Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup Soccer

We're well into the Knockout Round of 16, so it's high time for some lasting impressions:

1. The Vuvuzelas are a Plague: With all due respect to my esteemed colleague Stan Bunger, who thinks the incessant and mindless blowing of these cheap plastic horns represents an infectious musical beat, I think the vuvuzelas are no better, and no worse, than the thundersticks (which Stan hated), most notable at the 2002 World Series between the Giants and the Angels, most notably in Anaheim, where they spread like an infectious narcotic. I covered that World Series, and will never forget the sight (and sound) of Angels fans by the dozens--in my section alone--blowing them throughout the games, without regard to what is happening on the field itself. I heard those damn inflatable sticks in my sleep for several nights after the Series was over. And, again, let's not forget the similarities between the thundersticks and the vuvuzelas:

a. They have nothing to do with the games themselves, unlike spontaneous cheers, and even organized cheers (which the English do better than anyone). They are banged together (thundersticks) and blown individually (vuvuzelas) constantly, and mindlessly. It is no wonder the athletes themselves hate them, much as they hate the wave, because all three represent noise which, rather than reflect what is happening on the field, instead interferes with what is happening on the field. They are distracting. They are annoying.

b. They keep the true fan at the game, and the fan watching on TV or listening to the radio, from hearing the natural sounds of the game--the crack of the bat against the ball in baseball, the kicking of the ball in soccer, (again) the spontaneous cheers of the fans--all of which help contribute to the beautiful ambience of the games themselves.

c. They are defended by those who benefit from the selling of tickets. In 2002, it was Angels' and Giants' management, as well as the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, who defended the thundersticks as harmless. And now, it is the president of FIFA--international soccer's governing body--who defends the vuvuzelas as an integral part of South African culture. Oh, please.

2. Time for FIFA to Join the 21st Century: I said on KCBS at the beginning of the World Cup that it was just a matter of time before a mistaken goal (one that should have counted, but wasn't, or the other way around) decides a match. One that could have been prevented by the use of instant replay. France got into the World Cup, at Ireland's expense, from a goal that should not have counted because of an obvious handball. And yet, the president of FIFA said there was no reason to use instand replay in the World Cup, even just to be certain on controversial goals, or non-goals.

So how long did it take to expose this absurd stance by FIFA? Not long. I've lost count of the incorrect calls on goals, and non-goals. There was the one that should have counted for the U.S. late in its match with Slovenia, that would have meant a 3-2 win instead of a 2-2 tie. There was the one that should have given England a 2-2 tie at the half against Germany, but wasn't counted, even though it bounced between one and two yards inside the goal line. The crazy thing is this: Even if FIFA wants to subbornly refuse to include instant replay, it could still station additional assistant referees at the goal line, and behind the goal, to ensure that the proper call is made on goals and non-goals. Instead, what we have is a collective chorus of complaints about the quality of the referees, and it's unfair to blame them.

Any licensed referee who has ever officiated a soccer game (myself included) will tell you that it is impossible to see everything that takes place on the field, and yet there is still only one referee, i.e., a center referee, on the actual field of play for every World Cup match, all the way down to every U12 Youth Soccer match, which is where teams begin playing 11v11, rather than 8v8 (U10). Yes, there are two assistant referees patrolling the sidelines, mainly to call directional throw-ins, and off-sides, but why not have two center referees, one patrolling each side of the field? The games would be easier to officiate.

But back to the stubborn refusal to incorporate instant replay. Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL all use it, in various capacities. What all four sports have in common, along with soccer, is that millions watching at home can see when the incorrect call is made. It's unfair to the umpires and the referees to refuse to utilize instant replay. You think baseball umpire Jim Joyce would have appreciated the use of instant replay when he cost Detroit's Armando Gallaraga a perfect game? Of course he would have. Instead, he has to live the rest of his life knowing he cost Gallaraga the rarest and most treasured feat a pitcher can achieve. Yes, he made the wrong call. But he shouldn't have to live with it forever. We have the technology available to correct such monumental mistakes.

3. The Dives and Fake Injuries are a Disgrace: Anyone who has watched even one or two games of the Cup knows what I am talking about. This is an embarrassing part of the men's game that has never been adequately addressed. Whether it's a guy tumbling to the ground when the opposing player hasn't even made contact with him, or a guy going to the ground and then grabbing his knee in a show of absolute agony, worthy of an Academy Award, it represents a disgraceful part of the game that has become accepted by far too many soccer officials, players and fans. To FIFA's credit, its referees are now encouraged to issue yellow cards to those they deem guilty of such acts, but again, this puts the referee in an impossible situation. How does he know for certain that the guy is acting, when he's seeing the play in real time? In most cases, he's guessing. Case in point: Brazilian superstar Kaka was forced to miss his nation's third game, because of a second yellow card issued in its second game, when an Ivory Coast player took a dive, faked an injury and effectively sold it to the referee. Can anyone tell me that this is not disgraceful and embarrassing?

Some national teams are far more guilty of this than others. If you watch international soccer enough, you'll know which teams I'm talking about. The Asian countries are consistently the ones who don't include this nonsense as part of their strategy. Kudos to them. I hope Japan goes a long way, given that Japan is the only Asian team left in the competition. I also hope Ghana goes a long way, because Ghana is the only African team remaining, and this tournament is, after all, being played on African soil. No African nation has ever won the World Cup. This would be a fabulous time for it to happen.

So, what to do about the dives and the phony injuries, since it's obvious that allowing referees to penalize those guilty of such acts won't begin to put a serious dent in the problem? OK, this is where we get back to instant replay. Isn't that where we see the problem first-hand? Yes, we see it when replays are shown. Just today, I saw a Chilean player go down, and hold his knee in agony. He got a foul called on the Brazilian player, albeit not a yellow card. But the replay showed that the Chilean player wasn't even touched. He took a dive in between two Brazilians, grabbed his knee in agony, got up from the ground a few seconds later, and continued playing. How shameful. He deserved to go home after that pitiful show.

Yes, instant replay could be used to correct this problem, or at least go a long way toward correcting it. Right now, there's no incentive for players (and national teams) to stop the acting, because they know they can get away with it, if they sell it convincingly. However, if soccer's governing bodies, from FIFA all the way to MLS, could review tapes of games, and issue suspensions and fines to those deemed guilty of such fraudulent behavior, then I think we might see a significant change in this absurd practice. It's certainly worth a shot.

Finally, I can't let this subject go without pointing out that the dives and the fake injuries are unique to the men's game only. Chances are that you will never see it in the women's game. It's not part of the culture of women's soccer. Kudos to women's soccer for that.