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.