Monday, June 12, 2006

The beauty of the ugly game

Trinidad dig in for dream draw
By Oliver Kay

Trinidad & Tobago 0 Sweden 0

WHATEVER HE HAS ACHIEVED AS A footballer, Dwight Yorke has always come across as someone whose biggest highs came away from the pitch. The playboy image is one he has done little to play down, save for during that annus mirabilis with Manchester United, but finally, having found a cause worth fighting for, he has rediscovered the kind of joys that only sport can bring.

Saturday in Dortmund brought a Trinidad & Tobago performance that astounded on many levels — the heroics of Shaka Hislop, who had been brought in at the last minute; the resilience of a couple of centre halves from Gillingham and Wrexham; the cavalier tactics of Leo Beenhakker, the coach, after he had had a player sent off — but no less remarkable was the sight of Yorke, reinvented as a holding midfield player and with his familar smile replaced by a determined grimace as he cajoled his team-mates towards a result the significance of which far transcends the state of play in group B.

Now there’s a headline our American cousins might never understand. That’s right, a dream 0-0 draw.

The Trinidad & Tobago fans went mental at the final whistle. Just imagine what will happen if they score a goal.

A standing joke in Britain (which Budweiser are milking in their ‘You do the football, we’ll do the beer’ ads –actually, we’d prefer to do the beer as well, thanks) is the hypothetical American millionaire trying to ‘improve’ the game by making the goals ten times bigger, introducing scoring zones, making draws illegal or any other artificial mechanism for ensuring games finish 15-13 rather than 1-0.

In other words, making the beautiful game more like that most excruciatingly tedious (and interestingly, uniquely pure American-origin) sport, basketball.

But beauty is only the most superficial of football’s pleasures. A key part of football’s worldwide appeal is that the goal is still one of the highest-value currencies in sport.

Basketball reminds me of people who swear constantly. If everything gets a cuss, there’s no impact when something really deserves it. How anyone can be bothered to cheer one ‘basket’ amongst so many is beyond me.

Football, meanwhile, is about long periods of frustration, tension and brooding terror, interspersed with rare moments of genuine ecstasy. And the rarity is crucial. Cricket is my favourite sport for its own sake, but nothing beats the sudden, explosive, deafening roar of a crowd when the home team scores. Wonder goals are best, but even scruffy, bundled own-goals do the trick.

The same goes for denying the opposition a precious goal, especially when it's against all the odds. Hence the Trinidadian delight at 0-0.

Drubbing a hapless bunch of no-hopers like the Faroe Islands 8-0 is no fun at all. But scraping agonisingly past Argentina 1-0 thanks to a dodgy penalty – now that’s what what I call sport.


Peter Burnet said...

Oh, that was very good, Brit. Definitely worthy of one of Duck's contests. Let's see, how about: Best attempt at converting the mind-numbingly tedious to high drama? Best poetic rendition of "Ode to the mid-fielder". Perhaps you should shorten the goal width tenfold, but I suppose then the tension would be unbearable.

I have always been puzzled by why newspaper accounts of soccer matches are like war dispatches-- long, detailed, analytical and literary, but now I'm beginning to understand. Clearly the authors have oodles of time to craft them during the games without missing anything. Anyway, I look forward to your upcoming post on the glorious superiority of English weather.

BTW, you really must resolve to do your research before leaving yourself wide-open with lines like "uniquely pure American-origin sport"

Brit said...


Perhaps you should shorten the goal width tenfold, but I suppose then the tension would be unbearable

No no no no no no no! The point of football is that it's perfect as it is. Stop trying to improve that which is perfect!

Tedium? You don't know nuffink about tedium. Don't forget, I love nothing better than to watch a game last five whole days, and can still be deeply satisfied with a draw at the end of it.

Do you know, I might just have a crack at the weather article. Watch this space...

PS. I did do my research.

Peter Burnet said...

Brit, we've had our differences over the years, but you can trust me on this. Never trust the word of a Yank in any debate over whether something was invented or developed by an American or a Canadian. You are talking about a people who still think they invented the telephone and won the war of 1812.

Duck said...

Or an ode to English cuisine.

You make a good point regarding basketball. The modern professional game is unwatchable for the reasons you state - there is no teamwork to speak of, and no defense, either. The college game is more interesting, but it really only gets exciting during the last 2 minutes of a close game.

