June 16, 2006

Angola 0, Mexico 0: The third scoreless draw of the World Cup, and the second huge surprise. Angola went toe-to-toe with the world's fourth-ranked team, played evenly until a 79th minute expulsion, then held on against a relentless Mexican onslaught in the waning moments to gain their first point of the tourney. Teams from outside Europe and South America are 3-12-4 so far, and have gone 0-9-1 against teams from the two dominant continents.

One of the things you hear soccer haters in this country recite as their justification is that it's boring, due to the low-scoring (and no-scoring) nature of the sport. It's a silly criticism, for two reasons. First, people don't follow a sport because it's "exciting." They follow it because they develop an emotional interest in the outcome. Once they develop that, they grow to understand the sport, giving the games a context that transcend the process of how they are won or lost. To someone who isn't a baseball fan, a pitchers' duel can be like watching paint dry; if you have a rooting interest in one of the teams, it's a tense, taut exhibition of defense and skill. Once you become a fan of baseball, you accept the lack of scoring activity in a particular game as routine, even necessary, a fractional segment to a larger season, one of the many nuances you understand when following a team for six months. Nobody becomes a baseball fan simply because they follow a team that scores a lot of runs, or plays in a lot of close games. Across the planet, billions of sports fans have made the same decision in following soccer. Scoring goals may be the object, but its not the only thing that needs to happen to make the game interesting.

And second, with soccer, as with almost every sport, the most exciting games are almost always not high-scoring affairs. For example, the most boring game today was the first game, in which the two teams combined for six goals, while the two later games, which featured three goals and a double goose egg, were much more interesting for even the casual spectator. Of course, the game that saw six shots hit the back of the net was a 6-0 whitewash, but that's true in almost all sports; a baseball game that features 19 combined runs is much more likely to end 14-5 than 10-9, while a game that features only one run is, by necessity, close and dramatic. "Excitement" comes from witnessing a team break down an impregnable defense with a sustained attack, even if it means sitting through 90+ minutes waiting for that to happen, not from seeing one side exploit a mismatch in talent to produce a rout. Even if the team isn't that good, like Angola, the excitement comes from seeing whether they can pull off the surprise, and hold off the team with superior talent. The number of goals scored has little to do with it.

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