On Futbol and Football

And on why they are both ultimately unsatisfying athletic endeavors.

I do not intend to rain on anybody’s parade here.  Viva Espana, Hup Holland Hup and all that.  I appreciate the love that many have for futbol, and yesterday’s post from gomez was both enjoyable and enlightening.  And when it comes to football, I am, of course, a fan of the SEC, which is the best conference in NCAA football.  One simply cannot argue with four of the past five national champions — Florida twice, LSU and Alabama.  (And I think all you fans in your cute little conferences like the Mountain West and WAC and PAC 10 or 12 or whatever they are calling it these days are just so cute when you argue among yourselves.  Please continue.)  I am also a fan of the reigning super Bowl champs, the New Orleans Saints.  I say all this in order to demonstrate that my ugly Americanism is not a factor here.  Both futbol and American football have a serious and I believe uncorrectable flaw.

The referee can disallow scores.  This matters a lot in sports where there might be only one or two scores in a game.

When your team scores a touchdown in football you can’t cheer, you first have to look back upfield to make sure there are no flags.  This is especially true of the sports most exciting plays — long runs from scrimmage, long passes, and punt and kickoff returns.  In a sport where holding could be called on literally every play, this is just crazy.  But at least with football, there is some explanation.  Somebody on the field in a striped shirt is waving his hanky and making idiotic motions with his hands, like patting himself on the head or hacking off his leg at the knee.  In the past three weeks of watching futbol, I gave up counting the times goals were disallowed, and there usually wasn’t even an explanation.  The referee just waved off the score and everybody started jogging back the other way.

The only parallel I can think of is with basketball, where a goal can be disallowed because of interference.  But with basketball, it is one goal of probably 120 or more in the game, and it is unlikely to decide the outcome of the game.  With futbol, when it is so important to score first and when games are decided by scores of 1-0 or 2-1, this matters a lot.

We watch athletic contests because it is enjoyable to see highly skilled performers compete at a high level.  The outcome of the match or game should be decided by the performers themselves, not the referees.  Futbol and football suffer because the referee can unduly influence the outcome of the contest, and I don’t think anything can be done about it.


  1. Yet another reason to opt for the beauty and timelessness of a red clay diamond… The umpire can make a bogus call, but once hickory meets leather and the ball is roaring out of the park, the discussion is over. :)

  2. @Tracy
    Baseball is the beautiful game, not soccer. Even when an ump blows a call, ala Jim Joyce, it still doesn’t change the outcome of the game. I do like football and soccer, but nothing matches baseball.

  3. Last Lemming says:

    once hickory meets leather and the ball is roaring out of the park, the discussion is over.

    Actually, home runs are subject to replay now. And even then, the discussion may never be over.

    Referees are a necessary evil, and so are disallowed scores. But refs should be held accountable to a higher degree the FIFA seems to think.

  4. “When your team scores a touchdown in football you can’t cheer”

    But this is true in basketball when an offensive player charges in the paint (and the ball goes in), and true in tennis when the ball slammed over the net lands just outside the line, and etc., etc.

    The only reason it ever feels like a serious flaw to a game is in futbol where, as you state, it’s common for there to be only one or two scores in a game.

    But mostly I just wanted to say that a true fan of the SEC has more class than to strut around pronouncing it as the best conference in college football. C’mon, Brother Brown. Could it be that someone is feeling a little intimidated this year?? [cough cough … Boise State … cough cough … TCU …]

  5. Ha! I’m all for fixing many of the referee issues in soccer/football, but the fact that a score can be called back is certainly not one of them. The reason they are called back is because the penalty happened BEFORE the score! Offsides happens the moment the receiver of a pass touches the ball, not after he kicks the goal. Same with American football, the holding or clipping or unnecessary roughness happened before the touchdown. If you’re still following the player as he acts out the score, even though the whistle has blown, that’s you’re problem, not the sport’s.

    And yes, congratulations to the SEC, the conference with the most laughable out-of-conference schedules in college football. I’ll give it to you though, it’s a tough conference, probably the best in the NCAA, but you don’t play anyone else. (Florida’s out-of-conference opponents this year: FSU (the only respectable one, and it’s only on there because it’s a rivalry), Furman, Florida Atlantic and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Hilarious.)

  6. Soccer needs more scoring. This is a definite defect in the game design. It’s much too easy to have a tie – and the zero-zero tie is ridiculous after people have been running around for so long.

    I don’t know how this would be approached. Enlarge the goal. Remove the goalie. Put two balls on the field.

    I know, I know. It will never happen.

  7. 6

    The easiest thing would probably be to make the field smaller.

