Less is more

Football: a sport in which two teams attempt to get a ball 22 centimetres in diameter into their opponent’s goal measuring 8 foot by 24 foot. In a 90 minute match, there should be goals aplenty, right? Well, in a word, no. Last season in the English Premier League – often cited as the world’s best – there was an average of 2.77 goals per game. The figure for Spain’s La Liga was 2.71 while Italy’s Serie A saw an average of just 2.61 goals.

Despite its worldwide popularity, many American sports fans have yet to fully embrace football (or ‘soccer’). The majority of the negativity centres around the claim that there are not enough moments in an average match worthy of celebration. Indeed, two of the ‘big three’ American sports (basketball and American football) rack up huge scores – in the NBA last week the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the New York Knicks by 106 points to 100 – while, across the Atlantic, Manchester United ground out a 0-0 stalemate with Sunderland. In a goalless draw, they might argue, what is there to celebrate (other than the full time whistle)?

However, are points/goals the most important thing when it comes to sport? In terms of success, yes. In terms of drama, not necessarily.

Take, for example, one of the best football matches of 2010 so far. Back in April, in the Champions League semi-final, Inter Milan travelled to Spain to play the second leg of their tie against the mighty Barcelona (the pre-tournament favourites) holding a 3-1 lead. Perhaps sensing a Barcelona backlash, the then Inter Milan coach José Mourinho, set out a defensive team in an ultra-cautious formation, in the hope of stifling Barcelona’s creative play and protecting their lead in order to progress to the final.

What followed was one of the finest defensive displays of all time as Inter Milan played for over an hour with ten men, after Thiago Motta’s red card, and edged out their Spanish opponents, despite losing the second leg 1-0. Despite the lack of goals, what kept the fans (and neutrals, for that matter) on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes was the possibility of a goal being scored or conceded, not that goals were flying in every minute. Tackles, clearances and the ticking down of the clock were rightly cheered, rather than the ball crossing the goal line.

Is it not true that if goals are hard to come by, when they are scored, it is all the more exciting?

Ironically, it is Steven Warshawsky of American Thinker who best sums it up when he says: “A lack of scoring is not merely an incidental aspect of the game of soccer – it is its essence. That is, the ultimate purpose of soccer is to engage in lots of furious activity to accomplish… absolutely nothing. Not surprisingly, when that elusive goal is scored (if it is scored), ears-shattering howls of euphoria erupt from players, announcers, and spectators alike, as if their very souls were being released from the depths of hell.”

Can you imagine a three-pointer in Basketball generating passion like this?

The failure to appreciate football simply because high scoring matches are uncommon is a failure to appreciate the art of defence. Football managers often allude to being more pleased with their team not conceding goals than scoring them.

Also, to place too much emphasis on the score risks overlooking the tactics and skill involved in scoring in the first place.

For some sports fans, it is a case of the higher score, the higher the quality. That is a view anyone is perfectly entitled to, but in the subtlety of football, less is more.

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3 Responses to Less is more

  1. Educated American soccer enthusiast. says:

    It doesn’t matter how you spin it James, Levein’s tactics were a disgrace. I imagine at home against the Spaniards he’ll be slightly more adventurous and throw a 7th man into midfield….

  2. James says:

    I completely agree with you: Levein’s tactics were utterly shameful, more for the fact he left out an in-form Kenny Miller and employed a ridiculous 4-6-0 formation than for his defensive approach to a difficult away game.

    To me, a more logical 4-5-1 (with Miller as the tireless lone striker) would have stopped the possession and rhythm the Czechs enjoyed for the entire match and certainly would have posed a greater goal threat.

    The point I was making in my post (which was written before Scotland’s embarrassing performance in Prague) was that a lack of goals does not automatically equal a lack of entertainment.

    Your comment raises an interesting issue on whether defensive football is ‘anti football’. I wonder what Levein’s thoughts are on this…

    • Calum says:

      I think James’ post holds up against the mire that was Scotland’s attempted nullification of the Czech Republic. If you were a Czech fan you would feel an enjoyable elation when your team finally did score – and the hope of that will always remain in the face of even the most ardent anti-football. My latest post, which should be up this evening, reflects on that game from a Scottish perspective.

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