On Soccer and Boredom

Why is soccer boring? More particularly, why is soccer boring for most Americans, whereas in other parts of the world it borders on something holy? In this piece in Grantland, Brian Phillips ponders the question. He reveals that yes, soccer is boring (even to the dire fan, who should admit to this fact). But he also explains how soccer is romantic and tragic, and that’s what keeps the fan engaged in the game.

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.

And this is a wonderful analogy of the relationship between soccer and its fans:

Following soccer is like being in love with someone who’s (a) gorgeous, (b) fascinating, (c) possibly quite evil, and (d) only occasionally aware of your existence.  There’s a continuous low-grade suffering that becomes a sort of addiction in its own right. You spend all your time hoping they’ll notice you, and they never do, and that unfulfilled hope feels like your only connection to them. And then one day they look your way, and it’s just, pow. And probably they just want help moving, and maybe they call you Josie instead of Julie, but still. It keeps you going. And as irrational as it sounds, you wouldn’t trade this state of being for a life of quiet contentment with someone else. All you could gain would be peace of mind, and you’d lose that moment when the object of your fixation looked at you and you couldn’t feel your face.

Worth the read in its entirety.

Why Is China’s Soccer Team So Bad?

You’d think that China, with a population of over a billion people, would be able to field a half-decent soccer team. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, its side failed to score in any of its three matches. The Chinese soccer team has never won a game at the Olympics. And as this piece in The Economist attests, Chinese players are sometimes too incompetent not only to win matches, but also to rig them:

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!

And some interesting trivia from the piece:

With the blessing of the international football body FIFA, China also claims the world’s earliest recorded mention of a sport similar to football, during the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. A version of the game cuju, or “kick ball”, involved a single, elevated net and two sides of 12 men.

The declining teenage population playing soccer in China, despite the growing population, is a surprise:

From 1990 to 2000 there were more than 600,000 teenagers in China playing organised football, according to official counts of registered players; from 2000 to 2005 that number dropped to an average of 180,000; today (with statistics kept differently) Chinese football officials estimate the number of teenagers playing some form of organised football to be little more than 100,000.

And some theories on why the Chinese soccer team is so bad:

So whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.

The first problem is the method of identifying young talent. The sport system selects children with particular attributes, such as long limbs, which could pay off in athletics, rowing, swimming, diving or gymnastics. These youngsters are the genetic wheat. But football’s legends can emerge from the seeming chaff of human physiques: think of stocky Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest ever player, or his Argentine successor, the tiny genius Lionel Messi.


Green Bay Packers: The Worst Stock in America?

The Green Bay Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States. In December 2011, the Green Bay Packers offered anyone the ability to purchase some shares of the team. At a hefty price tag of $250/share, with no dividends issued, and no seller protection — why would anyone purchase the stock?

Before we get to some answers, it’s important to note that the shares have been selling like hotcakes:

More than 250,000 shares have been sold since the first share offering in 15 years was announced on Dec. 6.  Demand has been so great that the team expanded the offering, which runs through Feb. 29, by 30,000 shares.

Although the offering document calls the shares “common stock,” they confer almost none of the advantages of a traditional stock. The document warns that buyers “should not purchase common stock with the purpose of making a profit.” A purchase does not bump buyers higher up the Packers’ 96,000-strong waiting list for tickets or allow them to buy T-shirts and cheesehead hats at a discount. So why bother? Perhaps the pride of being a part owner of this franchise trumps all other factors: return on investment, dividends, etc. (Actually, there is one primary monetary advantage for holding Packers’ stock. Because the purchase meets a condition of worthless stock, the entire purchase may be tax deducted immediately after the shares are bought. )

What happens if the Packers are ever dissolved by the NFL?

The Packers’ Articles of Incorporation specify that if the team is dissolved, “all profits and assets” must go to community programs and charities. Until 1997, the sole beneficiary was one American Legion post in Green Bay. Since then it has been the Green Bay Packers Foundation, which benefits a number of local and state causes.

A bit more about the history of the Green Bay Packers’ stock program:

The organization previously had offerings in 1923, ’35, ’50 and ’97. The first three literally saved the franchise from bankruptcy, and proceeds from the fourth went toward the redevelopment of Lambeau Field, which was complete in 2003. The organization currently has approximately 112,000 shareholders who hold about 4,750,000 shares of stock.


References: Green Bay Packers, WSJ.

A Must-Read: Pelé as a Comedian

Every once in a while you come across writing so good, you can’t sit still as you’re reading it.

There are moments where you think: “Wow, I wish I had written that.” But thinking like that is selfish, and the next thought is this: “I must share this writing with others.”