If someone with no exposure to soccer (sorry, "football") were to watch a few games without commentary and then try to guess what the purpose was, I'd have to believe that he'd think getting the ball in the net was something that occured completely by accident and wasn't intentional on the part of the players. He'd probably conclude that the "goal" was to see how long they could kick a ball around without letting it get outside the white lines.

Brit said...


True, but there aren't too many people on planet Earth with no exposure to sar-ker.

I expect that you and Skipper could come up with some hive mind/what-works/free market reasons why it's the most popular sport in the world, if you could bear to face the simple fact that it's the best.

Likewise for why the game is as it is. Children everywhere play football in the unsophisticated, harum-scarum way that Americans crave: they charge up and down the pitch, hoofing the ball on sight in a bundle of all-out attack. As they get older and wiser, the game turns into the positional cat-and-mouse not-outside-the-white-lines spectacle you know and loathe, interspersed with sudden explosions of attack.

There's no rules about where you have to stand on the pitch. Football evolved from a game where one village of English ruffians wrestled a pig bladder past another village of English ruffians, to become a game of tactics and positional play (4-4-2 versus 3-5-2 etc) on a purely natural selection basis.

Which is why it's the best game that isn't called cricket.


And they generally claim the Beatles, too.

Ok, so it's the only major sport originating on American soil. Look, I know you Canadians are pretty desperate for historic heroes, but surely claiming that sport is scraping the proverbial...

Duck said...

I played soccer in gym class in high school. It is a very fun game to play, but a very boring game to watch. You are right, the game is simple, which I think contibutes to both of the attributes I cite above. American football lends itself to all sorts of specialized formations and tactics and statistics and vocabulary. There is so much detail to occupy the fan's attention, so many nuances.

Now perhaps the same is true of "football", to a lesser degree. I have a theory that you have to play a sport at some competitive, organized level in order to appreciate it. Unless you know how hard it is to do certain things in a sport, like hit a 90 mph fastball or kick a ball into the net past two defenders from an 80 degree offset from the perpendicular, then watching a game is just a series of "so what" moments.

Now don't rub Peter's nose in it, Brit. We have to encourage our Canadian friends, they are trying as hard as they can.

Hey Skipper said...

In what follows, full disclosure is in order, which requires a bit of a story.

Just before the NBA playoffs started, a friend called and asked if my SWIPIAW wouldn't mind taking in a Detroit Pistons basketball game. Seeing as how:

a) it was free*
b) the seats were real good
c) it was free*

We decided to go along for the ride.

The seats were so good we were virtually on the floor, just behind the sportwriters table. How just behind? Well, so close behind that ...

... when SWIPIAW asked me who the Pistons were playing, I noted the opposing team jerseys said "New Orleans." Hmmm. Probably not the Hurricanes. I know some pro team somewhere is named that, but for New Orleans that would be in such bad taste that even if it had been this bunch at one time, it wouldn't be anymore.

"Jazz," I said, "New Orleans Jazz." I mean, really. What else could it be? If you were shown a picture of a tree in New Orleans, and asked what kind it was, the only possible answer would be "Why, a New Orleans Jazz Tree, of course."

With some further musing over whether it was the Jazz, or something else like the, oh, Graft, a visibly -- and understandably, after all, we were clearly tyros wasting two of the most expensive seats in the house -- annoyed sportswriter turned around and said, "New Orleans [I still dunno; Hornets? Fire Ants?]. Utah Jazz. Been that way for 15 years."

Utah has jazz? Who knew?

Anyway, you can see I am far from a sport aficionado.

When I lived in the UK, I played a fair amount of football, at which I was adequate enough, and enjoyed doing.

(The following runs the very real risk of further offending Brit, after my after trashing LOTR, which won't be helped any by noting that Pirates of the Carribean covered the same territory far more entertainingly in a quarter the time) But to watch? It is worse than basketball. An hour and a half of activity masquerading as action, a plodding affair that can most often be left behind for the pub after the first goal has been scored.

Contemporaneously with my UK sojourn, the Times of London published an article lamenting the state of professional football. At the time (1984ish) in roughly 85% of the matches, the first team to score won. During the World Cup that year, something like 50% of the games were decided by a penalty kick after regulation play ended nil-nil. Football reminds me of a people arguing incessantly, and statically, over ...

Ummm, never mind.

I must say, the one thing that I could never take on board was the offside rule. I got called on that once, after comprehensively beating the defense. It seemed awfully, well, socialistic, in that the rule appeared to be penalizing virtue: beat the defense, lose the ball.

Why is football the most popular sport in the world?

Because it takes practically no skill to put, or keep, the ball in play.

The downside is that, due to football, entire continents of men throw like girls.

*Parking, free.
*Floor level seats, free.
*Two rounds of American beer, and nachos, $97.42

Peter Burnet said...

If someone with no exposure to soccer (sorry, "football") were to watch a few games without commentary and then try to guess what the purpose was, I'd have to believe that he'd think getting the ball in the net was something that occured completely by accident and wasn't intentional on the part of the players. He'd probably conclude that the "goal" was to see how long they could kick a ball around without letting it get outside the white lines.

Somebody call Mr. Pulitzer.

Brit said...

Hmmm...of course, there's another key reason why the Americans don't like football...

They're crap at it.

Which is a mercy. Unlike some, I have no concerns at all about the American isolationism in this area, since there is no doubt that if they starting taking it seriously and pumping dollars into it, the buggers would undoubtedly eventually be the best.

And that doesn't bear thinking about.

Brit said...


You can't beat the defence (with the ball at your feet) and be offside. You should have had a word with the linesman there, mate.

Don't worry, it's a well known biological fact that women and Americans are genetically incapable of grasping the offside rule.


like hit a 90 mph fastball or kick a ball into the net past two defenders from an 80 degree offset from the perpendicular...

Heh heh - that's the most gloriously American thing I've read about football for ages.

Vive la difference!

monix said...

Every English woman of my generation, who played hockey at school, knows the offside rule!

Hey Skipper said...


Okay, I fired up the Wayback machine, and had to revise my recollection.

I passed the ball, and left the defender who caused the past well and truly behind. Meaning, if IIRC, that everyone on the field, except their goal keeper, and the ball, was behind me.

Hence, if IIRC, the offside call.

To my eye, that indicates a defense that would be faster if it grew roots. But instead, a penalty.

So tell me how the offside rule doesn't alleviate the pressure on a flat-footed defense.

Brit said...

Technically, the rule is that a player is offside if he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second to last opponent at the moment the ball is played by one of his team-mates (unless he is in his own half or is not 'interfering with play' - but we'll leave those complexities to one side for now).

In practice, this generally means that when a team-mate passes to you, if you are hovering between the last defender and the goalkeeper, you are offide.

The rule is essential to prevent 'goal-hanging'.

Ever seen kids playing a free-for-all game in the park? There's always one cocky little blighter (usually the one who owns the football) who designates himself the striker and hangs around beside the opposite goalkeeper while his team-mates charge around, waiting for the ball to come his way so he can poke it over the line and claim all the glory.

If there were no offside rule, professional teams could just stick a couple of big lumps on the opposition goal line, and hoof it from end to end, resulting in 90 minutes of brutal goal-line melees.

It would be like rugby, rather than the beautiful tactical spectacle for which you have zero appreciation.

Kids in football-playing countries get taught how to keep a 'flat back four' in defence when they're at school, thus exploiting the rule in an 'offside trap' - ie. when the opposition has possession in the midfield and there is pressure on the ball from your team-mates, you 'push up' in a unified line just before the midfielder plays the ball forward, and cleverly catch their strikers offside.

Is that making any sense?

I would hate to shatter your glorious memories, but if you were playing against a bunch of English lads and were caught offside, I would imagine they were secretly chuckling at your American naivety, rather than sympathising with your plight at falling foul of a socialist plot.

Brit said...


Don't confuse them further.

For these guys, 'hockey' is a game where a bunch of grown men mess around on ice-skates and punch each other repeatedly but harmlessly on the shoulder-pad...

Hey Skipper said...


With regard to the offside rule, there is a better comparison than hockey.

IIRC (I have to use that term a lot with respect to sports rules) basketball would have a similar problem, except there is something like a 6-second rule in the "key." Last year, IIRC, hockey changed its own version of the offside rule which was, IIRC, similar to football's. Like football, a two goal lead in hockey was nearly insurmountable, even before the leading side decided to hunker down into a protect-the-lead defensive posture.

I understand your explanation of the offside rule -- I had actually sussed that myself -- but, IMHO, its primary effect is to put a huge thumb on the defense side of the scale.

While I am sure there are instances of teams coming back from a two goal deficit in football, I'll bet they are very few, and very far between.

