Soccer Sucks

I spent most evenings last month at a local bar watching the African Cup of Nations football tournament, in which the Pharaohs of Egypt retained their title after beating the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, and in which I spent more time and vocal energy cursing the rules of the game than I did cheering, as I had intended, for the sub Saharan sides, and thereby the truly African sides, against the interlopers and imposters from North Africa.  I found many rules to mock and criticize, but most of them can be reduced to one sweeping and very consequential facet of the game: the punishments for penalties are way too severe.  Because penalties are so consequential, not just some and not just many but most games are decided not by the skill of the players but instead by the judgments of the referees.  Further, because players know this to be the case, they look first to draw a foul and only second to score a goal.

Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto – I watched them all repeatedly choose to take a dive rather than attack the goal.  They get bumped or even brushed by an opposing player, their arms flail, they fall to the ground, they reach for an injured shin or ankle, and they writhe in mock agony.  For their sporting performance, they are given not an Oscar, but a penalty kick, which, miraculously, they are able to take despite their shattered legs.  They are superstars, yet they are admitting that “the only way I can score is to have it given to me freely.”  It is impossible to imagine such undignified silliness from other heavyweight sports stars.  Would Michael Jordan fake an injury then immediately thereafter strut to the free throw line to reap the benefits?  Of course not; if Michael Jordan is limping, it’s because he’s hurt not because he so over exaggerated his attempt to draw a foul that his self image requires him to look injured for at least a few moments.

The penalty kick is a virtually guaranteed goal.  There is nothing wrong with a free point; basketball uses the concept by awarding free throws after a foul.  In basketball, however, a made free throw is worth somewhere between one and two percent of a team’s point total for a game.  Cumulatively, free throws are important, but with the exception of those taken at the end of a close game, no individual free throw is all that consequential.  In football, on the other hand, a penalty kick is very likely to be worth fifty or even one hundred percent of a team’s goal total for a match.  In a sport in which goals are rare, it is quite possible that a single penalty kick is the only goal scored by either team throughout the course of the entire match.  It is absurd that a referee can blow his whistle but once and essentially give the game away.

I am not faulting the referees, who are only calling the match as they see it, and I am certainly not faulting the players, who are wise to adjust their strategies in order to score the most goals as easily as possible.  It is the rule itself that is at fault.  No foul is grave enough that it alone should decide the outcome of the match, yet too often the flow and even the outcome of a match are influenced by the referees’ calls or, in the absence of actual calls, by the players’ efforts to elicit the referees’ calls.

Equally frustrating, though unconnected, is the silly adolescent celebrating that automatically follows each and every goal.  Celebration is fun and exciting, but the style of it in football is embarrassing.  The players always look truly surprised to have scored a goal.  In my head I can hear them, in valleygirl hysterics, jumping up and down and screaming, “Oh my god! Oh my god!  I can’t believe I just scored!”  The implicit lack of confidence is pathetic.  Just once I want to see a footballer score, pump a fist, then exit gracefully.  I want to see some swagger, some confidence, even arrogance, something to suggest that he knew all along he was going to score that goal.  Michael Jordan never screamed like a valleygirl.

Yet still I watch and enjoy football.  For me it has little to do with sport and much more to do with global communion.  There is no question that football is the most popular sport in the world; it is played and followed with enthusiasm by people on every continent.  I can’t help but be excited to watch what the world is watching, but it would make much more sense to me if the world were watching basketball.

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