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July 12, 2010

On Sunday the World Cup concluded with a 1-0 Spanish victory over The Netherlands on a half volley goal (more of a half kick than a full kick) in the 116th minute by Andres Iniesta.  This was the first World Cup Championship for Spain and the third time the Dutch have lost in the finals.  Both sides had numerous opportunities to score in a hard fought match, with Holland’s star Arjen Robben missing two breakaway opportunities and Spain’s Sergio Ramos missing two promising headers.  The Spanish victory was well deserved considering they appeared to be the more controlling team, but only slightly.

Frankly, the game was not very good to watch.  It has been described by many as an ugly game and I agree.  Both teams, but particularly the Dutch, committed to what appeared to be a dirty game plan.  The referee, Howard Webb, was constantly blowing his whistle for fouls,  giving away a record 14 yellow cards and one red card.  It was apparent to most that Mr. Webb was going to make the calls often, but never make a decisive one, which is a common occurrence in high-level international soccer and yet another reason Americans don’t really get into soccer.

Everyone knows that Soccer players flop, (fall and writhe in pain in hopes of getting a foul call) but it was really on display in the Final.  It was clear early on that the referee was going to make the calls and wasn’t really attuned to the flopping or willing to deal with it.  In essence the players knew it was working, so they really went for it.  Any contested ball resulted in the losing player on the ground crowing for a penalty….and many times getting it.  Meanwhile, the TV review showed the obvious deception.  This kind of theatrics, though present in all other sports, is out of control in soccer.  It happens too much, in too many important games, and often effects the outcome of games.  To see it so much in the most watched game is a huge disappointment, especially when it could so easily be corrected.  Just as major league baseball referees often take an overly reactive posture toward the questioning of calls or backtalk, soccer referees traditionally support their weakness by putting up with way too much. 

In the World Cup final, the referee allowed a Dutch player to chase him down and cuss him out on the field in the middle of the game.  The player (Robben) got a yellow card, which is essentially a warning, meaning “please don’t do that again.”  Mr. Howard, supposedly the most qualified referee in the world, refused to card anyone for flopping, which would have spared us that ridiculousness immediately, and refused to make any calls that counted.  When the aforementioned Arjen Robben was basically mugged on a breakaway, Howard wouldn’t make the call.  If he did, it would have been a penalty kick and a red card which essentially would have decided the game.  Another time a Dutch player did a flying full force kick to a Spanish player’s chest, an obvious red card.  The Dutchman got a yellow, getting a red card for that would have put the Dutch a man down and we wouldn’t want that…..I guess.

All too often soccer officials, at the highest level, make only safe calls and take too much flack from players.  Every time a call was made in the finals the referee entertained a discussion with players from both sides, even encouraging it by often pulling offending players aside to tell them god knows what.  I’d love to hear those conversations, (often in different languages) is the referee really explaining the rules to the player?  Or asking him not to break them again?  It was ridiculous posturing on both sides, exhausting to watch, and totally preventable.

If FIFA recruited some tougher referees and stopped pretending soccer is not on TV (meaning we see those flops on replay) it would do a lot better for the sport.  One yellow card to the fist flopper would cut out that baloney, and tossing obnoxious whiners like MLB referees do would stop that as well.  If one World Cup final gets played 8 vs. 7 because a bunch of players get tossed, so be it.  It’ll be better than the disgrace we were forced to watch Sunday.   
 
Send comments to Josh@notasportsguy.com

Basics:

Soccer (or football as it is more commonly referred to outside of the United States) is the most popular sport in the world.  More...

Terminology:

David Beckham:  Famous British soccer player.  Married to Posh Spice, Beckham is a tabloid sensation as well as a renown goal-scorer and former captain of the English World Cup team.

Own Goal: When a player accidentally scores on his own team.

MLS: Major League Soccer, a soccer league established in America to mirror the other major leagues in basketball, football, baseball, and hockey.

Direct kick, Indirect Kick: Both are free kicks awarded for fouls.  Direct kicks may be struck directly into the goal whereas an indirect kick must be touched by another offensive player before shooting on goal.
 
Penalty Kick: A one-on-one style free kick between goal keeper and shooter, given for egregious fouls in the penalty box.  Also used as part of a penalty shoot out to decide tied matches after extra time.
 
Offside: offside is called when an offensive player, or attacking player, is passed the ball and there are not at least two opponents between him or her and the goal line. Usually, these are the goalkeeper and one other defender, but not necessarily.  Offside is judged when the ball is struck and attackers that are even with the second to last defender are onside.  This makes offside the most controversial rule in soccer because its usually a close call and can decide goals and games.
 
Red Card/Yellow Card: To be “booked” with a yellow card means you have committed a particularly egregious foul.  A red card means the player is ejected and his team must play shorthanded , as they cannot replace him. Two yellow cards in a single game equal a red and the player is sent off.
 
Striker: A Striker, forward, or attacking player is one whose primary purpose or role on the team is attacking the opponents goal with the intention to score.  Generally, strikers rarely defend and are on the receiving end of passes and crosses.  Their strength is usually their shooting ability or penchant for eluding defenders enroute to goal.  Strikers are well known players because they score the majority of goals.
 
4-4-2:  Terminology for team playing formations. 4-4-2 means four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards.
 
FIFA: FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is the international recognized governing body of soccer.  Designed to codify a common set of rules for international play, FIFA has overseen, organized, and promoted the sport for over 100 years.  FIFA is responsible for creating and running the FIFA World Cup, tallying world rankings, certifying officials, and approving rule changes.

Relegation: The bottom few teams in a European soccer division are subject to relegation at the end of the season.  This means if teams don’t perform they are demoted to a lower division and replaced by the top teams of the lower division for the next season.  Can you imagine the Kansas City Royals being demoted and the New Orleans Zephers going up to the major leagues? That is the concept applied to MLB.