    Although FWIW, noone likes a 0-0 tie, but the low scoring is for me one of the most attractive points of the game. The ability to truly celebrate a goal differentiates it from a number of games.

  8. Jennifer in GA says:

    Brother Brown speaketh the truth= SEC Football reigns supreme.

  9. B. Russ

    “The easiest thing would probably be to make the field smaller.”

    Interesting idea and seems to make some sense.

  10. danithew & b.russ,

    The exact opposite has been the case for hockey; olympic hockey has much higher scoring rates than NHL hockey, and much of this is often attributed to the wider and longer dimensions of the the rink, as it results in much wider shooting lanes.

  11. No, making the field smaller wouldn’t result in more scoring, because it would make defense easier. Ask any striker what he needs to score more goals and he will say “more space.” Space between defensive players results in more scoring. Less space results in less scoring, because the defense can clog up the field and shut down the offense easier.

    Having more scoring is easy: just eliminate the offsides rule altogether, or restrict it to only being called if the offensive player is in the box (thus it would be similar to the 3-second rule in basketball). That would result in tons more scoring immediately, if that’s really what you want.

    It seems to me that all sports have scores called back because of officiating, though.

    Baseball can have HRs disallowed because of juiced bats or failure to touch a base, runs that are scored on sac flies can be disallowed because the player left the base too early, and players who cross the plate in the same play where the third out is made are routinely not counted as runs.

    Basketball has made shots called off because of traveling, fouling before the shot, double dribble, charge, goal tending… the list goes on. No sport is immune from this.

  12. Scott,

    Interesting. Had no idea.

    I guess my thought comes from playing indoor soccer, which tends to be very fast and much higher scoring. But then playing in a “D” amateur league could account for the higher scoring as well.

    I wonder if hockey might be significantly different than soccer in this regard still though, since the puck is going to travel at a relatively similar speed toward the goal from wherever it might be shot, while a shot in soccer has an exponentially less chance of scoring as it moves further out past about 20 yards. Additionally I guess that implied in a smaller field would be less players. To move the ball from one end of the field to the other currently, you have to move past 11 possible defenders. If the field were smaller, and the people on the field were similarly fewer, then you would have less potential people to defend (less people to pass to as well, but I think the overall advantage would go to the offensive side of play).
    Really, the only way to know is to try it out. I propose a Blogger(slide)tackler. We’ll get together, play soccer on a full-size field, then on a basketball court, and whichever has the higher score, we’ll know without any possible statistical error.

  13. MCQ re: offsides.

    Yeah, that would do it.

  14. Mark,

    That is just how these sports are.

    I totally agree with the SEC being the best conference in college football. It does not matter if they schedule weak teams pre-conference schedule. The conference schedule is so grueling and the record in bowl games clearly makes this the best conf out there for the last 5-10 years.

  15. S.P. Bailey says:

    Sorry, but the beautiful game is actually tlachtli.

  16. Re the OP, I just disagree. I find both of them to be quite satisfying, though soccer is a bit better for my own tastes.

  17. Soccer needs more scoring like Mormons need more wives.

  18. The solution to not liking soccer in America is to actually *sit* *down* *and* *watch* a bunch of games. Learn the rules. Learn some of the strategic nuances (4-4-2 vs. a 4-3-3 vs. a 4-2-3-1 vs. a 4-5-1). Geez, people spend their lives poring over fantasy football stats and then say, “well, gee, I just don’t like that soccer because I don’t understand it”.

    There’s a documentary on the great Zindane from 2006 that purports to isolate cameras on just *one* player throughout the entire game — you can see exactly what he does. It’s like NFL films.

    A popular talk show in DFW unapologetically says that the hosts don’t really like sports, just a few of them…

    As Scott says – the wider the field, the increased chances for scoring, as long as you have teams who attempt to take advantage of it. I suspect that if yesterday’s final were Olympic hockey, the Netherlands would have just tried to bunch everyone in front of the goal and then go head-hunting.

  19. Baseball is the beautiful game, not soccer. Even when an ump blows a call, ala Jim Joyce, it still doesn’t change the outcome of the game. I do like football and soccer, but nothing matches baseball.

    Didn’t a Royals-Cardinals World Series Game 6 hinge on a bad call?

  20. Scott B. and others, no worries. I’m not beholden to any particular approach to increasing scoring in soccer – except – whatever it takes should be done.

    There are probably some very creative and intriguing ways to approach this problem.

  21. Adam Greenwood says:

    Not liking soccer isn’t a problem that needs a solution.

