I wash my hands of World Cup soccer. Half the games from the quarterfinals on, including the championship, were decided by penalty kicks that have nothing to do with the game, mostly because with all its wonderful qualities, soccer has a fatal design defect: not enough scoring in regulation play. The result of this is that the game score has almost nothing to do with which team played better: you might just as well cut cards. Make the goal an extra meter wide and games would have total scores of a dozen or so, enough so that penalties and random luck wouldn’t determine outcomes unless everything else was really close (and a 0-0 game under current rules may have been close and may, as happened repeatedly this year, have not been close at all).
Of course reform is paralyzed by knee-jerk traditionalists who only know “it’s always been like this.” To whom I would say, would you get in an airplane if you found its operator’s maintenance motto was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and add, “anyway, it is broke!.” If the outcome of a scored competition isn’t well-correlated with the performance of the competitors, why bother? Soccer scores (including amateur scores) have such a low signal-to-noise ratio that the whole idea of a championship is just silly.
The final featured a remarkable self-inflicted wound for the French. Zidane is a great player but had a very bad record of gratuitous violence coming into the game. Obviously, he’s been indulged rather than corrected as long as he delivered on the field, and this time the sky fell on him and on the team. Without him, red-carded in the second overtime for an open-and-shut battery, France was doomed. He ends his career a goat instead of a hero – with how many zillions of dollars worth of endorsements up in smoke? – because no-one in the system cared to teach him right from wrong as long as wrong was still ringing up at the cash register.
Contrast the Pepsi executives who dropped a dime on the guys trying to sell them stolen Coke recipes last week. In the same context, I recall a GM executive sent up to the Kennedy School many years ago to plead for less regulation of the auto industry, especially relaxation of the CAFE mileage standards. We asked him, “why don’t you just sell the cars you want to sell and pay the [rather small] fines?”
He said “that would obviously be the smart business move, but because they are fines (punishing violations of law) rather than fees, we didn’t think it would be right to do that deliberately.”
Without Zidane, as might have happened if he were really incorrigible and the management had any principles, France would not have been in the final. The lesson here is absolutely not that one shouldn’t cheat because you’ll get caught and lose. It’s not true that cheaters never win: sometimes Lorenz Hart is wrong, and the going isn’t easy when you do it the hard way. But the right way is still the right way.