- Yes, this has been a hideously low scoring tournament, even by soccer standards. During the opening three game round among all 32 teams qualifying, the average was 2.4 goals. That sounds pretty good because that would average out to 4.8 goals per game, or to a typical 3-2 game, which is reasonably fun to watch ... except that was 2.4 goals per game, not per team per game.
Since then, in the playoff rounds, where the easy-to-score upon Serbia & Montenegro level riff-raff have been swept away, scoring has fallen to 1.71 goals per game aggregating both teams. Nobody has yet put the ball in the net against finalist Italy at all across six games. (Italy scored an own goal against itself in the 1-1 draw with America.)
- Obviously, soccer needs rule changes to end this scoring drought. I suspect that in a globalized game like soccer, however, it's hard to reform the rules because forging a consensus takes so long, both because of the awkwardness of communications and because of the lack of trust across countries. The rules for a national sport like American football can evolve faster than for an international sport like soccer. This might have more generalizable implications to help explain why multicultural polities tend toward stagnation. "Progressives" favor "diversity" on general principle without ever seeming to notice that diversity tends to slow progress and reform.
- Sunday's final between France and Italy is of interest because the French squad is dominated by immigrant group players, especially West Africans. (Ironically, the great French veteran Zinedine Zidane, the Marseilles-born Berber of Algerian descent, is easily recognizable on the field because he's one of the palest players on the French team). In contrast, the Italians are highly Italian. Not surprisingly, the French are considered faster and the Italians more homogenous, determined, and organized. (Sadly, cultural stereotypes about Italians don't apply to Italian national soccer teams, which are extremely unflashy and defense-oriented.) But is speed really that important? It's not like American football where one of the main strategies is to get a fast wide receiver behind the defense. When you do that in soccer, they just hold up that little flag and call offsides.
France has been the most erratic country: not even qualifying in 1994, winning in 1998, washing out of the opening round without scoring a goal in 2002, and beating Brazil and reaching the finals in 2006. Italy, in contrast, has been fairly consistent. They've probably been the #3 soccer power after Brazil and Germany.
- African national teams continue not to live up to their potential, although Ghana did beat the U.S. handily, but, overall, nobody from Africa did as well in 2006 as, say, Cameroon did in 1990 when it just missed the semifinals, losing to England 3-2 in the tournament's most (only?) exciting game.
On the other hand, black players are doing well on non-African teams. For example, six players on the American squad were black, while only two had Spanish surnames.
- An oddity I mentioned back in 2002 is that although scoring is so low that luck plays a huge role in determining who wins each World Cup game (it's almost as if baseball games were determined by who hit the most triples), the winners always come from the same tiny number of soccer Great Powers, which, oddly enough, aren't that different from the Great Powers of 1914. After Sunday's final, the 18th ever, there will still only be seven teams to have ever won: Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay (but not since 1950), France, and England. And in the last seven World Cups, the second place team has also come from the Big Six (dropping Uruguay). Going back to the first World Cup in 1930, the other finalists have all been European Lesser Powers: Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Sweden. A more interesting array of teams have made the semifinals recently, like Turkey, South Korea (playing at home with some homer calls), Croatia, Bulgaria, and Poland, but getting past the semis has largely been restricted to countries that show up in the old board game Diplomacy, plus their South American equivalents.
- Although everybody is denouncing him as a big bust, I like Ronaldinho, the Brazilian "point guard" who is the highest paid player in the world, because he seldom takes a dive. He is so good at passing and dribbling the ball that he doesn't like to flop to the turf every time his feet are brushed. He simply adjusts and keeps on going. Practically everybody else in the World Cup, in contrast, wants to get a play-stopping whistle from the ref over any incidental contact, real or imaginary, because they really aren't coordinated enough to dribble or pass well enough to make playing the game worthwhile. The feet are just the wrong extremities to rely upon in a game of skill.
- Why are Americans still pretty bad at soccer, despite 100 gazillion kid-hours of AYSO over the last 30 years? I suspect the problem is that American middle class youths practice soccer at set hours of the week, but you never see an American suburban kid dribbling a ball down the street as he walks home from school. (You hardly ever see American kids walking home from school at all.) I bet when Ronaldinho was a kid, the farthest he got from a soccer ball was during a game. Otherwise, he'd be within six feet of a soccer ball at all times.
- Soccer players are famous for their stupidity. Outside of the U.S., where soccer players are well-educated, the game attracts a low class of participant, and all the micro-concussions caused by heading the ball don't help. Italian supporters tell a long list of jokes about what a moron their favorite player Francesco Totti is:
Francesco Totti walks into a bar. "What did you do on your vacation," the bartender asks. "I went water-skiing," he responds. "Was it good?" "No!" Totti says. "I couldn't find a downhill lake."
As I've mentioned before, there's an inverse relationship between the level of on-the-fly decisionmaking required in a game and the level of book smarts of the best athletes, with free-flowing games like basketball and soccer at one end, and repetitious sports like rowing (which is mostly a sport for elite colleges like Oxford and Cambridge) at the opposite end.
The 20 year old star of England, Wayne Rooney, recently received a 5 million pound advance to write his autobiography and four other books. Upon the completion of his contract, he will likely have written more books than he has read. (Okay, it's an old told joke told about Michael Jordan, and, quite possibly, Babe Ruth.)
- Soccer fans are always writing in to tell me that soccer is the most strategically complex sport in the world, although I don't think Bill Walsh would agree. It would help if soccer managers could call a few time outs per game to get their teams back on track or to give them a new strategy, the way basketball coaches do when their teams get discombobulated. It can be a beautiful thing when a soccer team is playing as their manager wants them to do, but it doesn't happen all that often, in part because it's hard for the managers to have all that much influence over the game as it's being played. They are more like Ryder Cup captains in golf (whose primary duty is to announced, "Tiger is teeing off first, Phil second ...") than coaching staffs in American football. A soccer match is kind of like a symphony where the conductor was only allowed to rehearse the orchestra beforehand, and send in one substitute musician after each movement, but otherwise had to stand off in the wings grimacing at each of the many miscues rather than front and center waving a baton.