Monday, July 10, 2006

Deus Ex Stupidity

Penalty kicks are an unsatisfying means of determining a world championship, or a sandlot argument for that matter. They're also unworthy, unfair, and worst of all, unserious. If FIFA, soccer's ruling body, was searching for a way to convince casual American sports fans that theirs is a stupid game, the half-assed tie-breaker employed in the World Cup was just perfect.

Penalty kicks are so dumb, they robbed Zinedine Zidane of his richly deserved moral burden of being the goat of France's loss to Italy.

With about 10 minutes to play in overtime, the French midfielder was red-carded for head-butting a taunting Italian rival. Until then, Zidane had been the Cup's sentimental favorite. In one breathtaking moment of rage, he turned into sport's biggest symbol of individual disgrace since Roberto Duran said "No Mas."

As our Parisian correspondent J.F. noted, Zidane's butt would've called for disqualification in a boxing match. Name any disapproving adjective, and it applies to the star's moment of id. The one thing Zindane didn't do, however, was give the Cup to Italy. Penalty kicks even take the disgrace out of a game.

France was forced to play 10 on 11 for the final 10 minutes, but Italy was so winded it couldn't manage a semblance if a scoring threat despite its advantage. Obviously, Zidane's absence affected France's chance of winning via normal means, but the Italian defense was so rigorous (Italy's numbers 5 and 8 were by far the most effective men on the pitch) and scoring is so difficult under any conditions, that ten-minute gap was less than a decisive blow.

Penalty kicks are what blow. After 120 minutes of play, let's put the game in the hands of chance. Karma will decide. It sure ain't skill. If the goalie guesses right, he might block a shot. Or a kicker might miss a shot he makes 90 percent of the time. In the event, a Frenchman did miss, and neither goalie laid a finger on the nine shots taken.

Gosh, that's sure justice. As a sporting spectacle, having the two clubs line up a the 18th hole of a miniture golf course and try to roll putts into the clown's mouth would've been better entertainment.

Consider the alternative, namely, playing until somebody scores a damn goal. Here would've been moral drama. Ten French players, handicapped by the selfish rage of their captain, versus 11 gassed Italians. Whatever the result, the conclusion would've been more satisfying to all concerned. Penalty kicks leave the loser with all the pain of defeat minus the bitter consolation that the other team did in fact play better.

FIFA, which appears to hire its executives from those fired by the NHL for incompetence, has no legitimate defense for the penalty kick. The games would go on too long? Tough luck for the world's TV networks, more fun for the rest of us. The players would get too tired? Uh, they're highly professional athletes. In a world where white-collar suburbanites find the time and energy to become triathletes, that excuse doesn't cut it. In a pinch, the game could loosen its substitution rules for OT.

I have now watched two World Cup finals decided on PKs, in 1994 with a delirious crowd of Brazilians, and yesterday with a very unhappy teenaged Francophile. Both the winners and losers were cheated of the fundamental right of all fans-to see the game decided by its actual rules, not a made up ending. PKs are to sports what dream sequences are to television drama-the mark of incompetent plotting.

PS: I was prepared to delve int0 the psychodrama of Zidane's meltdown, but on further reflection, I'm not sure that's what it was. The Frenchman, after all, was only the second World Cup star to be ejected from a tie game for a flagrant foul. English striker Wayne Rooney was tossed from his team's quarter-final PK loss to Portugal for stomping a foe in the groin.

There are two possible explanations for these wanton acts of violence. One is that the pressure of World Cup play bends the minds of competitors beyond endurance. It's possible, as the stakes are very high, but 30 years of close observation of professional athletes tells me to reject the idea. These folks are the ultimate creatures of habit, and World Cup final or club friendly, when they hit the pitch, it's all one. They've spent pretty much every waking hour of their lives trying to make each game be the same. The Ron Artests of this world are rare birds. The notion that not one, but two world-class superstars just happened to blow their minds in the same way in the same event defies probability.

This leaves the conclusion fouls like Zidane's and Rooney's are a commonplace in soccer, and most of the time, the criminal escapes scot-free. They didn't melt down due to the Cup's pressures. Those pressures were the reason they got caught. A Portugese player brought Rooney's foul to the ref's attention. The ref didn't see Zidane's headbutt at all, and it may have only been detected when the act was replayed on the stadium Jumbotron. That's like getting busted after being featured on "America's Most Wanted."

The World Cup draws soccer's best referees, and even the most devoted fans admitted most of the games were officiated in startingly incompetent fashion. Given that, it seems most likely that Zidane butted his tormentor for the simplest of motives-he thought he'd get away with it.

So much for soccer writing by yours truly for the next four years. Here's this casual fan's summary for the defensive, sensitive boosters of American soccer.

You're getting there, gang. I was much more into this Cup than any of the ones before it. Add an extra official and drop the PK shootouts. Then, maybe, the 2010 Cup will see the soccer revolution you've been promising for the last 40 years.


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