The Baseball Desert

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On the sidelines

I didn't see the Sox-Rays game last night, opting instead to watch the World Cup semi-final between Portugal and France. This was motivated less by a burning desire to watch the game than a realisation that the whole of our neighbourhood would be watching the game and making a lot of noise, so it was clearly a case of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

It struck me as I watched the game that I have watched only three matches during this World Cup (as against 17 or 18 Red Sox games over the same period), all three of which featured Portugal. Coincidence or not, all three games (against the Netherlands, England and France) were bad games, with nothing at all that could possibly entice a disillusioned and disinterested soccer fan like myself back into the fold. There are several reasons behind that disinterest - a passion for baseball and the Red Sox being the main one - but watching the games served to remind me of one of the other key reasons: no-one is playing a fair game.

In baseball, there are very few plays on which blatant cheating occurs, or even can occur. A hitter claiming to have been nicked by a pitch, a catcher trying to bring an outside pitch back into the zone, a shortstop applying a phantom tag on a runner - all of these things happen, but they're not a regular feature of every game you watch. In soccer, however, there is an almost constant battle to gain an unfair advantage, with players falling down left, right and centre, pretending to be have been fouled and /or injured (mortally wounded, in fact, judging by some of the reactions).

During Saturday's England / Portugal game there was a blatant dive by one of the Portuguese players (Maniche, I think, but it could have been Ronaldo or Figo or any one of a number of players) I asked Baseball Desert contributor DBF why this blatant play-acting didn't seem to bother those involved, even when millions of TV viewers can see that there was cheating involved, and he had a very simple answer: "Because they got what they wanted." The end apparently justifies the means, in every single instance.

I dislike this kind of behaviour, but on some level, I can at least understand it. What really leaves me both perplexed and annoyed is the impact that this behaviour has an all other aspects of the game. Take last night's winning goal by France, as reported by The Guardian:
Scolari did concede that France deserved a penalty when Ricardo Carvalho belied his experience by going to ground when turned by Thierry Henry and then caught the Arsenal striker's ankle with an instinctive lunge. The contact was minimal but Henry did what all forwards would do, eschewing the shooting opportunity he had fashioned for himself in favour of going to ground.

If you want to know what is wrong with soccer, that last sentence says it all. It's not just the attempt to gain an unfair advantage, but the acceptance by players, fans and writers that doing so - even at the expense of a legitimate chance to score a goal - is an accepted part of the game. It's become a reflex reaction - even in situations where there is potentially more to be gained by staying on your feet than falling down, players will opt to go down in an attempt to gain a free-kick. And as long as that is an intrinsic part of the game - and it will be for a long time to come, since kids watching the game now are seeing this as an accepted thing to do - I will always be an occasional, casual observer of the game, never a real fan.