I came across such a piece of writing last week, and it was Brian Phillips’ masterful essay, “Pelé as a Comedian.” As I was reading through the essay, I felt chills go down my spine. This is how incredible the writing is. I don’t often say that something is a must-read, but this is an absolute must-read. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of football (soccer); it doesn’t even matter if you like sports. You should read this essay if you appreciate beautiful and compelling writing. So do yourself a favor, head over to the Run of Play blog, and read it.

Continue reading

Vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup

If you’ve tuned in to the 2010 World Cup on television, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz of the vuvuzelas (also known as lepatatas). The vuvuzelas are these (arguably) annoying blow horns used by spectators during the football matches (or soccer, for all of you U.S. and Australian folk).

No doubt the vuvuzela is a distinctly South African cultural icon and even a tradition at football games:

The vuvuzela has become part of the official South African football fans arsenal. It is a plastic trumpet which makes a distinctive noise, comparable to an elephant blowing their trunk. A stadium can often erupt with noise from fans blowing on their vuvuzelas. The South African Football Association, in a community-building project, has helped manufacture the coloured plastic trumpet.

However, after less than a full weekend of play, the players, coaches, and commentators have expressed vociferous concern that the vuvuzelas are a major distraction. After watching the games throughout the weekend, I have to say that it was hard to make out what the commentators were saying during certain parts of the game; I can’t imagine what it’s actually like on the pitch. There are nearly 200,000 people in this Facebook group who are in favor of banning the vuvuzelas. But I think a closer scrutiny is required. Why is the vuvuzela an object of such pervasive complaint?

A Closer Look

The most elucidating article I read (which relates to this whole vuvuzela saga) is this one from The Science of Sport blog. The most interesting passage is this one, explaining how loud the vuvuzelas are:

Studies have found that the noise levels from a vuvuzela exceed what are considered safe limits for employees.  A Swiss-based company’s testing showed that at its loudest, the sound registered 127 dB, compared to a chainsaw at 100 dB.

Studies show that prolonged exposure to loud noises (!) leads to hearing loss; that hearing loss occurs at a loudness level of around 120 dB. So given the information above, you cannot doubt the frustration everyone is expressing about these “instruments of distraction.” Also of note: The OSHA Daily Permissible Noise Level Exposure is 110dB for a half-hour and 115dB for a quarter hour; given this information, the length of the football matches, and the confirmed loudness of the vuvuzelas, it is almost certain that the vuvuzelas are dangerous to the spectators’ health (i.e., great potential for hearing loss).

But perhaps even more alarming is that the vuvuzelas may be a vessel for disease (spreading of germs):

And then on a perhaps even more serious note, there are concerns over the spread of infection and illness as a result of 30,000 people blowing into the horn in an enclosed space.  South Africa has one of the highest tuberculosis (TB) infection rates in the world, and it is spread through droplets, usually when coughing, spitting or sneezing.

So, with all these considerations in mind, the calls to ban the vuvuzelas have become even more poignant over the last few days; nevertheless, the vuvuzelas making headlines isn’t new… About a year ago, FIFA gave the vuvuzelas the green light for the 2010 World Cup.

The South Africans, apparently, love these things:

Let us not make this a South Africa instrument alone…A vuvuzela is now an international instrument. People buy them and stuff them in their suitcase to go home. Only a minority are against vuvuzelas. You either love them or hate. We in South Africa love them.

The comments in this 2009 BBC piece are divisive; it seems that some people are vehemently opposed to the vuvuzelas:

It is irritating, annoying and juvenile. It is noise for noise sake alone. The vuvuzela should be banned. Music, drums, rhythmic percussion, singing, chanting and applause are all very welcome; but the onerous, droning cacophony of the vuvuzela adds nothing to the atmosphere of the stadium.

This instrument has great nuisance value, and should be banned outright. Failing that, its use should be restricted to the confines of the stadium

While others are quite supporting of the vuvuzelas:

There is no way you can just come and rob people of their own pride and customs. If you don’t know it, learn more about it. Surely they have more irritating things like name calling our African players back in Europe. Viva Vuvuzela!

The Vuvuzela is a matter of pride (and religion) for some of us on the African continent and we will not allow our enjoyment of a once-in-lifetime event be overshadowed by someone watching the games from their living room in Europe.

A Recommendation and Final Thoughts

So where do I stand on this issue? I say: don’t ban the vuvuzelas, but FIFA must absolutely do something about controlling the noise level. Here’s one idea: don’t allow the fans to bring in the vuvuzelas into the stadium. Rather, give away the vuvuzelas to the first 1,000 (or whatever limited number, perhaps up to 10,000) fans who enter the stadium. Such a move will work because it will at once restrain the overall noise in the stadium and make the fans more excited to come to the matches early. It’s a win-win situation for all: vuvuzelas are still permitted at the matches, but the noise level is under control…

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think the vuvuzelas should be banned? What do you think of limiting the number of vuvuzelas permitted inside the stadiums?