Thursday, June 02, 2011

Stuff your Golden Boot

This passage from Jonathan Wilson on the increasingly resolved Messi versus Ronaldo debate is pure catnip to me:

Both Messi and Ronaldo have supreme technical ability. Both can turn games single-handed. Ronaldo is taller and more powerful, much better in the air. But he is also an egotist, wrapped up in his own personal glory to a deleterious extent. His pursuit of the pichichi and Golden Boot (the awards for top goal scorer in Spain and in Europe respectively) this season have been pitiful. Away against Atletico Madrid, after Real Madrid had gone 2-0 up in the first half-hour, Ronaldo spent the rest of the game pinging in shots from unlikely distances and angles. Sergio Aguero pulled one back with five minutes to go, and Real Madrid almost drew a game they should have won by a vast margin.

Perhaps Ronaldo would have acted like that anyway, but it's hard to believe his selfishness was not accentuated by his desire to win the individual goal scoring awards, something that was turned into a consolation prize by the Madrid press once it became apparent that Barcelona was walking away with the league title, and even more so after Barcelona had beaten Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal. But, frankly, who cares?

But then, the column devolves into a surprisingly naive attack on individual awards as creating an incentive at cross-purposes from winning:

Before Manchester United's final game of the Premier League season against Blackpool, Patrice Evra breezily admitted that he was desperate to help Dimitar Berbatov win the Golden Boot ahead of Carlos Tevez. "Whenever I get the ball I'll be passing to Berba because I want him to score," he said. Which sounds like a generous gesture, but imagine the following scenario. United and Blackpool are locked at 1-1 in the final minute, a score line that, if it becomes the result, will keep Blackpool up. Evra finds himself with a shooting chance. If he scores Blackpool are relegated, while United, having already wrapped up the title, doesn't really care, so he pauses to try to allow Berbatov to catch him up so he can lay the ball to him. As a result the chance is wasted. