World Cup diary #1

Posted on June 15, 2010


I love everything about the World Cup. I love even the things I hate about the World Cup. Since these things — the gamesmanship, the aristocratic governance of the sport, the nationalism, the ridiculous narratives people map onto the results, the over-looming factor of luck that seals fates, and the resulting “unfairness” and tragedy of so many defeats — all of these things mirror the modern human condition, and are routinely used to try to shed light on that condition.

The only thing that I truly don’t like about the World Cup, and soccer in general, is the dire level of analysis and explanation that is fed to aficionados by the broadcasters and print journalists. I have railed against broadcasting and post-game analysis in hockey (starting here, with two further posts here and here), and virtually all of those criticisms hold for soccer broadcasting too (at least in North America, the UK, France, and Spain, where I’ve watched a significant amount of soccer over the past three decades and followed the analysis in the “quality press”).

But enough about the complaints for now. There remains almost a month to break all that down.

And speaking of breaking down, I have stumbled upon a truly excellent place to find these World Cup games broken down: namely, the blog/website Zonal Marking. It’s not clear who is behind this site (at any rate, the site itself gives no clues), but the analysis itself owes much to the brilliant book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson, who writes on soccer for the Guardian and, among other places. Zonal Marking, in its brief bibliography of serious books on soccer tactics, calls the 3-year-old Inverting the Pyramid the “daddy of all football tactics books.”

North Americans are, of course, free to follow newspapers and blogs from Britain (including Jonathan Wilson’s own reports for the Guardian) or anywhere else their linguistic abilities carry them. But for coverage with them in mind (that is, for fans who like soccer but also like to think about it using categories they develop watching the big-four North American sports), The New Republic’s Goal Posts blog is a useful place to visit. I recommend (which is not to say I agree with) Franklin Foer’s piece on soccer analysis and number crunching, which was published there yesterday. I hope to get back to Foer’s piece in a future post on making sense of soccer strategy.

Much of my blogging over the next month will be “live.” That is, written while I’m watching matches or between-match analysis. I’ve just finished watching the first half of Brazil-North Korea. All the pundits I’ve heard on TV today — from the broadcasters in the earlier matches this morning, to the experts in the studio, to the two gentlemen (Martin Tyler and Ally McCoist) calling this game, were predicting a joyous goalfest for the purveyors of the beautiful game. The half-time report is just beginning and the “experts” are backpeddling to beat the band in order to explain the goal-free scoreline. They’re now shamelessly wagging their fingers at Brazil for underestimating their opponent! (I told you this was “live”.)

Who was not taken by surprise? The folks at Zonal Marking: their last tweet before the match:

Avoid the commentator’s cliches part one: North Korea are not a completely unknown quantity: