Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Fickle Foot of Fate

The rain now fell in great torrents over the Luzhniki Stadium's pathetically poor pitch. John Terry's normally spiked hair hung flat against his head as he approached the spot for his penalty kick. He fiddled with his captain's armband as he readied himself to deliver the first European Cup in Chelski's less-than-proud history. Earlier, a cocky Cristiano Ronaldo has paused twice in the run up to his P.K., handing Petr Cech the easy save and allowing Terry to capture eternal glory with the fifth and final shot of the first round of penalties.

As he struck the ball Man.U.'s Edwin Van der Sar dove to his right, leaving an almost entirely empty goal for Terry, who then sadly slipped on the shoddy surface and slotted it to his own right where it banged off the left goalpost, harmlessly. Now it was on to sudden death kicks. Anderson and Kalou banged their home safe. Ryan Giggs came on and successfully converted his kick in a game in which he broke Sir Bobby Charlton's club appearance record, in this, the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster of which Charlton himself was a survivor. The crowd behind the goal, fortuitously enough the Man.U. end, roared with new life. On came Nicholas Anelka, the mercurial mercenary brought on to Chelsea this past January from Bolton Wanderers. His shot, to his left, was a decent one, but it rose no higher than waist level, allowing van der Sar to stretch every inch of his 6'6'' frame to and punch the ball away to safety.

Ronaldo, saved from despair, buried his teary face into the grass. Terry, sobbing now in raw heaves, remained on the pitch, inconsolable. ESPN announcer Tommy Smyth incorrectly hung the blame on Terry and labeled it a 'terrible miss.' The fact was that the pitch was an utter embarrassment and wholly unfit to host a match of such magnitude as evidenced by the countless players treated for cramps throughout the match and the numerous slips and divots.

Terry had played magnificently throughout the match. In extra-time Patrice Evra had burst through Chelsea's penalty area and dropped the ball back for Giggs has he fell out past the goal line. Giggs, with Cech far to his right had sure victory in front of him. But Terry had raced back and stood on the goal line, and somehow, someway, twisted his neck to head away Giggs' sure winner. After the match Chelsea Chelsea assistant manager Henk ten Cate revealed that had Didier Drogba not been sent off in extra-time for a foolish slap to the face on Man.U. defender Nemanja Vidic, it would have been Drogba, and not Terry taking the final kick.

As scintillating as the shootout was, ultimately it remains unsatisfying. Man U. were undoubtedly the better team in the first half, with at least two quality chances on goal after Ronaldo's spectacular header in the 25th minute. Chelsea were undoubtedly the better team in the second half, relentlessly attacking, twice hitting the woodwork, but Man.U.'s rear guard of Ferdinand and Vidic repelled time and time again. Fantastic as it was to see Man.U. cap off a thoroughly entertaining season by defeating their current most bitter rivals, there has to be a better way to crown a champion.

Basketball games, particularly, big ones, often come down to nailing free throws on possession after possession for the team that's up late. In football, the efforts of the real team often come down to the foot of some random dude who doesn't practice with the team and who can just as easily be kicking for the other team the next week. It's funny that for all the ink that's spilled (hmm, that sure is one hell of an outdated phrase) in the NFL offseason on the skill positions of QB, WR, RB and DB, next to nothing is said about the weirdos whose feet will decide more than a fair amount of games. Does Thurman Thomas send Scott Norwood Christmas cards?

So at least soccer is decided by the stars on the field. And there is no doubt that a penalty shootout is one of the most nerverackingly entertaining experiences one can have watching sports. But it's a contrived excitement, sorta/kinda how the one-and-done nature of March Madness makes games that would ordinarily be uninteresting utterly captivating. Seeing as how everyone involved admits the shootout is a lottery the alternatives are worth looking at.

-Returning to the old method of replaying the game a few days later. This would certainly be epic, what if it took weeks to crown a winner? Logistically a nightmare, and these days difficult to pull off considering fixture congestion. For example, many of the players on the pitch last night will be pulling on their boots again in just two weeks for Euro '08. This remains, however, the fairest option, more fair than playing extra-time.