In contrast, for all the major American games (except for hockey, until recently), a two score advantage is no guarantee of anything, even nearing the end of the game.

So, in American football, a two touchdown lead with 2 minutes remaining can be very much up for grabs.

In ROW football, you may as well have headed for the car park 20 minutes earlier.

BTW -- the soccer I played was amongst Americans, refereed by Brits, who no doubt got quite the giggle out of our style of play: all B, D and no F*, as my wife so picturesquely described it.

*Spelled out: all b*lls, d*ck, and no forehead.

Brit said...


Yes, it is difficult to score goals, but that's what I meant in the original post about the goal being one of sport's highest-value currencies. A basketball goal is like the old lira - you need about million to get anything.

However, it is surprising how many goals are scored right at the end of games (eg. in both the Tunisia and Germany games yesterday), and how difficult it is, pyschologically, for a team to hold out for a draw or a one-nil win, especially in the last 10 minutes under constant attacking pressure (though the Italians are famous for their cool 'cattenacio' skill in closing out a 1-0 win)

In fact, British teams are famous for their never-say-die ability to rescue games in the dying seconds.

Witness here, and my favourite 3 goal comeback, here.

Miracles are more memorable if they don't happen every game.

Hey Skipper said...


To which I refer you to what I read in the London Times following one of the world cups.

Something like half the games decided by penalty kicks.

Of the games with a score during regulation, most were effectively over at the first score.

Those games were endless activity without action.

BTW -- the Times advocated radically changing the offside rule.


Brit said...

Oh well, if some Yank with no interest in the game dimly recalls something some Times hack may or may not have written at some unspecified time in the past, I must bow to his superior knowle-... etc etc

One thing I have noticed is the remarkable way that the typical American's first thought when confronted with an alien game of whose culture and nature they know next to nothing (Duck did it with cricket in another post), is to say: "this should be improved by doing x..."

As if 2 billion or whatever people aroud the world really are wrong, and they're the ones who are right.

It's quite heart-warming, really.

I think fundamentally it comes down to a different approach to professional sport. Americans see sports as tactical wars, and slavishly analyse stats and pre-planned 'plays'. The rest of the world sees ebb and flow, battle of wills and personality.

The difference is starkly illustrated in TV commentary and news reports. UK football reports talk about drama, nerves, 'who's on top' and great shots.

Americans talk about 80 degree offsets from the perpendicular and tell you how many throw-ins each team has had.

Hey Skipper said...


Obviously, you shouldn't bow to my nearly non-existent knowledge. Nor, for that matter, any particular assertion that football has any sort of problem, given its obvious popularity.

But, regardless of my knowledge, or enthusiasm, for football, it is possible to consider whether, on a theoretical level, there is an "imbalance" between offense and defense.

Of course, my notion of "imbalance" is thoroughly American. Where I might find that a very large percentage of games ending 1-0 indicates such an imbalance, you might find perfect.

There has been a lot of air time given over here to the discussion about when, if ever, football will become a popular professional sport in the US.

At a junior level, soccer is probably the most popular sport in the US -- there's a reason why politicos refer to "soccer moms" instead of "Little League [kid baseball] moms."

I suspect the main reason it is so popular is because it is a game girls can play. All other sports involve throwing, which girls just can't do worth a darn.

However, I don't see this popularity translating to any gains at the professional level. Hockey, the sport most similar to football, gets a tiny market share compared to the NFL, NBA and baseball.

Part of the reason for that (another, large, part would be its regional origins) was, IMHO, the offside rule, which is similar to football's. As a consequence, again IMHO, hockey games are very low scoring (so low, that most scoring occurs during power play situations when a team has lost one or more players to the penalty box), and a two goal lead is nearly insurmountable.

That can take the suspense out of a game long before the clock blows the final whistle.

Absent this suspense, most Americans won't pay money to watch, no matter how much athleticism is on display. IMHO, if football desires to become a first tier professional sport in the US -- and it isn't at all clear why it should -- then the game will need to have more scoring opportunities.

BTW -- as if my ignorance wasn't already reason enough why I shouldn't have kept my keyboard shut, F1 is the only sport I follow.

Which is pretty much the epitomy of immensely dull to any but aficionados, and all but invisible in the US ...

Brit said...

One other thing to bear in mind when trying to understand football outside the US is the incredibly powerful tribal element. Winning first, entertainment and atheleticism second.

