Wednesday, June 28, 2006

On joga bonita (2)

It’s so bloody unfair, that’s what fans of losing sides are likely to yell at the World Cup. Americans and Australians will tell you that their teams were forced out because of questionable penalties. Adriano’s goal against Ghana was while off side. Koreans had been denied a penalty against Switzerland, while a Swiss goal against them was from off side.

Sure some of it is just the losing fans crying foul — it’s the referee/umpire is a common refrain in any sport. But in football (that is, soccer), bad decisions have particularly large impact because football is such a low scoring game. For the same reason, football may yield results that seemingly appear contrary to the run of the play — a side playing much ‘better’ seem to lose by a single goal from the other side. And this sort of thing appears to be more common in football than in other sports.

Now, I’m not sure it is the case that the side failing to score is really playing better — it patently is not by the only criteria that affects the result — but may be I’m missing something here. Aficionados from across the Atlantic tell me that football is a game of what could have been. And higher probability of this seemingly ‘unfair’ result might be a reason why football is so popular in Europe, but not in the United States. Allow me to explain.

In a fascinating book, Harvard’s Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser compare European and American attitude towards poverty. They note that less than a third of Americans believe that 'the poor are trapped in poverty' and 'luck determines income', nearly two in every five Europeans agree with the statements. By contrast, two-fifths of Americans believe that 'poor are lazy' while less than a quarter of Europeans believe so. The American dream has no counterpart in Europe and is it any surprise that football (that is, soccer) has not been popular in the land of Horatio Alger? It is as un-American as socialism!

It’s an interesting argument. But is it true? How would we know? For one thing, it sounds reasonable that in a low-scoring match, chance will play a bigger role. But does football produce more upsets than American sports? And this doesn’t tell us why football is not all that popular in Desh where 'rags to riches' is not a particularly dominant part of the popular culture.

Hmmm. More thinking is needed (earlier thoughts are here).

Meanwhile, the 2nd round is concluded. With only 8 matches left, perhaps I should start picking the winner. Very well, Germany is the predicted champion as at the end of the 2nd round.