Sports

Let the World Have Soccer

Russia and Saudi Arabia players during the first match of the 2018 World Cup at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, June 14, 2018. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
We Americans will happily continue to dominate the sports that are actually worth watching.

The United States of America did not qualify for the World Cup this year. Good for us. Soccer is corrupt, hyper-regulated, impoverished by a socialist-style fondness for rationing, and organized to strangle human flourishing. It is so dependent on the whims of referees that is in effect a helpless captive of the administrative state, and it’s so dull that it could get people killed.

Soccer fans sometimes try to argue that it’s a good thing to have a sport built around the utter impoverishment of scoring, the Soviet-like externally imposed restrictions that prevent players and fans from filling their bellies with the nourishment of points on the board. World Cup enthusiasts praise the beauty and grace and athleticism of the athletes. But there’s a reason we watch gymnastics and figure-skating competitions only once every four years, if that: Twirling grace is not enough. As Americans, we reject soccer for the same reasons we reject Continental breakfast and tiny fuel-efficient automobiles. We want payoff. We want joy. We want scoring.

Ah, but look at that artfully executed 50-yard pass, the soccer-philes say, sipping their Campari. Who cares? A 50-yard pass that almost certainly isn’t going to lead to a score is as useless as a museum of steak. If the Porterhouse is behind glass, what good is it? The “long ball” of the soccer match almost invariably leads to a freeway-at-rush-hour-grade traffic jam around the goal box and the eventual clearing of the ball by the defending team. Entire soccer games go by without anybody scoring. This is because the most notable feature of soccer is the no-fun-allowed rule, aka the anti-scoring rule, aka the offsides rule.

Soccer is built around the unifying European belief that wealth is suspect. Scoring is lucre, and we can’t allow anybody to have too much of it.

Picture a beautiful long touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham takes a hit from the cornerback, streaks by the free safety, and makes a mad dash to corner of the end zone, where he makes a spectacular leaping catch. Tweet! If this were soccer, the play would be disallowed. Beckham failed to allow two defenders to stay ahead of him until he had the ball, so he gets punished for his superior speed and the fans get punished when a gorgeous play is nullified. What kind of sport rewards failure to keep up with the action, to be swift? Sports are war, and in war, “Let the other guy catch up” is not a thing. If soccer referees were in charge of 1944, they would have blown the whistle on the Third Army until the Germans had time to back up a couple of Panzer divisions behind them.

Soccer is built around the unifying European belief that wealth is suspect. Scoring is lucre, and we can’t allow anybody to have too much of it.

In no sport does the regulatory apparatus — the referees — exercise such a heavy hand as in soccer, and when an industry is over-regulated, gaming the bureaucracy becomes everything. A questionable foul or penalty can influence the outcome of an NBA or NFL game, but in soccer, goals are so scarce that most or all of the scoring in a game might depend on a subjective foul call inside the penalty area, which leads to a penalty kick that will almost certainly result in a goal. So crucial are penalty kicks to soccer that it sometimes appears as if the most important skill a soccer play can possess is a knack for drawing fouls in the penalty area. This is the equivalent of a corporation that is ostensibly in the business of selling widgets but has long since discovered that its most profitable arm is run by the lobbyists and lawyers hired to skew the regulations in its favor.

Even more arbitrary, capricious, and subject to abuse by soccer’s IRS-like referees is the insane “stoppage time” policy. Near the end of each half of the match, the referee makes an educated estimate of how much time has been lost to breaks, arguments with referees, or goalies futzing around before a goal kick, in consultation with a colleague who’s tasked with tracking lost time on a stopwatch. He then adds that amount of time to the clock, but he’s not even obliged to abide by his own decision; he can blow the end-of-game whistle whenever he feels ready. A 2016 study of 380 games in the Spanish soccer league found that bias was affecting stoppage time in every conceivable way. Less time was added to the clock if the game was a blowout, but favored teams that were trailing were given more time to catch up. When favored teams were ahead, less stoppage time was added to prevent the underdog from catching up. Home teams over-perform statistical expectations in the World Cup by a breathtaking eleven places according to one study: A team expected to finish 15th will typically come in fourth instead.

It’s well-documented that soccer’s nominal superfans often get completely smashed before the game even starts and attack one another, sometimes resulting in death. This isn’t like the jubilation that sometimes gets out of hand after pent-up excitement is released by, say, a World Series win; the mere proximity of even a routine midseason soccer contest causes fans to go nuts. My guess is they know they’re going to be bored spitless by the game. So instead of watching it they resolve to do something more interesting instead: Start a fight.

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