Wednesday Jun 30, 2010

Football/Futbol/Soccer: Replays and The USA being a world power

Way off topic here, but I'm going through a bit of soccer/football withdrawal today. 

Once every four years, the benefit of working from home is nothing short of awesome.  I'm talking about the World Cup here, so if you have no interest in footie/soccer, click away now.   Side note, sorry about the background noise of the vuvuzelas during concalls the past few weeks.

Back to the topic at hand, during first day of the two day World Cup break until the quarterfinals all the sports shows are talking about two things: 1) Replay.  The US media has been covering this since the second round of group play but seemingly not important to the rest of the world (A British friend sent me a snarky reply via twitter that read "welcome to football") until it affected England and Mexico.   2) Why the US will never be a dominant world soccer power.

#1 is easy to solve. Goal line technology (like the line technology used at Wimbledon) and an automatic review of any goal called back due to off-sides. For other game changing calls like serious bookings ( red cards or a second yellow that results in playing a man down or missing the next match), questionable handballs in scoring position (Google "The Hand of God" and "The Hand of Frog") not called but seen by all, and off-sides not being called, simply give the coaches two challenges just like the NFL. If they lose the challenge they lose a sub. It won't slow down the game because in almost all those scenarios the ref has to stop play to calm people down or the insane (but oh so prevalent practice of) diving and the resulting medics coming out with the "magic spray" causes more delays than any professional game that has replay (American throwball, basketball, and now even baseball).   The referees don't even need to jog over to the sidelines and put their head under a hooded viewing screen like the silliness we see in the NFL.  The referees on the pitch already have a communications device in their ear for the line judges, just include one up in the the press box for a ref that can make the call off of the the billion camera angles they have at the events.  Finally FIFA needs to make the post game review of serious bookings (again, a direct red or a second yellow) an easier process and regularly dismiss cards if they were a result of diving or even accidental ball to hand vs a blatant hand to ball.  In contrast, the NFL reviews every single game for dirty play and whether a penalty was called or not, players who take cheap shots or play dirty are fined fairly large sums of money on a weekly basis. 

Now to the purists or those who say it wouldn't have changed the game because they lost anyways or what ever reason, perhaps you are right.  While I'm a huge fan of Die DFB-Elf  (grandparents came over from Germany) a 2-2 tie at the half is very different than a 2-1 deficit.  Especially when every single person in the world, save for the two that mattered and get paid to watch these things, saw that England's Lampard was robbed of a goal.  From a strategy standpoint, I feel England would have never pushed up that far in basically what should have been a nil-nil scenario that allowed those last two goals coming from counter attacks by Germany.  And I'm not saying Germany wasn't the better team (but I will say England played some of the most uninspired football I've ever seen), but that call changed the whole dynamic of the game.  On to the debacle between Mexico and Argentina.  For Mexico, the blatant off-sides goal caused the players to fume and lose concentration. The Mexicans I know and work with are a proud people that are extremely passionate for a lot of things, not the least of which is football.  Many fans felt this was the first time since the 1986 World Cup that Mexico could make it to the quarterfinals (unlike the US, they've gotten to the round of 16 five times in a row!), so the pressure was immense and the hopes were high (at least anecdotal data from my friends from Mexico on FaceBook suggests this).  The rumored taunting and gloating from Argentina on the pitch nearly resulted in a brawl on the sidelines at the half shows how much is on the line and how easy it is to lose your composure over a bad call.  And we've seen how good the Argentine side can be at provoking others, just look back to the on field fight after the 2006 World Cup when Germany knocked out Argentina on a shoot-out or watch any Diego Maradona's press interview from this world cup, especially those that focus on the rekindled feud with the legendary Pelé.   Perhaps seeing how the Mexican side reacted to the bad call, the taunting became part of their  game plan to keep the Mexico squad off their game?  Finally, for the USA, bad call after bad call was mentally exhausting and it showed in the round of 16.  On the physically exhausting side, they had to score extra "legitimate" goals just to get a draw.  This forced them into a win or go home scenario in the final round of group play in a game that should not have mattered.  The US should have been able to play their "B" team and give their starters more time to rest like Brazil did against Portugal in group play.  Instead they had to ride a rollercoaster of effort and emotions that would drain even the best squads out there.  I won't spend too much time on the scheduling decisions that resulted the what seemed to be shortest rest period ever before the round of 16 for a group winner or why the group B winner got more rest time before the knock out round.  Luck of the draw there.  Sure, Ghana had the same rest and absolutely proved their fitness level to be superior, but they weren't subjected to the drama, horrible calls and the resulting media attention associated with Group C.  While it's nice that FIFA president Sepp Blatter has apologized to England and Mexico, where are the apologies to the US side? Why did we see Koman Coulibaly as a side judge in a match not two days later, with still no explanation from FIFA on the disallowed goals and phantom calls?  I'm really not trying to sound like a complainer here and I could list a dozen other mistakes (Insane red cards on Kaká and Klose come to mind).  I do feel using the replay/challenge system, most, if not all, of this could have been avoided.  Would the outcomes have changed?  Who knows.  But at the very least the eventual outcomes would have solely decided by the players skill and desire to move on.

#2 One only needs to look at the US Women's national team to see that is a load of caca (or is it?). Since the beginning of ranking women's teams there have only ever been two teams ranked number one in FIFA's rankings for women's soccer, the US - The Yanks - and Germany - Die Nationalelf -  ( Girls start young and continue, most likely because their only other options are softball and basketball (nothing against those sports). Boys start young and the parents (most likely non-soccer loving fathers) pull them to play "real sports". Nothing kills me more than to see good young male athletes in flag football leagues...It's nothing like the real game and does not prepare them for real tackle football.  Again, nothing to take away from that sport, but if your son excelled at soccer and you think it's not a real are in need of a reality check.  Go out an try to play a match, running across the pitch for 90 minutes and then come back and tell me it's not one of the most physically demanding sports out there.  Oh and for those that say soccer isn't a contact sport?  Get back to me on that one once you've played.

