• SETH ON SPORTS, SETHICS 01.02.2011

    This is one of those classic commentaries that I promised in my “Captain’s Blog”: it comes to you from many months ago and so isn’t exactly “archaic” as my brother would say, but it is slightly beyond timeliness. However, as 2011 begins its quest, I thought it would be a good time to offer this analysis of one the biggest events of last year. As always, therefore, please read it with a grain of imagining you were living in the former time in which it was written.

    FIFA, with its World Cup (of Football), presides over the world’s most popular game and name for a sport. Far behind the dominant leader, there is Rugby Football, Australian Rules Football, Gaelic Football, American “Gridiron” Football, Canadian Football, and (will you accept?) Foosball, who each believe themselves entitled to the name because, you see, it was their common ancestor’s moniker before them. Yes, like a Homo Sapien to a Homo Neanderthalensis (who still roam the earth on over-loud motorbikes), all those sports descend from a common game.

    The original, untamed sport allowed hands as well as feet to manipulate the ball. (Indeed, because the sport was not always foot-centric, some suspect that the term “football” derived not from the use of the feet against the ball, but instead from the medium of feet by which its peasant participants moved about the pitch, in contrast with the horse-bound aristocrats competing at polo.)

    That first, not-fully-defined game was eventually organized in England, where a dispute over whether hands should be kept active in the contest branched it into two offspring: those who wanted to focus on the feet created “association” football (whose name was adapted to “soccer” from, yes, the “soc” in “association”), while those who wanted to keep their hands in play invented “rugby” football (which then begat gridiron football such as the CFL and NFL in North America).

    Each of these games succeeded, but, like its metaphorical counterpart, the homo sapiens, association/soccer football was the most prolific—-probably for the same peasant accessibility reason that (may have) put the “foot” in “football”. Rich and poor could play without many resources: a ball will do—-goalposts are a bonus. It is now contested fervently on six of seven Earth-bound continents (although there are rumours out there, which I’ve recently started, that the scientists on Antarctica occasionally put up some frozen goalposts and compete for penguin meat).

    In spite of its mudblood beginnings, association football seems to believe that its popularity implies superiority and so chortles at the efforts of its cousin games. North American football is often teased, for instance, for its constant stoppages in play—-apparently in ugly contrast with the “beautiful game” in which players glide around the pitch for 90 minutes with only one stop of its watch.

    But, maybe, precisely because it’s so popular, association football needs help. Sports that don’t have a six-continent following have had to evolve to compete. In contrast, soccer has no peer to fear and so perhaps lacks the incentive to aim to be better. Instead, it languishes in its dominant position without questioning itself.

    Therefore, I humbly offer my services in this area. (I realize it’s presumptuous to question the behaviours of a game that dwarfs my own favourite—-hockey, which is perfect, thanks for asking—-but I’m willing to do it anyway for the sake of being so very helpful.) After observing FIFA’s World Cup, 2010 edition, I have three tiny little blasphemous suggestions:

    (1) Let’s begin with football’s amalgamation with the sport of diving. Within the present rules of soccer, there appears to be the following guideline: “A foul occurs when (A) a player is struck by an opponent via kicking or pushing, or (B) a player is almost struck, and gives a wonderful, acrobatic demonstration of how he would have fallen if indeed he had been violated”.

    (Consider the following Youtube compilation…)

    Soccer players are not the only athletes who attempt to convince referees that they’ve been fouled when they haven’t (my Canucks’ leading jerk, Alex Burrows, can attest to that) but they are the most prolific and profound in their efforts. With comprehensive pseudo-agony, their faces writhe as their bodies fly and flail across the pitch after being nearly tripped. Much of the time the referee realizes that players who are genuinely damaged would be too distracted by their pain to try to highlight it, but sometimes the performance of the diver convinces the judge that a crime was committed and the corresponding sanctions must then be enforced.

    (See the following delightful video to imagine how teams might train their players to dive…)

    In the non-sports world, we call that fraud. The only difference between a forger selling a fake painting and a football player selling a fake foul is that an unearned penalty kick in a World Cup match is much more valuable. Yet, association players are rarely convicted for this crime. They are free to jump up from what appeared to be an amputated leg’s worth of pain and continue sprinting around the field until their next performance.

