Tuesday, July 11, 2006

World cup final thoughts

This year’s World Cup was a fascinating tournament that may be remembered for many great plays and stories, but two major disappointments at the end will probably stick in our memories the longest.

The most obvious disappointment is how the career of Zinedine Zidane of France game to an inglorious end. When great athletes retire, their feats and their failures are fresh enough in our minds that we can recall them easily. As time passes, those failures tend to fade from our memories first. However, the greatness not only never fades, but magnifies because we no longer balance it against the failures. Zidane will likely be remembered as one of the game’s all-time great players, but his final act on the pitch will ensure that we never forget that his temper was as legendary as his skill.

In case you missed it, in the second overtime, Zidane viciously head-butted Marco Materazzi right in the chest and was red-carded, ending his career (he announced his retirement before the tournament). It was physically unprovoked, but we’ll never know what Materazzi said to Zidane that might have set him off. It doesn’t really matter what he said, though. You can’t allow mere words to provoke you, especially with so much at stake. You’re the captain, the team’s best player, the guy that everyone else is playing for, and with one act of churlishness, you abandon your team when they need you the most. It takes either supreme selfishness or a complete lack of self control to allow that to happen.

In spite of this, Zidane received the Golden Ball, which is the tournament MVP award. Does that stand for Most Vicious Punk? How could anyone in their right mind vote for him after that? Yes, Zidane was brilliant in the knockout stage of this tournament (he was non-existent in group play), but how do you reward a guy who suffered one of the biggest brain cramps in sports history? That’s like naming Bill Buckner the World Series MVP for letting a ball roll through his legs. For assaulting Materazzi, Zidane should get the Golden Ball-and-Chain.

Oh, and we still haven’t heard Zidane’s side of the story yet. The French, who worship this guy, deserve at least an explanation, if not an apology, but so far, he’s been silent.

Equally disappointing to me was the fact that the game was settled by penalty kicks. As much as I enjoy soccer, I hate deciding games by penalty kicks. It’s so arbitrary that you might as well flip a coin. It would be like baseball breaking ties with a home run derby, or football having an extra point kicking contest, or basketball coming down to a free throw contest. For the goalies, saving a penalty kick is 95% luck, 5% skill. If the player makes a good enough shot, the goalie has no chance. And it doesn’t have to be a great shot, just a good one.

I don’t understand why they can’t just keep playing until someone wins. Yes, players get tired, but that’s soccer. More than any other game, soccer is a game of attrition. Each team only gets three substitutions, so fitness is a significant factor in soccer. In the Italy-France game, France’s star striker Thierry Henry had to be subbed out in OT because of cramps. If the teams had kept playing, maybe other guys would have dropped out too. That’s fine with me. Just keep playing and may the fitter team win. That’s a heck of a lot better than having the luckier team win.

Off the topic, there is one thing soccer does that could spice up our professional sports some, and that’s relegation. In the European professional leagues, there are divisions, much like baseball has, and at the end of the year, the two or three worst teams in each division get relegated, which means that they have to play in a lower division next year, while the top teams from the lower division move up to take their place. Can you imagine that in baseball? You could have, for example, Tampa, KC and Pittsburgh playing in September to keep from being sent to AAA. Not the players, the entire franchise. Then, those teams could be replaced by, say, Toledo, Scranton-Wilkes Barre and Round Rock. How many people would fill the bleachers at Wrigley if the Cubs were actually playing at AAA instead of simply playing like they belong there? Do you think that would motivate the front office a little bit? It’ll never happen, of course, but it would be fun if it did.