The other popular argument I've heard to get the US more powerful is to get foreign players to immigrate. I'm probably wrong here, but just a bit of research show all of the US Women's National team players were born in the USA. So none of this nonsense about immigrants are our only chance (though those with defending skills are more than welcome!!!).  There's no doubt that we have great athletes in the USA.  Have you even seen Kobe or Steve Nash play soccer? .  OK, OK, Nash is a Canadian born in South Africa from British parents but it was the only soccer video footage I could find of some one playing a "real sport" as defined by Americans.  Besides, Canada is a country that has had what, one appearance in the World Cup in 1986? They can blame the NHL for stealing all their good athletes. :)  But I digress, the real point I'm trying to make here about the women's side is that there is pool of of very talented US athletes capable of competing in soccer at the very highest level.  Imagine if it was just as natural for LeBron James' parents to have put a soccer ball at his feet instead of a basketball in his hands.  Sadly it's not natural, because there's very little incentive for our best athletes to play soccer. 

This is the only argument that I buy and it's a problem I don't know how to solve.  Professional soccer in the US from a pay scale standpoint is a joke compared to other sports.  Besides the few superstars (most from other countries), the players with families could easily need a second job to live above the poverty line.  Minimum MLS salary is $40K a year (and a lot of them make that) with $88K being the median salary, compare that to the NBA that has a minimum salary of over $230K.  Even Landon Donovan's $2 million a year pales in comparison to players of his caliber in other sports.  Let's just say we won't be seeing many US MLS players on MTV Cribs.  Top that off with a totally backwards (at least compared the the rest of the world) funding model for soccer.  We in America marveled when we read about Manchester United signing a 9 year old to their developmental squad.  And therein lies one of biggest differences surrounding soccer in the US and the rest of the world and our second biggest problem next to financial incentive.  In the rest of the world up and coming talent is recognized and their development is paid for by national, club teams, and sometimes wealthy benefactors (read up on Messi's and Ronaldo's stories) often at a very young age with no cost to (and in some cases financially rewarding to) the families.  In the US, the financial burden of developing talented players falls squarely on the player and their family. 

Unfortunately in the US, youth soccer at competitive levels, is on the border line of becoming an elitist sport along the lines of golf.  Sure, there are plenty of recreational leagues that are affordable, but for the truly talented kids, recreational soccer leagues (often coached by a parent who never played competitive soccer <cough, cough>) aren't what they need.  They need access to the coaches that can take them to the next level which means they need to join a competitive club.  Sadly, many cannot afford this route as club dues, coaching fees, tournament costs, club kit, etc add up quickly ($2000 a season is not atypical).  A set of top of the line Titleist golf clubs for your 10 year old looks like a bargain after a few seasons.  Yes, there are certain demographics, primarily the Latino communities, that run clubs for fraction of what others charge.  While the talent level can be very high in these leagues and the coaching experience great, many times these clubs can't afford to pay to join a "sanctioned" league, let alone pay for tournaments.  (But if they do and your upper-middle class club team comes up against one in a tournament, watch out!) Seriously though, without  joining a sanctioned league and playing in tournaments, these teams with very talented players don't get to participate in in the national ranking system that begins at age 10.  And a club that is not ranked will find it hard to get their players recognized enough to generate interest in those at the next level.  Even if they do, moving to the next level costs even more money.  I believe the US is only country in the world that makes players pay to try out for the Olympic development squads.  Tryout fees vary from state to state (probably part of the problem is having it ran at the State level), but plan on a few hundred dollars more a year just to make the development squad, far more if you travel with them.  For most players in the US, the only incentive to stick with soccer is a scholarship to college.  While a free college education is nothing to sneeze at, the simple truth is that the largest number of scholarships available go to sports other than soccer.

There are a few other problems, but these are easy to fix such as defining a standard format of play. Some leagues start at 8v8 or even 11v11 for four year old players.  How can a four year old player develop any skills in that format?  It becomes a giant frustrating game of kick ball and a field of swarming kids.  All US soccer leagues should start at 3v3 from U5 and add players and positions every two years.  If a kid never gets to touch the ball in a game, let alone score a goal, how will they learn to love the game?  If you are interested in getting your youngster in soccer,  find a program that follows the United States Soccer Federation Recommended Game Formats for Youth Development.

So maybe we'll never be a dominating world soccer power, but I know we can get better.  In fact on the world stage, I feel we have gotten much better.  And I know we can make the sport more popular.  That starts with getting more of our kids involved in soccer/football/futbol/fußball and keeping them there if they like it. It's quite simply the best sport ever.
  Think of the money we can save and put towards their education if we stop buying all those toy baseball mitts and Yankees jerseys (Angels, Mariners, or Red Sox jerseys are fine though) or those Little Tikes basketball hoops with a foam ball and get kids an age appropriate soccer ball. :) All kidding aside, if they express an interest, let them "play ball in the house" and always have a ball at their feet.  You never know and you just might be surprised that you have the next World Cup superstar for the US side in your family and at the very least you'll be helping combat the rampant obesity problem with our kids.


My name is Craig Bender aka ThinGuy. I'm a Principal Software Developer for Oracle's Virtual Desktop Engineering group.

I architect and evangelize the use of Oracle's Desktop technology including Sun Ray, Secure Global Desktop, and Oracle VDI.


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