Saturday, June 14, 2014

Are you ready for some football?

So the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked off this week in Brazil.  That's "soccer" for us Americans, but "football" for most of the rest of the world, and "footie" if you were in "Trainspotting."  The word "soccer" comes from the formal name of the game, "association football," which makes our word for it not incorrect, just out of favor in places where they are mad for football.

The World Cup tournament is played in two parts.  There are 32 national teams, most of whom went through a complicated series of qualifying matches to win the right to get to Brazil.  Those 32 teams were then arranged into eight groups of four, mostly along geographic lines, but also taking into account the expected quality of the participating teams.  Each group plays a round-robin schedule.  Teams get 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and no points for a loss.  The two teams from each group with the highest point totals then move to the "knockout" stage, a conventional single-elimination tournament that culminates in the World Cup Final.

The Final will be watched live by about one in every ten human beings on the planet.  In fact, the average human being watches about three and a half World Cup matches every four years (the cumulative television audience in 2006, for example, was more than 26 billion viewers).

If you watch all 128 hours, you'll only want to cut off your arm.
There will be 64 matches, 48 in the group stage and 16 knockout stage matches, including the third-place game (between the two losing semifinalists). Since each match takes about 2 hours to play, that means the tournament will consume about 128 hours of time, a figure that invites a comparison with a certain James Franco film.

Americans are mad for football--the kind with pads and helmets and lots of hitting and falling down--and most of us view soccer as something you take your kids to play on Saturday morning.  But it's growing in popularity, even though the people responsible for soccer's rules seem bent on making it as foreign to American audiences as possible.  For example, unlike every other timed sport in the U.S., in soccer, the clock counts up, and it never stops, even if there is a gory injury on the field or naked men run onto the field, events that happen with some regularity in foreign venues.  Instead, some official keeps track of how much time was wasted with the more exciting non-soccer parts of the match, and they just add a few minutes onto the end of the half.  Nobody knows how much time will be added until the end, and even then the whistle blows at some apparently arbitrary time after the added time has elapsed.

One of the reasons why soccer isn't very popular is because there isn't a lot of scoring.  To the untrained eye, most of the times it looks like the players aren't very good because they can't get the ball in the net, and half the time when a goal is scored it appears to be mostly accidental.  Don't worry--it looks that way to the trained eye, too.

But a hardy and growing band of hipster and hipster-adjacent Americans insists on liking the sport, despite--or perhaps because of--its heavy anti-American slant.  They point out our proud soccer heritage.  Did you know that the U.S. won the first-ever World Cup match (actually one of two played simultaneously, I assume not on the same field), a stunning 3-0 victory over Belgium?  We may have peaked that year, reaching the semifinals, only to have our patriotic hearts ripped out by Argentina, 6-1.

And we actually have a reasonably good professional club league going.  Major League Soccer is growing in popularity, it's profitable, and its average attendance exceeds both the NBA and the NHL (although, to be fair, there are a lot fewer MLS matches than in the NBA and NHL).  Part of the reason for that is that the Latino population is growing, but it's also true that millions of today's Americans--young adults to middle-agers--played soccer as kids.

Apparently whatever FIFA official the group draw decided that soccer's just a bit too popular in America, because this time out, we've drawn Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.  Only two of those teams will advance.  Germany is a perennial favorite.  Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, widely regarded as the world's best player.  Cristiano Ronaldo receives 21 million euros (about $28.5 million) per year from his club team, Real Madrid (the best-known and richest team in the Spanish La Liga and, in fact, probably the most valuable sports franchise in the world), and last year for the second time won the Ballon d'Or, the FIFA award given to the best individual player in the world.  So at least we know whom we have to take out.

And Ghana.  We have history with Ghana, and it's not good.  In 2006, Ghana defeated the U.S. 2-1 in the last game of group play, denying us the opportunity to move to the knockout round.  And in 2010, our best chance in a long time to make a deep run in the tournament, after the U.S. beat England Algeria (sorry about that) on a miracle stoppage time goal to win our group and advance, Ghana defeated the U.S. 2-1 in the Round of 16, the first game of the knockout round, to end our tournament early.

I'm not expecting much from this team.  We'll have a hard time even earning a draw in any of these games.  But stranger things have happened.  So I'll be watching Monday evening.

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