Well, there’s really not much interesting to talk about in the NHL during the offseason, other than the Florida Panthers’ crazy escapade to become the Atlanta Thrashers by trashing half their roster and going wild in the FA market and with trades, or Rangers’ GM Glen Sather surprising act to not accidentally add an extra zero onto Brad Richards’ contract.
Baseball has too long of a season to pick out anything interesting (sorry, Derek Jeter). I refuse to talk about the LeBron Jame- I mean NBA offseason, and there’s not much going on in football (hopefully that’s settled soon). How about soccer?
With nothing else on (despite what ESPN wants to tell me, hot dog eating is not a sport), I decided to tune into the USA vs. Brazil quarterfinal game in the Women’s World Cup for a bit. An iffy call in the box leads to a US defender getting tossed (causing the US to be shorthanded the rest of the game and a PK for Brazil: basically an automatic goal. If you don’t want soccer, I can tell you that these end up in the back of the net about 85% of the time, hitting the post 10% of the time, the player missing the net entirely 4% of the time (very embarrassing), and the goalie actually making a save maybe 1 out of 100 opportunities. OK, I exaggerate, but they are nearly impossible to stop. It’s a guessing game
Anywho, I had a strange confidence in Team USA’s super-cutie netminder Hope Solo. Being up 1-0 in the second half, and now down a [wo]man, they almost had to get a stop if they had any hope to get a win. And they got it; a HUGE save from Solo, who read the shooter perfectly.
Too perfectly, according to one shady official. She pointed back at the PK dot, walked up to Solo and showed her a yellow card. Now, I know that you almost HAVE to cheat to save a PK, but what? An outrageous claim that Solo moved before the ball was kicked — forward, not laterally (you’re allowed to do that apparently) — led to a redo, as are the rules. Seriously, FIFA? A do-over? That sounds like something that might happen when I’m playing against one of my brothers: “Nuh-uh! You cheated! That doesn’t count, I wasn’t ready! I get a do-over!” So Brazil scores on the Mulligan. Tie game.
You can say what you want about the lack of talent on American soccer teams — both men’s and women’s — but there’s one thing you can’t deny: their tenacity, grittines, and refusal to lose. It’s cliché and a stereotype, I know, but that seems to be American sports culture: less time spent on the actual craft and developing skills and more time spent building the desire/mindset to win, at least when compared to other nations.
The game goes to extra time, and Brazil scores in the first extra period, albeit being offsides when they scored. Missed call, but I’ll admit it was bang-bang (the US defender losing her mark, whom scored the goal, because she was lobbying to the official for an offside call certainly didn’t help). 2-1. Being a man down, it looks bleak for the US. They get some chances but can’t come through. They can’t seem to catch a break (even though their first goal came off a poor clearing attempt by a Brazil defender that went into her own net). The game approaches its bitter end.
122nd minute. Probably the last run for the US before soccer’s imaginary time runs out. Megan Rapinoe sends a long, forward cross to the far post from 30-35 yards out. Abby Wambach crashes the net and gets a head on it. Gourgeous. 2-2.
The game goes to PKs, and Solo comes through again and makes one save out of four chances, which is enough for the sure-footed American snipers. Team USA wins 5-3 in PKs against all odds and moves on to the semis.
I’ll admit, it was some of the most entertaining soccer you will ever watch, and probably one of the most dramatic matches in FIFA history. Still, I couldn’t help but feel cheated when I watched that game, as I often do when I watch any professional soccer game.
Why do games, more often than not, have to be decided by the officials? In a game where goals are so difficult to come by, one official’s mistake can actually be the turning point from which a team cannot recover from. In what other [popular] team sport can you say that?
Let’s go back to last year’s Men’s World Cup. Team USA rallies from a 2-0 deficit against Slovenia in the round-robins to tie it. Off a Landon Donavan free kick, Team USA’s Maurice Edu has a goal waved off for no apparent reason in the 85th minute. The FIFA official never gave an explanation as to why the goal was negated. And, per FIFA regulations, he never had to. The game ends in a draw rather than a US win. Even though the game didn’t really effect Team USA’s advancement, I have to wonder why I subject myself to watching a game where an official can make any call he wants and never have to justify the call. No goal, why? Because I, the all-omnipotent referee, said it to be so, and so it came to be.
That’s an extreme example, but these kinds of calls and plays happen on a regular basis (see also: PK save negated for a BS reason). What does that lead to? Players trying to fool the refs. Soccer is mocked for its absurd encouragement of flopping, and rightfully so (although, there seems to be MUCH less of it in women’s soccer than men’s). It becomes a game of “trick the ref” to get an advantage rather than soccer.
Have the ball in the box? Can’t get a foot on the ball?? Defender near you, possibly making physical contact??? No problem! Fall to the ground and grab your face or Achilles tendon, and hope the ref grants your team a glorious PK (don’t worry, you can miraculously come back from such an egregious injury in a few minutes). He/she may even give the defender a red card! Don’t think the call will be made? Worried that maybe you should have tried harder to make a play on the ball to score the elusive soccer goal for your team? Don’t worry about it, with enough acting practice and the right circumstances, most refs can’t tell. Just leave the game in their hands, gain their favor, and everything will be OK.
Who’s to blame for all the diving? The players for lacking integrity? The refs for being fooled so easily and not factoring in that if a player falls, there’s a good chance he dove? The coaches for teaching/telling players to flop in games? Cultures for preaching/praising the act as long as it helps your team (anything to win, right)? Or is it the game itself for being so difficult to score in that you almost have to pull some stunts to work your way to a goal or two (even my soccer teams growing up, as well as my opponents’ didn’t have much trouble scoring without flailing to the ground)?
It doesn’t matter. In addition to playing the clock (stalling because the clock never stops) and games being decided on a skills competition (the shootout) instead of what the game actually is, I want diving out of the game before I, as will most of the sports world, will accept professional soccer as a legitimate sport and take it seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I love soccer and played for many years; it’s a great game to take part in, but professional soccer just doesn’t feel right. The game needs to be left up to the players to decide the outcome. Officials can’t have the power they do. While the ridiculous call against the US led to a dramatic victory that was more exciting than it would have been otherwise, it could have very, very easily ended the other way. It would have been unacceptable. The ref is off the hook (at least in the eyes of American sports fans) because Team USA pulled it off, somehow. But what if they didn’t? These “what-if”s are too glaring to not be dealt with.
I’ll admit I yell at the officials in every sport when my team seems to get hosed (which, coincidentally, seems to be pretty much every game), but very, very rarely do I consider them as a deciding factor as to why my team lost (unless they’re playing the Penguins). Professional soccer is the one sport where I can — and not be preposterous in doing so — say: “Wow, the ref really screwed Team X over in that game. He/she made the deciding call(s) of the game, a call that was either incorrect or controversial in some way. Had it not been for that call, Team Y probably would not have won the game; it was simply a decision that Team X could not recover from.” The scary part is that it doesn’t even have to be the wrong call to be a deciding factor; it may simply be a borderline call that really could go either way. I don’t want a games that I’m going to invest 90+ minutes into watching to be decided on a coin-flip decision or how the official is feeling that day, which, surprising, usually seems to be pretty anti-American.