Saturday, June 26, 2010

What Americans don't quite get about soccer: it ain't fair

In 2006, France’s Zidane head-butted an Italian player in the final game, and although everyone in the stadium and hundreds of millions of TV viewers saw it, the French coach nonetheless challenged Zidane’s red card. He thought the referees had not actually seen the foul except on the screens in the stadium, which would have constituted a sort of video review – and that is not allowed.

How French. Americans want to see an ideal world in spectator sports – a world where the winner is always the best team and justice is always served. But in soccer, the best team does not always win – and you can forget about justice. In a way, Americans like to have escapism even in spectator sports, whereas Europeans don't mind blunt reminders of how unfair life is when watching soccer. Resistance to video reviews in soccer is the best example of how Europeans tolerate a degree of unfairness.

In terms of fairness, soccer differs from the main three types of American team sports (football, baseball, and basketball, all of which currently have video reviews) in three main ways. First, the ball is practically always live, and the clock is always ticking. This aspect keeps the tension up in a way we Americans are not used to with all of our timeouts; and, of course, baseball could go on all day. (Europeans often comment that they find our sports boring because so little happens half the time.) The fast pace of the game means that soccer referees would have to stop things completely when they want to review something. More reviews might make soccer fairer, but it would also slow the game down, especially since soccer has no timeouts where video reviews might naturally fit in.

Second, very few points are scored, which means more luck is involved. Team A might have as many as 12 shots on goal and even hit the post once or twice but never get one in. Team B might only get a couple of shots on goal and otherwise be completely dominated during the game, but they could still win 1-0 if they got lucky and one of those shots went in. Such an outcome would not be considered unusual. In contrast, it would be strange if an NBA team shooting 60 percent from the floor were to lose to a team shooting 40 percent (though turnovers in the NFL could produce such an outcome).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, bad calls left standing are simply more common in soccer. American football has just as many people running around on the field as soccer does, but the NFL uses seven referees – compared to three in soccer on the field and a fourth referee off. Two of the referees in soccer are mainly concerned with making sure that no one is offside, leaving the other two to scan the entire field for unfair play and everything else. (There are almost no rules in soccer, whereas US sports practically require a degree in law.) Soccer players know they can get away with head-butts because the refs cannot see everything; there is no equivalent in American football.

Basketball moves quickly and makes do with only three referees on the court -- but that is where the similarities end. To begin with, basketball courts are third the size of soccer fields, and there are half as many players on the field and basketball. Video reviews are not only used in the NBA; there is even a dedicated video referee. And as Wikipedia puts it, NBA “officials must watch an instant replay of a buzzer beater to determine if the shot was released before time expired.” Americans do not want to see NBA games decided because of bad calls by referees.

The situation is the same in the NFL, where the rule is that a coach can demand a video review if his team has a timeout left. In the last Super Bowl, as I remember very well as a New Orleans native, the Saints coach demanded a video review of a two-point conversion – and won the contest. The referee’s changed call affected the Colts' game strategy on the next drive. Had the referees in the last Super Bowl not been forced to award the two points to the Saints, fans of both the Saints and the Colts would have felt gypped if the Colts had then won the game by a point with two additional field goals. Say it loud and say it proud: we are Americans, and we want fairness in our sports.

As a result, we have little patience for players who say that the referee is at fault when they lose. Over at Harper’s, Ken Silverstein has been asking for reader comments to his blog posts about the US soccer team's performance at the World Cup (he is not a fan). As he wrote in an e-mail to me, “One could also argue that, if not for the British goalie’s mistake, the US would have lost game 1.” But there is a difference between losing because of the referee, whose participation should not decide the outcome of the game, and because of an opposing player, whose participation should. To come back to the Super Bowl, Peyton's interception is not in the same category as the referee's bad call on the two-point conversion. Ditto for turnovers, which are bad luck, but not unfair.

Silverstein was especially critical when US “players complained that the game [against Slovenia] was stolen by the refs.” He explained, “My son plays Little League, I have to tell him all the time that his first reaction after a game should not be to blame the umps.”

I would tell my children the same in the US sports, where bad calls simply do not make or break games. (Ever heard of the "hand of God"? Well, it happened again this year.) Silverstein references this article from the Washington Post as an example of how referees get things wrong in US sports as well, but the article actually only mentions one example of a bad call outside of soccer, and it merely robbed a baseball pitcher of a perfect game, not a win.

Now take a look at some examples from soccer. In this year's World Cup alone, everyone agrees that both the US and Switzerland were robbed of a win. The US team was not alone in complaining about it. Here is what the German coach of the Swiss team had to say after the game taken from him:

“At the World Cup we need the best referees available, and not just a referee who blows the whistle on the beach."

No one in the media I read and watch had any problem with that statement. In fact, German weekly Die Zeit (where this discussion at Harper's was originally printed) published an article explaining why referees at the World Cup have to suck (all continents must be represented, so you simply cannot take the best).

