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.
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.
If you didn’t see the world’s top-ranked soccer team, Spain, lose yesterday’s semifinals game of the Confederations Cup 2-0 to no. 14, the United States, you missed out. It was definitely a close match, with the Americans mounting brilliant counterattacks to counter a typically dominant Spanish side. The key to victory here was a motivated and energetic American defense that caught the right breaks to shut the Spanish out. Despite earlier tournament losses to Brazil and Italy, this victory establishes the US as a contender in next year’s World Cup in South Africa.
But there’s more. I was particularly reminded of a 2002 paper by Mark West (U. Michigan Law) called ‘The Legal Determinants of World Cup Success‘ (non-gated through SSRN). Here is the abstract:
The “law matters” theory advanced in a series of empirical works by Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert Vishny (“LLSV”), has become a centerpiece of recent corporate law debate. Using LLSV methodology, this Article examines the relation between legal protections and soccer success, using as the dependent variable the number of points each country has in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings. The statistically significant findings reported herein may or may not have implications of momentous import for various aspects of the human experience.
For those looking for further (and more serious) background, here is the article, ‘Law and Finance‘, published in the 1998 Journal of Political Economy and co-authored by Rafael La Porta (Harvard), Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes (Harvard), Andrei Shleifer (Harvard), and Robert W. Vishny (U. Chicago).