game. But certain rules could be changed without damaging the essence of the sport. In particular, the bizarre system of yellow cards (warnings) and red cards (a game suspension with no replacements) leaves too much discretion for referees and makes games turn too easily on dubious calls. It is time to experiment which some kind of intermediate sanction, perhaps involving a temporary man advantage on the hockey model, as an alternative to these two extremes. The use of penalty kicks to resolve ties, after 30 minutes of overtime, is likewise somewhat arbitrary, although hockey has actually copied this system.

My obvious partisanship prevents me from making a reasoned prediction for Sunday's game. I have a great respect for the French team, which represents the very best of that country's flair and style and thoroughly reputes the opponents of immigration (see my previous posts). But Saint Paul never wrote to the Parisians, and the World Cup doesn't belong there, either.


At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Craig Oren said...

The Yankees were the visiting team. They went into the bottom of the ninth leading 2-1. The Dodgers scored two runs, I believe on a double by Cookie Lavagetto. Just moments before, a Dodger had stolen second despite a throw by Yogi Berra, then the Yankee's rookie catcher.


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