For the first time in my life, I'm actually watching the World Cup. I don't really know what's compelled me to watch it this time, as my general feeling aligns with most Americans' feelings about soccer.
Why am I finding it compelling? I gotta admit, the what-if scenarios of the first round have kept me interested. Crunching the numbers about who is likely to move on, what it will take to clinch positions, and what kind of help teams will need is always interesting. It might seem a whole lot more dry once the knockout round actually starts. At that point, it's a fairer but less interesting format of win-or-go-home.
I am getting fed up, however, with the role of luck in soccer. Yes, I said luck. Specifically, I mean refereeing. Goals are so rare that something that leads to a goal or takes one away changes the whole flow of the game. It's next to impossible to "make up" a score due to something bad that happens.
No other team sport I can think of has scores as low as soccer. There have been 95 goals scored in 44 games in this World Cup, a hair over 2 per game. The average for all previous World Cups, according to this NY Times article, is just under 3. The only other sport whose major professional league even comes close is the hockey, whose NHL is in a historically low-scoring period of about 5.5 goals per game. Baseball has around 10 runs per game, and the NFL and NBA are much, much higher.
When you have such low-scoring games, you have is an environment where one single score has overwhelming importance. As a result, an occurrence which takes away a goal or gives an artificially inflated chance to score a goal is very likely to impact the game. After all, the odds are much, much higher that single goal will be the margin of victory.
Not that I really blame the refs. Soccer referees have the power to take away goals. They need this power. They also need the power to grant penalty shots. But, there is simply an unfair burden placed on these refs to make the right call, every time the ball gets near the net. To compound the problem, there's only one referee on the field of play, with three other largely powerless assistants on the periphery. And that's a big field. By contrast, the NFL has a smaller field of play, with no less than 7 referees, all with the power to call any penalty they see. That's not even bringing instant replay into the equation.
Soccer has the fewest referees, with the most responsibility, and the most game-changing calls of any major sport. It makes for a perfect storm where even a good referee can make a mistake, and that mistake can change the match more than any single person has a right to do. Until something happens to fix this for soccer, I'm going to continue to look down on it as a second-tier sport. Yup, like fast food and marketing, in sports, the Americans do it better.
Photo courtesy of flickr, via ElvertBarnes.