World Cup diary #2: the end of the beginning

Posted on June 16, 2010

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Every team has now played one game — and more often than not, rather cautiously. We are a long, long way from the beginning of the end now; though to paraphrase Churchill, this is a convenient place to mark the end of the beginning. With two games left for each team in the opening round, almost every team will feel more urgency to get a win now; especially those teams that drew or lost their first match.

And after one week, we are also now seeing the predictable on-set of disappointment being expressed throughout the press and the blogosphere (the latter taking the traditional place of debate at the pub). The enormous pre-hype of the World Cup — which on television is full of an orgy of highlight footage of the most beautiful goals by the most beautiful players — sets up the inevitable early disappointment. It probably makes teams, especially the lower-seeded teams, more nervous and cautious. And it makes us forget how difficult it is for even the most star-studded teams at this level to score goals, especially when their opponents decide to place most of their 22 available legs between the ball and the woodwork.

The most useful and constructive catalogue of complaints I’ve seen today is The Guardian‘s What’s Wrong With This Tournament? which surveys 5 pet-peeves: the new ball, the underperformance of marquee players, the defensive mindset, the empty seats, and the blasted vuvuzelas. In each case, they offer some reasons for optimism.

After the first week, here is my five-cents’ worth on some of these, and some other, observations.

1. The Ball. Adidas won the contract to produce the official ball, and there has allegedly been a chorus of complaints about it. I’ve been watching World Cups since 1982, and certainly the past handful have involved a new ball that met with the same alleged reaction. What the real reaction is, we can’t tell. We simply don’t hear from many of the players who think it’s fine. Certainly if goaltenders hate it, we should expect that strikers will like it. The best analysis of the fairness of introducing a new ball I have seen is over at the Business Ethics Blog.

There are at least three reasons we have to take the complaints about the ball with a grain of salt. First, there’s a general conservative bias against changing basic goods that seem good enough. If a city announces that it is going to change the way it treats the drinking water on a certain date, the switchboards will light up with complaints on that date even if the new process had not yet gone into effect. (I learned that from my father, who worked in that line.) I am quite sure that if Adidas has done nothing but change the colors and name of the ball, there would have been complaints from the players.

Because the second reason for the complaints is that the players need excuses for errant passes and shots. We are hearing, e.g., that the ball is sailing high, and not curling. Puh-leeze. We have been spoiled by watching too much highlight footage where it always curls, always into the net. I have long noticed that in any given World Cup there are at best only two or three players in the world who are actually capable of reliably curling a free kick over a wall from just outside the penalty area. (Yes, Beckham was one of those.) I recently saw a stat that only one in 25 direct free kicks scores. So there is no way we can watch balls sailing high and conclude that this is proof of the inferiority of this ball. The ball may be inferior, but we are simply in no position to judge from the evidence we are given.

But thirdly, we do have reasons to be skeptical. A spokesman for Adidas has pointed out that “if you look closely at the players and goalies making these accusations you’ll notice one common thread among them: they all have contracts with Adidas’ competitors.” Rather than merely passing along the complaints, journalists would do us a service by seeing whether they are correlated with this conflict of interest.

2. The Uniforms. I haven’t heard or seen anything about the uniforms, apart from the fact that several teams are wearing a new Adidas shirt design that is supposed to improve core strength and even jumping ability. I am noticing that in general the shirts and shorts are more fitted than in recent World Cups, and that many players are now wearing very tight-fitting shirts. Even some of the looser-fitting jerseys have a tight lower portion that is snug around the hips. Presumably the tighter jerseys are more functional (for wicking sweat), but also make it more difficult for opponents to illegally tug from behind. But they also reveal how much more muscular the players are above the waist than they were a generation ago. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

3. The Diving — or lack of diving. It is hard to collect data on this, but am I the only one to find that there has been much less diving this time around? I’ll blog specifically about the ethics of diving and of dealing with diving soon. But it does seem to me like diving is in decline. If this is true, why? Is it possible, with all the cameras in the stadiums, and with the prevalence of super slow-motion replays and big high-def TVs, that players are becoming embarrassed to have their play-acting exposed? Could it be that lesser-known players hoping to parlay solid World Cup performances into lucrative club contracts think that lame diving looks bad on their resumes? (The worst diver so far has been Ronaldo, who already has the big contract and craves only opportunities to kick highlight-reel free kicks.)

4. The Refereeing. I think the officiating, by and large, has been pretty good. This is not unrelated to the perception of less diving. Several referees have been very hesitant to award fouls when players wilt; although I haven’t yet seen very many yellow cards yet for diving itself. They have certainly not been rewarding vertigo in the penalty area with penalties. (Minutes after typing that sentence an uncontroversial penalty was awarded to Uruguay, albeit for an embellished tumble.) The offside calls have been about as reliable as is humanly possible. By and large the refs have tried not to determine the results, and that is surely a good thing. The fact that nobody is talking about the officiating is always a good sign.

5. The Broadcasting (American edition). I have been watching the broadcast mostly on ESPN/ABC in the US, occasionally flipping to Univision in Spanish. I have to say, my first big delight in this year’s World Cup was seeing that ESPN had hired some of the best British announcers from Sky in the UK. In the past they have relied heavily on homegrown play-by-play men who call a soccer game they way you would call a hockey game, mentioning the name of every player who touches the ball along with a verb for what he does with it, followed by adverbs and adjectives when necessary, and using the tone of voice to convey the urgency and excitement. And beside the American announcer would inevitably be the Irish transplant from some by-gone era, Tommy Smyth, whose enthusiasm-to-explanation ratio often approached infinity.

I have watched a lot of soccer in different countries and languages, but I’ve always preferred the classic British announcer who, among other things, does not feel obliged to mention the name of every player who touches the ball. There is generally a calm about the narrative, as if he were sitting on a nearby hill patiently describing a Napoleonic battle. Being free from telling us who has the ball, they are able to reflect more about the ebb and flow of the match; and have never been shy about calling out inferior play and mistakes by players, coaches or referees in a way that is most uncommon in North American sports broadcasts. That said, the British color commentators — invariably former British players, who are as working-class as the announcers are professional middle-class — have rarely had much to add; and I’m frankly surprised that ESPN has included some of them considering the accents must be unintelligible for many of their viewers. (They have included one or two American former players in the color role, especially for games involving the US.) And in the studio this time out, where they used to have some middling former members of the American men’s and women’s team, they now have significant input from some true soccer geniuses, like the Dutchman Ruud Gullit, and the German Jürgen Klinsmann.

Now all that said, I have never seen a satisfactory broadcast of soccer — one that uses informative camera angles for live action (e.g. angles overhead or from high behind the goal that actually allow you to see all the players, the shapes of the formations, and an undistorted perspective on the space), and gives informative explanations of team formations and tactics. If you read the game reports of this World Cup on Zonal Marking, you will realize that you’ve never heard that kind of commentary from a broadcast booth or a post-game show; and yet, how else can you really understand what is actually going on? (More, much more, on this in the future.)

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So goals are down, but the matches have generally been interesting, and fairly contested. The Switzerland-Spain match was no less thrilling or intriguing because it involved one team riding a deliberately defensive strategy, and produced only one goal. I love to complain about the sporting products I’m offered on TV, but I’m not complaining much about this World Cup. So far.

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