Silverstein is off the mark when he praises the Italian team at length for being good losers; he even wrote me in an e-mail that Italian head coach "Lippi did not complain about the controversial plays” in Italy's second game. Here is one thing that Lippi said after that game:

“I just regret that we did not get the points we deserved, but sometimes that's what happens, you get less than you deserve.”

And here is a statement from an interview I could only find in German (again, in an article about how the referees at the World Cup suck):

"Ich bin enttäuscht, aber: keine Panik. Wir haben in zwei Spielen zwei Schüsse aufs Tor bekommen, und beide waren drin. Das war Pech. Wir hätten eigentlich beide Partien gewinnen müssen."

My translation:

I am disappointed, but there's no reason to panic. In two games, we got the ball in the goal twice, but we had bad luck. We should have won both of those games.

My feeling is that Silverstein is surrounded by complaining Americans who feel that their soccer team is being cheated, perhaps because the world bears a grudge against us after all (you know, 9/11 and all that). In fact, the US team is one of a handful (out of 32) that have indeed suffered remarkably from bad calls. Americans simply need to realize that no one is out to get them. Bad calls are just part of soccer.

At the same time, Silverstein needs to realize that what he perceives as complaining is simply everyday post-game soccer banter in Europe – and that more teams are complaining than he realizes. The Germans, for instance, felt slighted in their second game because the Spanish referee handed out so many yellow cards that their only striker had to leave the field in the first half. You bet your Weizenbier the Germans were complaining – not because they didn't think their players had committed fouls, but because similar events in other games had not elicited yellow cards.

You would think, at such times, that Germans would warm up to the idea of video reviews in soccer. But when famed German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, who is now moderating the games on German television, was asked by his co-moderator if Germany's bad luck with refs this year is not proof enough that we need video reviews in soccer, he replied, “No, it means that the line judges need to pay more attention.”

Say what? Why would Germans (and Europeans) oppose video reviews in soccer? I cannot know for sure, but it wouldn't be the first time that Germany/Europe has been accused of being opposed to progress. Indeed, Europeans like quaint small farms and farmers markets, not just large agro-business and supermarket chains. Germany is fiercely proud of its Mittelstand (basically, SMEs), while the US likes its global corporations (Germans seem a bit ashamed of theirs). So who needs fancy new technology when you can still improve workmanship, eh Oliver? Forget about cameras – referees need to pay more attention. A quite un-American sentiment if you ask me. But genuinely German.

If we come back to the concept of escapism, we find that we Americans like happy endings in our movies as well. Europeans tend to make more movies where bad things happen to good people, and they like their soccer with a heaping helping of luck and injustice -- just like life.

What's the difference? Americans do not have a greater sense of justice than Europeans. On the contrary, Europeans would view a lot of what goes on in the US as unjust. Think of the death penalty, which many Americans support because they think the US court system is fair, but Europeans have no such illusions about their courts - or, as one German saying goes: "Being in the right and getting your rights are two different things" ["Recht haben und Recht bekommen sind zweierlei"].

Likewise, Europeans definitely watch the World Cup to escape, ever so briefly, from reality -- or, as France's Le Parisien put it when their team embarrassed all self-respecting French people last week: "Thanks guys, you ruined our summer, in which we hoped to forget about the worries of everyday life."

Perhaps that is the main difference, then: Europeans do not need what the Germans disdain as Heile Welt – a Disney World of happy endings and just victories – in their light entertainment. Say it loud and say it proud, Europe: we are adults and face the world as it is. If we Americans are going to enjoy their number one sport, we may just have to put up with more real-world nastiness in our pastimes.


  1. Seriously, what is his problem? No one's forcing him to comment on the US men's team, he said he was going to try and "stop himself" from writing about them.

    It's neither the team's nor US fans' fault that Silverstein's surrounded by idiotic people. Most of the supporters who actually who know and follow the team closely have been quite resigned to bad calls and know the strengths/weaknesses of the team enough to be introspective rather than reactionary. So given that Silverstein has provided no examples of exactly what kind of commentary he's receiving from pro-USA folks and from where, it just sounds like ... he is trolling for page hits.

  2. I suspected he was trolling for page hits myself, but he also seems to be getting very personal these days. He did it again yesterday when he wrote "Eric Alterman is an egotistical jerk, but everyone who knows him is already aware of that fact" ( I'm not sure what he gets out of such public statements, but it's not what I want to read.

  3. This is a very good blog and speaks about the truth and beauty of soccer

  4. Point 1: USA played ENGLAND not it.

    Point 2: Its called FOOTBALL. FOOTBALL was established before 'American Football'. Its FOOTBALL believe me.

    Point 3: Seriously get over yourselves. Europe doesnt give a minutes thought to your nation so please stop thinking we actually care. Until you get your own house in order and sort your own country out...maybe you should stop looking across the atlantic and criticising what we do or our traditions.