June 29, 2010

Is the grindingly low scoring in the World Cup soccer tournament a bug or”€”as I”€™m finally starting to suspect”€”a feature? Could it be that the World Cup’s global popularity is not so much despite all the nil-nil draws as because of the grimness of the scores?

The three-match mini-season that opened the 2010 World Cup set a new record for futility with the 32 teams scoring only 101 goals in 96 tries, or just 1.05 per team per game.

The American team, despite seemingly not noticing that its games had started until about a half hour had gone by, was, relatively speaking, an offensive juggernaut, scoring four times in its three group stage games. The only squad the USA managed to beat, Algeria, didn”€™t score at all in 2010. Portugal, led by the world’s most celebrated striker, Christiano Ronaldo, tied Argentina for most goals with seven, but all were notched against North Korean famine victims. Portugal’s other two encounters each sputtered out 0-0.

Six of the 48 games ended 0-0, thirteen 1-0, six 1-1, and six 2-0. In contrast, there was only a single 3-2 game, the final score that naïve American viewers would typically pick as the ideal balance of entertainment and rigor.

Why was scoring down in 2010?

Perhaps the victory of the unheralded Italian squad in 2006 reminded coaches of the success Italy has enjoyed (six Final Fours out of the last eleven World Cups) despite a low birthrate.

Much of the pleasure of the World Cup comes from seeing national stereotypes validated (methodical Germans, fun-loving Brazilians, etcetera), but the Italians have been disconcertingly devoted to winning ugly. Rather than playing like Benvenuto Cellini-style supremos showing off individual brilliance while plunging into collective anarchy, Italian teams have traditionally emulated a contrary regional archetype: the cunning, miserly peasant family. (This year, with even more teams playing like Mediterranean farmers stubbornly conniving Jean de Florette out of his irrigation water, the Italians went home early.)

Although the 2010 World Cup established a new mark for ineffectuality, it’s not as if 1.05 goals per game is anomalous. I”€™ve been following World Cups since 1970, and they”€™ve been like this my entire lifetime. The last time World Cup teams averaged over 1.5 goals per game was in 1958.

“The lack of proficiency also makes each of the few goals seem more epic, more worthy of being carved on the player’s tombstone: “Scored goal against Honduras in 2010 World Cup.”

Scoring trends have diverged in the cousin sports of soccer and American football. In the American cool weather game, scores have gradually risen as competence increased. In the 1970 NFL season, for instance, teams scored 3.5 times per game: 2.2 touchdowns and 1.3 field goals. (I”€™ll ignore point-after-touchdown conversions as vestigial.) That was 2.4 times the 1970 World Cup scoring rate of 1.48 goals per team per match.

By the most recent year, NFL teams were up to 4.1 scores per game (2.6 touchdowns and 1.5 field goals), while World Cup teams were down to 1.05. Hence, the NFL now sees almost four times as many scores as the World Cup.

Yet, both enterprises have flourished extravagantly over the last four decades. In a world that smugly congratulates itself on its purported increasing diversity, tastes in spectator sports have been homogenizing: football in America and soccer elsewhere.

It seems likely that the two kinds of football, in their different but both triumphant evolutions, are giving the people what they want. Hard as it can be for Americans to believe, people like soccer’s offensive ineptitude.

The appeal of high-scoring American football”€”with its action, expertise, and comebacks against the clock”€”is as obvious as the appeal of American summer movies.

In contrast, low-scoring soccer fulfills other human desires: such as, to not lose. Americans find it derisible that of the first 48 World Cup games, 14 ended without a victor. (As General Patton noted, “Americans love a winner.”) But that means that 65 percent of the time, fans avoided the national humiliation of defeat.

Bad offense also keeps hope alive throughout the match. If, say, England takes a 1-0 lead in the first four minutes, you can always hope their goalie will muff an easy one. Moreover, the narrowness of the margin gives you more excuse to complain that the referee cheated you.

The lack of proficiency also makes each of the few goals seem more epic, more worthy of being carved on the player’s tombstone: “Scored goal against Honduras in 2010 World Cup.”

Finally, low-scoring games are easy for fans to talk about because there isn”€™t much to recollect: a couple of goals and your favorite coulda woulda shoulda moment. In contrast, NFL games average eight scores, and, honestly, who can remember all that?

American games, such as baseball, tend to be described best statistically. Yet, humans don”€™t naturally like to think statistically. They like to think in narratives, and attribute outcomes (if they win) to the proper workings of moral justice, or (if they don”€™t) to sneaky villains, for which soccer is perfect.


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