World Cup Weekend

Friday’s games showcased everything that makes international soccer maddening for Americans to watch: dreadful officiating, lack of scoring, and annoyingly conservative strategy. The referee in the Germany-Serbia game handed out cards like it was a poker tournament, with the result that, in the second half, every time two players got within about a meter of each other, both fell down, figuring it was about 50-50 that he would call something.

The cavalcade of cards eventually got German striker Miroslav Klose thrown out (for a nothing little tackle), so Germany spent the last hour or so of the game playing 10 on 11. Not that you would’ve known from the play on the field. After scoring a goal to take the lead before halftime, Serbia spent the entire second half all turtled up, letting Germany control the ball and bang away futilely at the goal. They mounted only token offense, and really should’ve been tied, but Lukas Podolski, Germany’s other Polish forward, had a nightmare afternoon in which he missed at least three wide open shots, including a penalty kick.

If there’s any (poetic) justice, Serbia will finish group play tied with another team, and fail to advance on goal differential, which they could’ve done something about, but chose not to. Watching them run out the clock for an entire half was just pathetic, even more pathetic than the officiating.

Bad as that was, the ref for the US-Slovenia game was even worse.

It wasn’t just the mystery foul that disallowed what should’ve been a winning goal, either. In the first half, he issued a yellow card to Michael Findley for, apparently, hitting the ball with his face. This is especially galling because it will cost Findley the next game, as it was his second yellow card this tournament.

There’s very little I can say about the mystery disallowed goal that hasn’t been said already. Nobody is even sure what sort of foul the referee thought he saw, because soccer is one of the very few sports in which the referee doesn’t give some sort of clear signal as to what he was calling, and FIFA doesn’t have any interest in providing an explanation.

This could’ve been very costly for the US, but fortunately, the gods of soccer have decided to maximize the potential hilarity of Group C, having England settle for a 0-0 tie with Algeria. This sets up a win-and-you’re-in scenario for both England and the US, with a chance that England might fail to advance, which would be incredibly funny after that “England Algeria Slovenia Yanks” headline.

Saturday was a pretty “meh” day. Japan put up a good fight against the Netherlands, but was outmatched. Ghana and Cameroon continued the dismal showing for African teams, with a tie and a loss, respectively. The Cameroon-Denmark game was some of the worst soccer I’ve seen this tournament– they looked like a couple of American junior high teams, kicking the ball more or less at random, with no clear plan of what to do. This did at least produce a lot of shots on goal, but most of them were pretty bad.

So, there’s my half-witted analysis. As always, feel free to explain how I’m an idiot in the comments…

Comments

  1. #1 cisko
    June 20, 2010

    Nah, I think you get it more or less right.

    I will say, however, that I think the controversy over the disallowed US goal is really unfortunate for another reason: it really obscures the truly amazing comeback by the US. Recovering from a 2-goal deficit just doesn’t happen in the WC finals.

    I have never been a fan of Landon Donovan. But he was the spark that caught the US on fire. He basically told them “we will not lose this game” — and then backed it up with his play. It was fabulous.

    The US is a funny team. They could blow Algeria out of the water. They could sink themselves (I am fearful of that early goal against the US). And they could do both in the same match. But, if nothing else, the US will remember this World Cup for a couple of gritty, tenacious performances that show a real spirit and fire. There are a couple dozen sets of fans who would like to see the same from their own national teams right now.

  2. #2 Matt Leifer
    June 20, 2010

    You’re not an idiot.

    I think the problem with the refereeing is that FIFA must have some sort of quota system for employing referees from different parts of the world. Thus, in the group stages you get referees who have little experience officiating at this level of soccer. Certainly, you rarely see this level of incompetence in the English Premiership. Things usually improve in the elimination rounds, as they usually choose the more experienced officials for those matches.

    As for group C performances, don’t get me started. I have already wasted 180 minutes of my life watching England that I can never get back.

    Finally, I don’t want to get into the age old debate of soccer vs. the various American sports where they have to score every 30 seconds because that is the average attention span of the viewers, the players get to take a little rest whenever their coach thinks they are a bit tired, and the action stops every 5 minutes so that the TV stations can squeeze in plenty of commercial breaks. I agree that there is a bit too much gamesmanship in the strategies of various soccer teams, probably because the teams that invented those strategies have been winning all the recent major tournaments, but it is still the beautiful game nonetheless.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 20, 2010

    As someone on a mailing list mentioned, Donovan’s goal was a little cheap– the only reason he was that open was that the defender made a stab at the ball and fell down– but the other two were pretty sweet. And Donovan has played really well in the two games thus far, after a very disappointing showing last time out.

