Soccer’s Great Debate

June 15th, 2010 by Kim Tingley

With another World Cup behind us, considering sportsmanship in the game.

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It’s June, it’s 2010, and for the millions of us who tune in every four years to follow the World Cup, it’s time to start looking ahead to another championship. For most, being prepared probably involves at least three things: casting about for an accommodating friend with cable television; indulging a few private moments of nostalgia—How young we were a quadrennial ago! How much farther we’ve traveled toward the grave!—and provoking at least one fellow viewer (though preferably not the aforementioned TV owner) into a voluble dispute concerning the finer points of tournaments past. Was Zidane’s 2006 head-butt noble or unforgivable? Did Hurst’s 1966 final-game-winner fully cross the goal line? Maradona, 1986, Hand of God: Discuss.

Upon one fact, at least, nearly everyone agrees: the stakes for debate are lofty. There is no larger global stage than the World Cup, no other sport (or pop star, or land war) for which humanity expresses passion in such rowdy, intoxicated, culturally diverse multitudes—no game as beautiful. However, that beauty resides precisely in the fine details that comprise each match, and upon these, virtually no one ever agrees. Consider that 31 of 32 teams, plus their fans, will not win the final game, and that the rules that will structure their defeat are almost entirely subjective. How can there be justice for all? Is justice or injustice more entertaining? And who is ultimately responsible for the integrity, or not, of competition?

FIFA, the international federation that governs the World Cup, has laid claim to that burden since the inaugural tournament of 1930—with varying degrees of success. Its stated mission is no less than to “Develop the game, touch the world, build a better future.” To that end, in 2006, its referees received special instructions to suppress on-field shenanigans by issuing red and yellow cards more liberally than usual. The result, rather than fewer fouls, was the most cards ever. In a single match, between the Netherlands and Portugal, the players incurred 16 yellows and four reds, each athlete spending almost as much time flat on the grass as the painted sidelines. Indeed, the defining moment of the Cup arrived violently. In the last 10 minutes of the final, upon having an Italian opponent tug his shirt and insult his sister, Zinedine Zidane, France’s best player and the tournament MVP, earned an ejection by ramming his head into the Italian’s chest hard enough to knock him to the ground. Certainly, thought many of us watching, the best soccer in the universe could be played with more dignity.

Figuring out how to legislate such an ideal across dozens of disparate cultures, however, is complicated. Consider a recent “Soccer & Society” article, which points out that the regulated version of the sport currently sponsored by FIFA is traceable to the development of schoolyard ethics in Victorian England—hardly a global standard compared to the neighborhood pickup games in which many elite players get their start. In fact, the first “Laws of the Game” were crafted in a London tavern in 1863, though versions of soccer had been played for centuries all over. In the Anglo incarnation, penalty shots did not exist—on the assumption that a true gentleman would never consciously commit a foul. After this notion proved false, a “kick of death” was added to the program in 1891. Red and yellow cards debuted much later, in the 1970 World Cup, as the brainchild of another Englishman, to clarify for spectators and players in a universal language what level of punishment the official on the pitch was meting out.

Rules, of course, are necessary for any athletic endeavor; they describe the game. Then again, part of what makes soccer so widely beloved is its simplicity. Bearing only basic principles in mind, a few players with a ball can engineer a match with no equipment, very little space, and zero need for arbitration with a whistle. They can, in other words, take responsibility for the excellence of play upon themselves.

That’s what must happen in South Africa for the World Cup to avoid a repeat of the foul-fest that was Germany—a debacle that occurred not just in spite of but in part because the tournament held referees, more so than players, accountable for sportsmanship.

FIFA seems to still be absorbing lessons learned in 2006, one of which may be that less is more in terms of officiating. In March, the federation’s secretary general announced that it and the broader International Football Association Board (IFAB) to which it belongs would no longer experiment with technology—in particular a device that would detect when the ball has completely crossed the goal line, and which might have helped referees decide difficult calls with greater accuracy—in favor of preserving the dynamic, “human aspect” of soccer.

“The big moments in this sport,” explained IFAB representative Jonathan Ford, “whatever they are, get supporters talking and go down in history. That’s what makes this sport so vibrant.”

So this summer, let’s approach the Cup with the aim of adding yet more flair to our historical baggage. We are tied at zero. Our potential is infinite. We love this game. And whatever happens, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly, we can at least agree to disagree about it—no harm, no foul.

Kim Tingley is a freelance writer in New York City. She plays for Division United, a team in the city’s co-ed recreational soccer league.