Football fans wouldn't stomach the American 'franchise' idea, where a sports team can suddenly up sticks and move to another part of the country.

As the fans sing, you're Livepool/Barcelona/River Plate etc 'till you die'.

Thus, a friendly pre-season warm-up match that ends 5-4 is an empty, dull experience, no matter how beautiful and attacking the football.

A ultra-tense 1-0 win ground out against your local rivals is exhilirating.


Two sports where even I think "this should be improved by x"...

1) F1 - make them all drive the same cars
2) Downhill skiing - instead of doing it by time, make them all set off at once and first to the bottom wins - it would be thrilling carnage, like the cheese race.

Peter Burnet said...

Americans see sports as tactical wars, and slavishly analyse stats and pre-planned 'plays'. The rest of the world sees ebb and flow, battle of wills and personality.

Oh, we are on our game today, aren't we? Those poor muddled Americans. Not only do they piss off the world by trying to impose that new-fangled democracy on everyone, the boobies don't even understand what sport is all about! I blame religion.

You are right about the fixation with stats, though. Baseball nuts are possessed about stats. We have an aging hockey colour commentator who is a parody of himself on this. Nothing incites me to murder more than to be wrapped up emotionally in a tight playoff game and have to listen to this doofus tell you which of the two teams won more face-offs in the second period while ahead by two or more goals during the regular season.

Skipper, that is a very interesting and highly original take on the offside rule in hockey and when goals are scored. I don't recognize that at all, but I'm just a country boy and you may be right. But don't you think you should be coming to these conclusions after watching the NHL rather than the Dearborn Bantam Girl's League?

Brit said...

Despite my banter elsewhere about glorified rounders and rugby in suits of armour, and although basketball leaves me cold, I do actually really like baseball. And I can even happily watch ice hockey and American Football if it's on. In fact, I've toyed with the idea of subscribing to the US sports channel on cable.

Common sense prevailed in the end, however, since the fact that I already spend every possible hour watching football, cricket and rugby is the only bone of contention in the otherwise uninterrupted domestic bliss chez Brit.

Hey Skipper said...


Skipper, that is a very interesting and highly original take on the offside rule in hockey and when goals are scored.

Possibly also bogus and way off the mark; don't forget those.

I should have qualified my statement by stating "per unit of time." Am I still barking mad?

I also notice that the NHL changed its offside rule after the struck season. What's your take on its effect?


Speaking of athleticism, there was a shot in todays paper of a 6'7" British player (name escapes me, but that number alone will suffice to identify him to you, I'm sure). That picture contains more raw athleticism then any sports photo I've ever seen.

As for F1, its technicological tour de force would be destroyed if it was a single make series.

But the alternative are frequently processional races with nearly pre-ordained outcomes and 3/4 of the teams without a prayer of winning.

Contrast that with NASCAR, which is effectively a single make series, and is IMHO the auto sports answer to World Wrestling Entertainment.

F1 is invisible in the US, while NASCAR is wildly popular.

I suspect the underlying reason is the same as football's glaring lack of popularity here. And it probably says something about respective cultural characteristics.

What that might be, though, I haven't a clue.

Brit said...

That 6'7" English (not British when it comes to football: for confusing historical reasons, the UK separates for football and rugby, but not the Olympics, and Scots and Welsh can play for the cricket team, which is called 'England' - don't worry, nobody understands it) striker is none other than the wonderfully appropriately and Dickensian-ly named Peter Crouch.

Since as he's a Liverpool player (my team), I love 'Crouchy', but the national's most famous beanpole is something of a love-hate comical figure, as summed up in this picture:

Peter Burnet said...

The offside rule in hockey has no resemblance to the soccer rule. It is called with reference to a fixed line and is based on the position of players when the pass is received, not when made. The only change is they abolished the center line for two line passes, so a legal pass can now cover 2/3 of the ice rather than 1/2. It has had some effect on excitement and scoring, but not nearly as much as the tightening up of the hooking and interference penalties, which are now much stricter and give the forwards a big advantage over the old rules.

I agree with Skipper on the inevitability of soccer contributing to its boredom. You get the odd cinderella story like Greece two years ago, but frankly, I don't know why they even bother playing the first round in the World Cup. Snore.

Brit said...


Yes, but what have they done about the continuous but harmless punching of each other on the shoulder-pads?

David said...

Soccer explained: There are two channels, and the other has Cricket on.