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The World Cup has seen its share of Shakespearean performances by falling players howling in pain to impress the referee. Here, The Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, left, and Mexico’s Hector Moreno put on the act.Themba Hadebe

The World Cup has seen its share of Shakespearean performances by falling players howling in pain to impress the referee. Here, The Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, left, and Mexico’s Hector Moreno put on the act.
Themba Hadebe


As half the planet prepares to watch tomorrow’s World Cup final, I have the same question as many in the other half.

What’s everyone so excited about?

I try to embrace soccer, really. I love to hang out at bars and cafés enjoying World Cup fever. I like the excitement, the flag-waving — the honking Argentinian cars that passed my house until 1 a.m. Thursday.

But I admit the “beautiful game” is still a mystery to me.

I find soccer has a slow and somewhat, er … boring pace which isn’t suited to shallow, entertainment-oriented North Americans like me. The New Yorker once called soccer “the Canada of sports.”

Like many here I was brought up on hockey, football and basketball: high-scoring games with gentle rivalries between cities — not nations. But soccer is a low-scoring game with national blood feuds that go back decades, centuries, perhaps millennia.

Soccer fever has been spreading in North America as more kids play, though it was set back during last Thursday’s semifinal between Argentina and The Netherlands that put 93 per cent of our continent to sleep.

That’s because we North Americans are a goal-oriented society — literally. A typical football game ends 47-45, while basketball scores can get so high the referees lose count and call in mathematicians.

But your standard soccer score is 1-0. Or 0-0. Or 1/7th to 1/15th. I’m told of one hushed-up game where Croatia beat the Cameroons by minus 3 to minus 6.

Even when North American athletes aren’t scoring, they’re nearly scoring while hockey announcers scream: “Here comes Crosby, he shoots! … Ohhh! – he hit the goalpost !” — every seven seconds. But soccer announcers are more subdued:

“Now it’s Germany’s Kroos with the ball … who passes to Klose … and back to Kroos. He passes to Klose, back to Kroos, back to Klose, over to Kroos! … Now it’s back to the goalie who was off having a cigarette but returns to kick the ball back to Kroos … over to Klose.”

Over the years I’ve asked my few soccer-loving friends to explain their passion. They say I should look beyond the score at the beauty of the game — the sublime passes, the blinding footwork, the wonderful Shakespearean performances by falling players howling in pain to impress the referee.

I’ve asked European friends about the game and gotten more philosophic replies: “In soccer, the goal is not the goal. It’s about tension, not action — anxiety not entertainment. You’re watching your Gods, your tribe – and you go through despair, anger, frustration — even boredom — but somehow it’s necessary for those few moments of radiant beauty, exquisite skill and utter unpredictability.”

Whatever. Everyone knows the first goal will probably win — and when it finally happens it’s a religious experience. Grandmothers dance on tables. Children weep. South American governments fall.

The big question we North Americans ask is: why not change the rules to encourage more scoring? Why not narrow the field to hockey rink size so there’s more scoring? Or widen the net? Or shrink the goalie?

But Europeans just look at us like the ignoramuses we are — and won’t even answer. It’s the mystery of soccer.

Now at last a fascinating recent piece in the New York Times partly explains the inexplicable. According to a book called “The Numbers Game” by two soccer-playing economists, soccer is actually as much about chance as skill. Statistics show that when bookie-favored soccer teams play non-favoured teams they only win half the time — unlike football and basketball where the favored team wins two-thirds of the time.

That’s because soccer is often won by one goal — a small enough margin that luck can play a big role. That’s why a first-time team like Senegal managed to beat the reigning World Cup champion France, 1-0, in 2002. But according to the economists that’s how soccer wants it.

North American sports teams often share their revenue and talent, so many teams are somewhat close in skill. But in soccer, some teams are vastly richer and can afford much better players. If you encouraged more scoring if would just accentuate skill and reduce luck — so the best team would usually win and national soccer rivalries would die.

It would be as joyless as last week’s shocking 7-1 German win over Brazil that destroyed Brazilians’ self-image so thoroughly the president may resign.

Better to have a low-scoring, (dare we say dull), anxiety-churning game where anyone can win. Better a tense 1-0 then an exciting 15-1.

So shut up all you know-nothing North Americans like me—and stop trying to destroy soccer. Lean back tomorrow and enjoy watching others enjoy another 0-0 contest that’s decided in overtime penalty kicks.

Someday, when Canada gets its first terrible national team, we’ll be glad this is how the beautiful game is played.


Republished with the permission of Josh Freed.