All Tied-up in Naughts

As it does every four years, the World Cup has created quite a soccer uproar. In a camaraderie of beer and jerseys and face paint, strangers band together in bars everywhere to cheer. I have been left scratching my head–with hands that could not be used in a match–about the game itself. Not about its global popularity. It makes perfect sense that a sport would be almost universally beloved wherein one of the signature characteristics of our species–the human hand–is specifically disallowed. By this reasoning, soccer could only be improved upon by having to play it, say, blindfolded. Soccer is idiotic. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun. Still, I find myself stymied by some of the rules.

I last played nearly 40 years ago, in middle school, and what was considered a clean tackle then now seems to be a foul. In those days, a defender could approach the ball controller from any point save directly behind and, providing only the ball was contacted in a sliding move, it was deemed fair play. I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen this–slow-motion showing the defender’s foot clearly and cleanly touching only the ball–called a foul after the offensive player collapsed in a heap to the turf of the pitch. Offside still seems straightforward enough. And out of bounds is still not called or a goal tallied until the ball has completely crossed either the touch or goal line, respectively. Corners, crosses and clearances? Check, check and check. So far, so good: all the mechanics of the game–with the exception of tackling–remain as I remember them.

But I don’t remember any ties. Ever. That a match could result in a tie is, simply, moronic. Pregame shenanigans notwithstanding, soccer hooliganism is a bit more understandable after something like a tie. Let me tell you, if I were so emotionally invested as some of these fans, it would drive me crazy as well.

For what possible reason is a tie even allowed? I am baffled. After 90 non-stop minutes of pure exertion, followed by whatever injury time is mysteriously added, players and fans alike are expected to shrug their shoulders and pack it in? It’s absurd. Especially when the match could so easily be decided by a penalty kick shoot-out. I have seen it done. I have participated in several of them myself.

In this year’s incarnation of the World Cup, the United States thus far has beat Ghana, tied Portugal, and lost to Germany. And this has been sufficient to advance the United States to the knock-out round, where a penalty kick shoot-out actually can decide a match. But allowing for tie games in the first round makes the scoring of goals–offense–paramount. The New York Times reports that a record 136 goals were netted in the Cup’s opening round. This makes about as much sense as the American League’s cynical 1973 decision to pencil a Designated Hitter into the line-up. It has always seemed to me that real baseball was sacrificed then, to lucre itself, in a naked attempt to foster batting and therefore bolster ticket sales–because the game would be more “exciting” if more runs, in particular home runs, were generated. Offense.

Is this what soccer is crying out for? How can such a wildly–and globally–popular sport stoop to this accursed depth? Again, I am baffled. Soccer and baseball both, by their natures, are low-scoring sports. But does any true fan find a no-hitter dull? A scoreless soccer match, provided it would be settled in a shoot-out, is, as a no-hitter, a magnificent thing. I’ll tell you what dull is: a tie. In any sport, no matter how exciting or not the contesting of it is, opponents always strive to emerge victorious. Fans demand a win or, in the worst case scenario that is a loss, closure. A tie is neither. A tie is, honestly, a waste of time. Even the American League recognizes that success must be measured by wins. It’s why they didn’t do away with extra innings.

Think of goals as analogous to home runs. And because I’m a fan, let’s take as an example the San Francisco Giants, who moved to the City in 1958. It took until 2010, 52 years, for the SF Giants to win their first World Series. That season, the Giants hit 162 home runs, twelve better than the league average. When they repeated in 2012, the Giants hit a paltry 103; that year, the league average was 152. The team the Giants beat in the Series, the Detroit Tigers, belted 163. Yet in 2001, when the Giants lead the National League in home runs with 235, they failed to make the playoffs. Home runs don’t always decide ballgames, but few things in sports are more exciting; shoot-outs must be among them–precisely because they are decisive.

Only once have I ever actually hoped for a tie: Friday, November 28, 1975. In the Los Angeles Coliseum that evening, USC hosted UCLA in the season’s final game. A USC victory–or a tie–would finally have put my Bears into the Rose Bowl. But when USC coach John McKay–trying to leave college football with a crowning win before his retirement–chose to go for a last-second touchdown instead of a game-tying field goal, he and his Trojans were defeated. And in those days, ties were allowed.

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