Tuesday, March 27, 2007
There Was Precious Little of This over the Weekend
Israel 0 England 0. Netherlands 0 Romania 0. Lithuania 0 France 1. Notice a trend? The only good things to come from the weekend are that I was - gasp - productive around the house because there was no good footie on (Fox Soccer Channel offered up Russia-Estonia and Norway-Bosnia; GolTV offered up exciting action from the Honduran third division) and that Sunday and Monday mornings brought an outpouring of contempt directed at many of Europe's major powers:
"The Orange machine has temporarily stuttered to a halt." "I didn't like Spain at all." A "mediocre, toothless performance" from England. And just like May 1940, the Germans are the only ones in Europe who seem at all pleased, as their side beat the Czech Republic in Prague and now look to be the favorites for Euro '08, especially with the tournament being played in their backyard in the Osterreich.
Unfortunately, the mediocre football being produced by most of Europe's name countries is entirely consistent with what we saw at the World Cup, where the teams and managers were so frightened by the prospect of conceding goals that the semis and finals produced a whopping three goals in regulation, one from a dubious penalty, one from a legitimate penalty, and one from a corner. Italy was the only team at that stage that could produce a goal from the run of play and it took them 117 minutes to do so. The tournament was summed up for me by the Portugal-Holland game, which featured a ridiculous amount of attacking talent and yet finished 1-0 and was notable only for the copious cards and faux tough guy posturing. Qualifying for Euro '08 has picked up right where Germany '06 left off. There are a few problems at work here:
1. The players are overworked.
2. The players spend precious little time playing together and they do so on a haphazard basis, as they are thrown together for a few days, they play a match or two, and then they go back to their clubs for two months.
3. Players are rated based on their workrate instead of their skill on the ball.
4. Because of overwhelming scrutiny, the managers don't feel comfortable committing to the attack, as the upside for scoring goals is smaller than the downside for conceding them.
Problem #3 seems to be beyond the ability of UEFA to solve. Problems #1 and #2, however, can be fixed by a unified schedule. The solution would be to shorten the club seasons so international teams played together more. If FIFA limited all top divisions to 16 teams and did away with internationals during the club season, then you could have an eight-month club season, a two-month international season, and a two-month break for the players. That would reduce the haphazard way in which international teams are thrown together and it would make qualifying more exciting as it would be in one solid block, rather than spread out over years. A round-robin qualifying tournament over a 4-6 week period would be interesting and the football would be much better, as the teams would have two weeks to prepare and would conceivably get better as the tournament went on (except for my beloved Dutch, who would use the time to develop a series of feuds that would almost certainly result in the modern-day Ruud Gullit packing his bags and leaving). Additionally, the break, which would include a flat ban on matches or training until the final two weeks, would allow players to recharge their batteries so we wouldn't be confronted with players like Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho looking like shells of their former selves.
The trick would be convincing the major clubs to reduce their number of matches in the interests of improving international football and preventing their players from being ground into rubble. Few will miss the bottom four teams lopped off of the EPL or Primera, especially with the stratification in those leagues. 30 domestic matches instead of 38 would be better for the players, but it would decrease revenues, which means it will never happen short of some sort of edict from Brussels. The entrenched interests at play here are no different than those preventing a college football playoff, with the difference being that a playoff would generate more revenue, whereas shortened domestic league seasons would decrease it.
In terms of the incentives for managers to go for goals, maybe the solution would be to award points for goals as well as the result? It seems like the sort of hokey solution that would come from Gary Bettman's marketing department, but imagine the improved quality of play if a 3-3 draw was worth significantly more than a 0-0 draw. Say the system was five points for a win, three for a draw, and then a point for each goal you score up to three (to prevent teams running up the score on Macedonia, not that this is a problem for England). It's a more radical change than the move in the early 90s to three points for a win instead of two, but something should be done to convince managers to try to score.