By Henry Louis Gomez
As a Cuban-American, I don't have a natural affinity toward the game of soccer, or football as the rest of the world knows it. Baseball is the sport I have the most passion for and enjoy the most. Still, I'm a sports fan in general and I can't say I hate the "world's sport."
Like many, every four years I enjoy watching the world's best soccer players competing for their countries in the World Cup. I work with Latin Americans who truly love the game and it's hard to not get caught up in all of the excitement. But this year's World Cup in South Africa has really made me reflect on what it is about soccer that just doesn't do it for me, and perhaps for other Americans.
The first thing is the dreaded tie or draw. In the first round of the World Cup, teams compete in groups of four where they play a round-robin for points. The top two teams in each group advance to the round of 16. A win gets you 3 points in group play and a tie gets you 1 point. It's been said that a tie is like kissing your sister, not the worst thing in the world but hardly satisfying. More than that, there's something wrong about it.
I think that the idea of a draw is antithetical to most Americans. For us, sports are instructional. Through sport, as children, we first learn that in life there are winners and losers. At its best, sport teaches us to win graciously and also to lose graciously. But the idea of watching two teams chasing a ball around a huge field for 90 minutes with no resolution is hardly appealing to me personally. It's bad enough to have ties in unimportant games like international "friendlies" but the idea of a draw in the World Cup leaves me scratching my head. In this year's World Cup there were 14 ties in 48 first-round games. And if teams are tied in the standings at the end of group play there's potential for arcane tiebreakers such as "drawing of lots" to see who advances.
But even if FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, stands by its rules that permit ties in the World Cup, there's something that is truly offensive to most American sports fans, including me, and that's injustice. This World Cup has been beautiful to watch from a strictly aesthetic point of view. Broadcast in high definition with incredible super slow motion replays, we really get to see the game in a way that it's never been seen before. And when the referees make a bad call the entire world knows it in seconds. Notably the United States had two legal goals disallowed in group play. But beyond my personal rooting interest in the Yanks I've seen England robbed of a legal goal and Argentina awarded a goal that should have been disallowed because their player was clearly offside.
In a sport where scoring is at a premium it's inconceivable to me that legal goals can be disallowed on the game's biggest stage when the technology is readily available to get the calls right. More disturbing is FIFA's arrogance on the matter. A FIFA spokesman actually denounced the repeated showing of replays of controversial plays in the stadiums, claiming that human error is part of the sport. Well, Mr. Soccer Official, so is fan violence and retribution. It's only a matter of time before a referee makes an obvious gaffe in a semi-final or final game with disastrous consequences.
But the most annoying thing about FIFA's recalcitrance on the issue of replay is that it's unsustainable over time. Does anyone actually believe that replay will not be a part of soccer in 4 years or 8 or 12? And when it does come, how many uncorrected bad calls will have been made by referees in the interim?
Even my beloved baseball, a sport known for clinging to traditions and resistance to change, has taken the first painful but necessary steps in the journey toward eliminating correctable errors in officiating through the use of instant replay. FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared on Tuesday that he would now reconsider using technology on goal-line calls. One can only hope that that this is the beginning of a similar journey toward getting it right.
As an American I can accept that soccer is the most important sport in the world and that the World Cup is the most important event in that sport. But what I can't accept is that our sports world is so screwed up that we'd collectively allow a handful of stubborn bureaucrats to control it in a way that devalues it unnecessarily.
Henry Gomez writes for Babalu Blog.