I’m a sucker for sports spectacles, so I’ve relented and watched a couple of World Cup games. I’ve lost some of my reflexive disdain for soccer, but it still strikes me as fundamentally flawed. It’s not just that it is dull most of the time for the uninitiated viewer (although I’d probably prefer to watch a soccer game than a NBA regular season game — someone please check on David French). The problem from my amateur’s point of view is that the regular action in soccer can’t be relied on to create scoring. So a lot of it happens as a result of interruptions in play and referee calls — on corner kicks, free kicks, and penalty kicks.
I watched some of the Russia–Croatia game last weekend (which did have a thrilling finale), and the announcer kept saying after a goal something like: AND ANOTHER BIG SET PIECE IN THIS WORLD CUP! Well, yeah. When else does something happen? This creates the incentive for players to flop and pretend they’ve just gotten shot in the leg. If a referee falls for it, the tactic might change soccer history.
And then there are the penalty kicks. They have much too much of an element of randomness since the goaltender has to guess which way to jump. This is absurd and makes ending a tied game on penalty kicks a travesty.
In other sports, there can be a similar dynamic. Pass interference plays a big role in football. Basketball has its equivalent of the set piece with free-throw shots. And hockey decides tied games with penalty shots in the regular season, although the goalie doesn’t have to operate on pure guesswork to have a chance, and in the playoffs, teams simply play in overtime until there’s a goal.
In this sense, baseball is the purest sport. It relies less on subjective umpire calls, especially now with replay (and laser strike zones will eventually bring more certainty to ball-and-strike calls). There’s not a big routine penalty that affects play. And there’s no way for a team to go into a defensive crouch and sit on a lead or otherwise game the clock. It’s 27 outs for each team, no set pieces or fakery necessary.