    Soccer’s problem is (1) that when a goal is called back, there’s little explanation or review and (2) that it is very low-scoring. Even football has a median score of something like 3-2 in soccer terms, while the median soccer score is somewhere between 1-0 and 1-1, or so I’ve read, and experience seems to bear this out.

    (2) requires actually changing the game, but (1) should be pretty easy to fix.

  22. Every four years the Yanks propose changes in football. Every four years we tell them to piss off and carry on playing games no-one else plays so they can crown themselves “world champions”. No wonder we all hate America. Bloody foreigners.

  23. Soccer is like a nice 1-0 pitcher’s duel that Baseball Tonight goes crazy over. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Or as my European coworkers say, soccer is sport, and what us Yanks play are games.

  24. The solution to not liking soccer in America is to actually *sit* *down* *and* *watch* a bunch of games.

    This is not entirely sufficient for a solution, because Americans are at a distinct disadvantage in this arena due to our location. Simply put, we are on the wrong side of the globe for convenient high-quality soccer viewing.

    To illustrate, right now, all across the USA, people are coming down off of the cloud of excitement that was the World Cup, and in the coming days and weeks and months they’ll turn on the telly to watch Landon Donovan play for the LA Galaxy against RealSalt Lake or some other MLS squad. When that happens, these new would-be/could-be/should-be soccer fans will be appalled, as they should be, at the poor quality and slow play.

    Watching the MLS is like watching slow-motion kiddie leagues after seeing the World Cup, Euro Cup, EPL, or such. Exposure to soccer is insufficient–it must be top-notch soccer, or it will actually be detrimental to growth. An American love affair with soccer is more complex than we all want to admit, because if we want to see “good” soccer which is worth watching, the differentials in quality require us to ignore the Americans entirely and pay attention to players and teams and leagues in different countries altogether. In the middle of the night.

  25. Mark Brown says:

    Scott, this is where I think you are mistaken. People can enjoy college and even high school basketball or football. You could even say that the NBA and NFL are less popular than their amateur counterparts. So I disagree that the level of play is what has attracted Americans over the past few weeks. That game yesterday sucked, and everybody knows it.

    The excitement, to the extent that anybody felt it in the first place, was because they chose a side and were excited to see their team win. It had very little to do with the sport itself.

    Ronan, I agree with the wise man who said that football is rotten.

  26. S.P. Bailey says:

    Back to tlachtli: a little human sacrifice would go a long way with soccer. Would give “red card” a whole new meaning.

  27. >Ronan, I agree with the wise man who said that football is rotten.

    Yes, but said wise man has football running through his veins and is thus permitted his opinion.

  28. Mark,
    Sure, basketball and football at the college level are highly entertaining. But this is not actually related to my point, because these games have their origins here–they run through our blood and veins like soccer does elsewhere. Thus, you are not starting from a comparable place when you bring football or basketball in as a reference point, because the true point of reference is a sport which we, as a nation, don’t like and aren’t good at.

    Basketball and football are our own sports–of course we like them. But soccer is the foreigner, and as such has a mountain of prejudice to overcome before gaining any access to our national heart, because it requires Americans to what we are very, very poor at: admit inferiority.
    As long Americans are only exposed to crappy play, it will remain easy to write off soccer as a silly game. Only a smooth talking, classy, quality foreigner is going to win us over. Chivas or DC United isn’t going to cut it–we need ManU and Barcelona and Milan and Arsenal. A few Americans on the pitch wouldn’t hurt, either.

  29. And Mark, as far as yesterday goes, yes–it was an ugly match. However, not every Superbowl or BCS bowl game is pretty, either. Anyone remember the Cavs-Spurs NBA Finals a few years back? Yeesh!

    The magic is partly–maybe even mostly–in the path. As badly as I wanted them to lose, Spain’s semifinal victory over Germany, a 1-0 result, was a thing of beauty.

  30. Aaron R. says:

    Re: the OP. My comment might reflect my background because I think british (and, for those who know, QPR) football fans have learned to enjoy the tragic. Yet, with that in mind I sense that the arbitrary nature of refereeing is actually part of the emotional drama that makes sports so fascinating, esp. at a professional level. Now I agree with Ronan that some changes should be made, but no one is asking for every decision to be ratified electronically. I think tennis has shown how well electronic referee’s can work, and football should do the same. I actually think that the FIFA president has a point when he argues that the human frailty of the game should be maintained.

  31. Re. Lack of goals. Two of the best games I have watched this season were the second leg of the Barcelona-Inter Milan Champions’ League semi-final and the Spain-Germany semi-final. Both finished 1-0. You don’t need lots of goals. In both games you had two contrasting styles (discipline vs. possession), history, tension, big personalities and talents, and great skill, all of which led to some great drama. In fact the defensive ineptitude that usually accompanies a 5-4 type result is a bit of a turn off.