    The US team seems to play their best when they’re in a tough spot. For all their talk about how Friday’s game was a must-win, they knew they could get away with a tie, and it showed in their early lackluster play. I wish they could manage to get fired up to play in some way other than conceding an early goal or two, though…

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    June 20, 2010

    I think the problem with the refereeing is that FIFA must have some sort of quota system for employing referees from different parts of the world.

    They do. There was a detailed discussion of this on a mailing list I’m on, but I’m too lazy to cut-and-paste it here. They try for a balanced pool with referees from each of the qualifying regions, and will not assign referees from the same country as either of the teams. The result is pretty much what you see on the field– some of the officials from Asia and Africa don’t have much experience with the level of soccer seen in the WC finals, and thus make some bizarre calls.

  5. #5 Paul
    June 20, 2010

    I will never understand what makes people watch such crap.

  6. #6 jim
    June 20, 2010

    My daughter asked what would happen if there was a group that played six goalless draws.

  7. #7 Another Jim
    June 20, 2010

    Lynn Truss on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday summed up the quality of play in the world cup as “so good that it can make ninety minutes seem like a mere two and a half hours”…

    Enough said!

  8. #8 Shadow Of A Doubt
    June 20, 2010

    @jim

    FIFA would draw lots to decide their positions. Teams are ranked by:
    1. points (if same then)
    2. goal difference (if same then)
    3. goals scored (if same then)
    4. only the results against the other teams in this dead heat (if inconclusive)
    5. draw lots

    If US draw 0-0 and England draw 2-2 in their last games then lots will have to be drawn to see who progresses (since US v England was also drawn).

  9. #9 Shadow Of A Doubt
    June 20, 2010

    Also, terrible ref decisions have always been a feature of football (Spain v S. Korea in 2002?? one memorable example)and the authorities either don’t care or actually like the controversy they stir up.

    Also also, hurry up and knock England out wuldya! Scotland expects!

  10. #10 che
    June 21, 2010

    The England-Algeria game may have not produced any goals but watching the English being out-smarted technically and tactically by the Algerians was wonderful.

    Also that US team has a great deal of fight in them.

    Went to the Holland-Japan game … the game was pretty dull, but what a fantastic vibe!

  11. #11 JW Tan
    June 21, 2010

    I enjoyed USA vs Slovenia. Goals get disallowed all the time, and the best response to such a decision is to score another that isn’t disallowed.

    The defensive organisation of the so-called minor teams is pretty impressive (and a major reason why the African teams aren’t doing so well). This is one reason why the scorelines look frustrating. Japan and the two Koreas in particular have delivered above expectations for my money.

    One legitimate gripe from Americans is that the nuances of football don’t lead to goals. That’s true, they because they don’t. Most of the nuances of football are around preventing goals from happening. Tournament wins are built on solid, organised defending (even if you have Falcao, Socrates and Zico…). It’s as impressive to watch as a 10 goal scorefest.

  12. #12 Michael Nielsen
    June 23, 2010

    On the lack of scoring: I’ve always thought of this as a major advantage for soccer over sports such as basketball. It means the match is actually interesting for the whole 90 minutes, whereas in most basketball games, nothing that happens up until 5 minutes before the end really matters: it’s just two teams, going through the motions. Whereas a goal scored in the first five minutes of a soccer game may well be decisive.

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    June 23, 2010

    On the lack of scoring: I’ve always thought of this as a major advantage for soccer over sports such as basketball. It means the match is actually interesting for the whole 90 minutes, whereas in most basketball games, nothing that happens up until 5 minutes before the end really matters: it’s just two teams, going through the motions. Whereas a goal scored in the first five minutes of a soccer game may well be decisive.

    My opinion is more or less the opposite– it’s all too easy for a team taking a one-goal lead in soccer to just run out the clock for excruciating lengths of time. See just about any match where Italy gets a one-goal lead, or the sorry display by Serbia last week. In basketball, there’s no realistic chance of shutting your opponent out, so both teams have to continue trying to score for the duration of the game.

    It also inflates the effects of bad officiating– lots of people complain about the officiating in basketball, but when a ref blows a call in basketball, at least you know the team will get another chance. In soccer, disallowing a single goal (say) changes everything– that may well be the only ball that either team will put in the net all game. And while cheap fouls in basketball can put a star player out of the game, at least you get to replace him, which doesn’t skew the game nearly as badly as a cheap red card in soccer.

    But then, this is all really a matter of what you grew up with. The culture of soccer looks as weird and alien to an American as the culture of basketball looks to an international soccer fan.