If the Netherlands win the World Cup (currently the odds are at 47%), midfielder Wesley Sneijder will have held the trophy for the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League, and the Italian league Serie A all in the same year.
For fans, yesterday’s US victory over the plucky Algerians to qualify for World Cup outrounds was tremendously emotional. Many pundits have discussed the different factors at work in American soccer, including the different kinds of athleticism and attitude that have sustained American soccer on the world stage. Here is a good thought on the subject from today’s NYT:
Midway through the second half, while watching Howard rush the ball toward his mates, I thought about something Alexi Lalas told me more than a decade ago when he was playing for Calcio Padova in the Italian Serie A. Some players on that weak team would give up if they fell a goal behind on the road, Lalas said, but American athletes would never give up.
It was an interesting point of view, and I was reminded of it again on Wednesday when Tim Howard sent the ball downfield, and a whole track team of runners sprinted after it for the goal that did, at least for three days, change everything.
This is great:
This paper studies how social pressure affects the behavior of soccer referees. We make use of an attractive source of exogenous variation in the number of spectators at matches. Due to recent hooligan violence, the Italian government has implemented a regulation that some soccer teams must temporarily play home matches in empty stadiums. We find that referees punish away players much more harshly and home players much more lightly when the games are played in front of spectators compared to when they are not. We find no evidence for the alternative hypothesis that home and away players are affected differently in these games along a number of different outcomes of players, such as the number of tackles. Our results therefore suggest that referees exhibit home bias caused by social pressure from the spectators.
That’s from Behavior under Social Pressure: Empty Italian Stadiums and Referee Bias by Per Pettersson-Lidbom and Mikael Priks at the University of Stockholm. Given that Italian soccer has suffered severely in recent years over allegations (and more than allegations!) of widespread collusion and Mafia involvement, I am sure that there is more to be told…but how to get the data?
From an article on SSRN titled “Football Most Foul” by William Birdthistle:
Scenes of simulation and outrage are relatively absent from American playing fields less because U.S. sports boast omniscient officials with greater acuity than soccer referees, or because there are no bad calls in America, but because the consequences of any official error are much less harmful. Except in relatively rare circumstances, American referees simply do not wield the power to work a game’s bouleversement with one blow of the whistle. Certainly, it is almost unheard of in the United States for a referee to be able to decimate (in the original sense) one team’s playing strength or to award another team the game’s only score. In soccer, however, a referee’s red card is regularly the most critical development in a match, and a penalty frequently leads to the game’s only goal. Last year’s champions, Italy, will readily attest to this principle. Indeed, so important is the power and personality of a referee that in Italy, media listings for domestic soccer fixtures routinely include – along with the teams, the date, and the venue – the official’s name.
The World Cup comprises more nations than either the Olympics or the United Nations. It is therefore a rare, truly global event. Every four years, billions of fans follow the tournament hoping to enjoy the apotheosis of soccer, played by its finest artisans for the highest stakes. Instead, with pressure and finality so palpable in every game, players frequently compete with more calculation and defensiveness than they do in their wildly popular domestic leagues. The current set of referees’ rewards and punishments only exacerbates the incentives to play in this cynical style. The abiding image of the tournament now is less one of spectacular goals or surpassing sportsmanship and more one of melodramatic chicanery. But if the referees’ tools can be adjusted and their roles thereby relegated, we might look forward to future World Cups in which the beautiful game, rather than the soap opera, plays center forward.
Caught this line from the British Daily Mail in an article on the social networking service Twitter:
Twitter has decided to act after Tony La Russa, the coach of an obscure American baseball team, launched a legal action over a fake account. He claimed that postings in which he appeared to make light of the death of two of his players had been ‘hurtful’.
Obscure? Really? As a St. Louisan I am predictably skeptical.