-Exchanging set pieces such as corners or free kicks 25 yards out. Under this format, teams would take turns taking corners and free kicks. The defending team would have its turn at a corner or free kick once it is able to clear the ball past the half-line following the offensive team's corner of free kick. This would be no more contrived than taking penalties and would have the advantage of least involving the entire team playing, you know, actual soccer as opposed to holding a test of nerves. Watching a player curl in a winner from 25 yards out would be a far more beautiful sight than watching a player ram one home from 12 yards out with only the goalkeeper in front of him.

-Removing a player from each team every five minutes during extra-time. Five minutes in it would be 10-on-10, ten minutes in it would be 9-on-9, etc. With the extra space someone is bound to score before it ever got to be 1-on-1, but even if it did get to 1-on-1 it would be worth the zaniness of two players running up and down the pitch exchanging howlers. At first blush, playing 8-on-8 seems silly, but, again, the odds are great that a goal would be scored and at least that goal would come from the free play of the actual game of soccer.

Of course all this hints at the real problem with soccer, the growing difficulty of scoring a goal, particularly during big matches, which is a topic for another post. Without going into the numbers too much, the average amount of goals scored at the World Cup has been falling steadily with every Cup, with the most recent Cup, in 2006 , averaging only 2.3 goals a game. The numbers fall dramatically for finals, with only 1.6 goals per game for every World Cup Final since 1990.

Some might brand this as an ignorant American rant trying to meddle with a game that they don't understand but again, penalties wouldn't be as big a problem if they rarely occurred, but 4 of the last 8 Champions League finals have ended in the shootout while 2 of the last 4 World Cup Finals have ended with PKs.


Bryan said...

This is an ignorant American rant trying to meddle with a game that they don't understand.

(I keed)

Flax said...

Totally agreed. As exciting as penalty shootouts are - and my heart was pounding even though I hate Man U and don't much care for Chelsea either - your description of them as "contrived excitement" is spot on. It's exciting more because goals are so common that it's that much more shocking and decisive when someone misses. But it has little to do with everything that's great about soccer and more to do with a modern game that demands finality as quickly as possible thanks to all the other commitments and TV dollars attached. The irony is that even though most Americans have never attached themselves to the game, the penalty shootout is a very American addition to soccer; Americans require decisive conclusions, a key reason why hockey - in a desperate bid to regain relevance - stopped having ties and started having penalty shootouts to ration out points. But of course it's also a very financial one - when you have thousands of English fans flocking to Moscow, you can't very well ask everyone to come back a week later at their own expense. So from a UCL standpoint I'm not entirely sure there's a better solution, though I've had the free kick idea myself (but it would likely take much, much longer for a free kick shootout to be resolved).

Anonymous said...

All sports are "contrived." Any subsequent excitement is-well, you see where this is going.

Pick Me, Pick Me, Pick Me said...

If these world class athletes are too tired to go on after a 30 minute OT, there's always the bench. What's the point of carrying a bench if they just sit there all game?!

Or... break out the controllers and setup an 11v11 MMPORG.

Simon said...

Sure the pitch was bad. But to blame it and not John Terry would ignore the nine players who managed to score (out of twelve shots). If the pitch was solely to blame, why was Terry the only player incabable of putting the shot on goal?

Cruel? Perhaps, but the man choked at the biggest moment of his career.

Clifton said...

Agreed for the most part but everyone was taking their pk's off the same terrible pitch. Can't blame the surface.

David said...

I always thought the NASL's approach, with a time limit and Goalkeeper vs. Attacker, starting with the ball at the infamous 35-yard (Offside) line.

Joe Wolf's Vertical Jump said...

I think Pens was the best everone on the field was done so where the fans at the Bar, Fado in Philly. The shootout was all about the drama. Glory Glory Man United.

Here are some photos of the events:

dave3544 said...

Yes Terry missed when the other men did not, but he clear slipped on a crap pitch. Which just under scores the random nature of both the shoot out and soccer.

Man U won, they are champions of Europe. But the best team in Europe? That's a whole different matter.

And that's what's great about soccer. Riise doesn't but that ball in the net in the last seconds, Liverpool could well have been playing United and Riise may not have slipped and he's the hero.

Remember, Greece is the champion of Europe, but no one is arguing they are the best. Are they?

Sorgi's Sideline Receiver said...

I remember the last time I got horrible cramps from the pitch...

It also got my sister pregnant.

Erotic Tangerines said...

Liverpool is, and always will be, United's biggest rival.