June 29, 2010

Low Scoring and Narrative Convenience

A reader comments:
"Consider the excitement of the USA's 1-0 victory over Algeria last week. For 90 minutes, the USA were going to tie and fail to make it out of the group stage. The USA had a goal disallowed on a bogus offside call in the 1st half. The tension builds, and builds, and builds, as the USA attacks and attacks and attacks the Algeria goal but fails to score. Finally, in the last possible moment, on a play from one box to the other, the full length of the field, from GK Howard to Donovan to (IIRC?) Altidore to Dempsey to a rebound to Landon Donovan who scores and the USA wins the group."

Well said.

And that illustrates the final point I made in my Taki's Magazine article on why low-scoring soccer is, despite American incredulity, such a popular game: it's easier to remember a stirring yet comprehensive narrative description of a 1-0 soccer game than of a well-executed (i.e., high-scoring) NFL game simply because the soccer game is simpler in outline.

Compare that 1-0 game to the 2009 Super Bowl won 27-23 by Pittsburgh over Arizona that was immediately acclaimed as a highly entertaining game, with tremendous ebb and flow. There were four scores in the fourth quarter alone, twice the total scoring in the typical 2010 group stage World Cup overall game. (The scores in today's World Cup quarterfinals: 1-0 and 0-0.)

Yet, because the two NFL teams scored a total of nine times in the game (six touchdowns, two field goals, and a safety), it's very hard to remember a coherent narrative of the game. News stories the day after typically mentioned the final touchdown pass, then quickly went into statistics (Kurt Warner 31-43 for 377 yards, Ben Roethlisberger 21-30 for 256 yards) to give readers a summary flavor of the complex action.

Personally, I like statistics (these days, for instance, I like NBA and baseball statistics more than I like watching the NBA or MLB), but they aren't of first order appeal to most human beings. Consider a competition that people have remembered for 3,000 years:
Final Score:
David 1
Goliath 0

That's the kind of thing people are good at remembering.


Anonymous said...

Goliath's mistake was in not establishing the rules of the contest. As the big guy, he had a natural advantage in most conflicts that don't involve missiles. All the Philistines had to do was specify weapons - say clubs. Different results.

David and Goliath is a cliche for the wrong moral. That fight was not about big versus little but about the need for pre-fight negotiations.


Anonymous said...

There are a lot of stats used in football, by coaches and managers. They're just not often used in Anglo sports journalism.

There are companies devoted to tracking the statistics of professional league games. But again this information rarely reaches the public.

Spain and Italy have whole newspapers devoted to soccer, I'd guess they might be more statistical but I've never read one. Perhaps someone who has could clarify.

Fifa have some nice statistics to accompany the World Cup, including distance each player ran during the match, top speed (in many matches defenders, not forwards run fastest), as well as usual, shots, corners, fouls etc. Another neat feature - if you click on the player's name there is a 'heatmap' impression of where on the pitch he ran throughout the game.


Anonymous said...


I think you've really hit it on the head about why soccer is so popular. There are few games that aren't a fluke goal from having a different outcome so even the losers can point to a handful of things that would have changed the result.

But I don't think you've mentioned one of the real benefits: the game is a set length. There's a couple minutes of injury time, but basically everything is over in under 2 hours, including halftime.

That's a perfect amount of time and avoids the major drawback of US sports where the last 3 minutes of clock time can take a half hour to get through. You get a little excitement, enough downtime to talk to your friends about what just happened and then time to go celebrate or complain with other fans. That's a pretty attractive package.

Anonymous said...

Another way that soccer differs from the popular North American sports is that there's only 1 real break in the action, if you need to go to the bathroom/get some food or drink/make a phone call etc.

Basketball you only really need to watch the last 5 minutes of the game, football has plenty of downtime, hockey has enough scoring that you can risk missing 1 goal, and baseball is just plain boring.

asdfasdfasdf said...

Bring back dodgeball.


Rex Little said...

I'm no soccer fan, but I don't understand why every game isn't 1-0. Can't the first team to score line up everyone in front of their goal and block it off completely?

ironrailsironweights said...

the major drawback of US sports where the last 3 minutes of clock time can take a half hour to get through

It's really just football and basketball which are like that. Baseball is a different thing entirely, with its leisurely clock-less pace being part of its charm.


Steve Sailer said...

Baseball is a snoozy summer game. For awhile, I got roped into going to a lot of April baseball games at Wrigley Field with the wind howling off Lake Michigan, and that's not the way to watch baseball.

October baseball, when every pitch matters, is a different game from July baseball.

MacSweeney said...

I'm no soccer fan, but I don't understand why every game isn't 1-0. Can't the first team to score line up everyone in front of their goal and block it off completely?

No, that wouldn't work. You remind me of non-hockey fans who say, "Why don't they just hire some really fat guy to be the goalie so he can block the whole net?

DanJ said...

Albertosaurus: "Goliath's mistake was in not establishing the rules of the contest."

Then again, maybe he did, but the event was overseen by some recent World Cup referee. "What sling? I saw no sling, and neither did my linesmen. Hey big guy, quit acting and get up already"

poolside said...

Like a lot of American soccer fans, I came to the sport late -- the result of my daughter playing.

But once I learned to understand and appreciate soccer, traditional American sports became unwatchable.

Four and a half hours on a Sunday to watch the NFL, with its 11-12 minutes of action and never-ending string of commercials? No thanks.

It's not just a time thing, either.

When a soccer player scores a goal, it's clearly an achievement worth celebrating. In the NFL, players preen and dance every time they tackle someone or run for three yards.

Lafayette said...

My wife said: "That doesn't help me understand why people like soccer. It only helps me understand why football is stupid."

Anonymous said...

Sailer you seem to have a big complex over why American football isn't a more popular game globally, and you feel a need to justify it by constantly bashing soccer.

JD said...

stats in football (soccer) are purely for betting purposes
TV and newspaper ads offer odds on number of goals. corners, offsides, yellow cards etc. Only hardcore gamblers are interested in such things. The rest of us enjoy the game.