    It is not so beautiful to witness, but, as long as simulating injuries is part of the skill-set that can help a team win, players will continue to develop their tumbling routines. So unless FIFA, in fact, believes that one’s flare for the dramatic should be amongst the aptitudes that influence the result of a football contest, they must make the punishment for the crime outweigh the possible gains.

    Currently, if a FIFA referee is convinced he’s seen a fake, he’s authorized to apply one of his yellow warning cards (the second of which will eject the player from the game). Unfortunately, first-view assessment of diving is very subjective and so it is not often called: I suggest, then, that FIFA supplement these occasional yellow cards by spending a few minutes, after each match, at the replay screen, and then disciplining any conclusive evidence of fraud with a 10-game ban from international competition.

    This is just a wonderful starter idea. I leave it to Mr. and Mrs. FIFA to work out the details. So long as the penalties are sufficiently aggressive, few players will invoke them.

    (2) Now let’s talk about offside, the omnipresent restriction that says you cannot be ahead of the opposition defence unless the ball is too. It is a rule that has a lovely spirit to it that insists that success in the game be derived from skilfully manoeuvring the ball past the enemy as opposed to running ahead and waiting for a long kick from a comrade. But, to my spoiled-by-hockey-viewing eye, the rule is to too restrictive because it doesn’t allow for a middle ground: no matter how far your team has brought the ball up the field by its wits, you’re still offside if merely your diving cap is beyond the defenders. This limits the options of the attackers and so offers a hefty advantage to defence in a game that is already ever noted for its nil-nil matches. In hockey, conveniently, so long as you manage to stay onside as you pass the blue line of the opposition’s defensive end, then you are allowed to do as you wish with your position until the puck is returned to the other side of the line.

    I won’t go so far as to suggest that association football implement a similar brilliance, but I do demand that, if they’re going to have such an oppressive rule, they determine a reliable system for accurately imposing it. In my awestruck viewing of World Cup 2010, I noted that most goals that were achieved at any speed were, according to my play-by-play guides, “possibly offside”. The only difference I could see with these instances and the many outlawed goals that were charged as offside was that the officials guessed differently. The game happens too quickly to get the close calls correct at a rate much higher than chance, which means that, in these games wherein one goal is usually the decider, luck of the estimate is often the ultimate ruler.

    And yet, (3) in contrast with its football cousins, FIFA “the Luddite” does not believe in using non-traditional methods (video replays) to assist in refereeing its matches. Thus, when England took on Germany, and gave in a goal that replay would have instantly determined as offside, and then were later rebuked a goal because the referee didn’t notice it go in, they had no recourse but to take comfort that their sport had not sold out to the evils of objectivity.

    (Consider this video of the England’s “non-goal”…)

    I’m not proposing that all goals and offsides be subject to the ultimate decision of the replay official (this would slow the game’s beauty down even more than the frustrating rule itself), but perhaps the officials could ask for assistance on close calls.

    And maybe, while they’re looking, they could check on the veracity of the yellow cards (which are given out as “cautions” to players for various infringements of the rules): I wouldn’t normally quibble over something so gentle-sounding as a “caution”, but, in this case, if a footballer receives a total of two yellow tickets anywhere from the first game to the end of the quarter-final (a five game span), he misses the next match. This is a stringent punishment for an action that again may have been misread in the high-paced moment by the referee (whose judgment may have once more been manipulated by one of those famous diving routines designed to create the illusion of a foul where there wasn’t one).

    A common response from announcers to mistaken decisions is that, “We have the benefit of replays; the referees don’t” as though it is a tragedy that cannot be helped. And yet, by simply raising its head and allowing a wee bit of sand to pour off, FIFA could permit its officials to make some game-time decisions that surpass even the quality of the casual fan’s assessment from the television sideline.

    But of course, as I’ve stipulated, FIFA has no incentive to consider such alterations. It is unlikely that any of its football-cousins will ever match soccer’s prowess in the hearts and cultures of the world and so, if the sport is satisfied with earthly dominance and the precious traditions that serenaded it there, then it shall remain a beautiful shame. One can only argue in retort that, as with the Earth-shattering homo-sapiens, success over one’s rivals is not a perfect predictor of merit. The movie “Avatar” taught me that. (For that matter, the box office success of “Avatar” taught me that, too.)

    Posted by SethBlog @ 2:35 PM

  • Leave a Comment

    Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.

Subscribe to Sethblogs

Enter your favourite email address here and sethblogs will alert you whenever Seth blogs.