  32. Referees are bad guys because they have the power to interfere with what we love about sport. Scarcity (soccer scoring) usually increases value (it is so hard just to find one goal). Oversupply (basketball scoring) usually creates diminishing returns on value (I now watch the last 10 minutes of many regular season games). I guess it’s just what each person values in watching sports.

    Like soccer, many basketball games are decided by a single point. Many baseball games, “pitchers’ duels,” end in 2 – 1, 3 – 1, some 0 – 0. So I’m not sure how quantity or margin of win distinguishes the value of one sport form another as there are narrow margins in all sports. I think the distinguishing feature is how points are earned. The enjoyment is in the process. I can easily enjoy a small margin of win and even a tie so long as the athleticism and intelligence of play was impressive.

    For me, the beauty in sports is the process of achieving the score. The build up. The creative attack. In basketball points come easier and more frequently. In soccer, less so. I like both, but I enjoy soccer more, I think, because I can relate to it more as a mere mortal: for some of us (warning: generality coming), me included, most things of truly lasting value do not come easily and frequently in life and you need to be constantly looking and moving to find and achieve them, to make them happen. And then . . . once you achieve them . . . they are worth so much. Referees can take this away without explanation, which is why such calls are so much more infuriating and tragic in soccer than say your average foul in the key in basketball.

    Sense of urgency is also a factor I look for during sport. Its that pit in your stomach where you feel your team “needs to score right now!” This sense shows up for me more so in soccer than any other sport, I think, because of the value that a single goal has on the win. It is almost a constant feeling through most close games. And the degree of urgency, I guess, is a function of frequency and ease of scoring points that matter. So I feel in soccer, points that “matter” are basically every point until the team leads by 3. In basketball, it’s where you lead by 14 or more, baseball maybe 6 or more.

  33. Mark Brown says:

    I do not object to a low scoring game. A 1-0 score is fine with me.

    What I object to specifically about a 1-0 score in futbol is the way the game changes as soon as the first team scores. It changes from a game of futbol into a game of keep-away. It is like basketball used to be before the shot clock, when the team with the lead really wasn’t trying to score anymore. Passing and dribbling have their place, but nobody goes to a game just to see that.

  34. Mark Brown says:

    The other thing I fond objectionable in futbol, and on which I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong, is the lack of offensive strategy. Most scores come on the equivalent of a football Hail Mary pass into the endzone. This is why I do not think the Spain v. Germany game can be classified as a thing of beauty. The only score came on a corner kick, where as far as I can tell, the idea is to put the ball in the air somewhere in front of the goal and hope your guy gets to it before the opposition. So much for strategy. And the Germans’ breakdown on defense on that play was embarrassingly bad. How is it possible for the world’s best players to forget where the opponent’s main scorer is? It’s ridiculous.

  35. Adam Greenwood says:

    Ridiculous things happen in all sports with lots of players and moving parts. Like in the ‘Answered Prayer’ game, where the Ute defenders left BYU’s #1 recieving target all by himself in the end zone.

  36. Mark Brown says:

    True, Adam, but in this case it’s a little different. There were no moving parts, it was a corner kick with a set play. It would be like somebody not matching up on the line of scrimmage with the opponent’s best receiver. It really is unthinkable.

  37. Adam Greenwood says:

    Come on, Mark B. I’m trying to be charitable here. Work with me.

  38. Mark, the offensive strategy of Spain was to completely dominate possession and territory. That strategy has a demoralizing effect on the opposition both mentally and physically. In a sense it is a war of attrition. In those conditions a set play like a corner kick, because it is a break in the constant flow of pressure, feels like a chance to rest. They shouldn’t but players switch off momentarily. That’s all it takes. It’s no coincidence that the majority of Spain’s goals were scored in the second half.

    It was a great game because to see a team like Spain pass and move and never give the ball away to a team as good as Germany, to see their patience and commitment to possession and the German discipline and resistance, is a type of football you will not see very often. It was tense and intriguing drama.

  39. Peter LLC says:

    And the Germans’ breakdown on defense on that play was embarrassingly bad. How is it possible for the world’s best players to forget where the opponent’s main scorer is?</i?

    I'm sure they had their eyes on Spain's main scorers, just not Puyol (a defender with 3 international goals).

  40. I showed this thread to a non-member friend who played 3rd Division English soccer a couple of decades ago.

    He focused on this line:

    Passing and dribbling have their place, but nobody goes to a game just to see that.

    To summarize his response, “that is why [we] fail.”

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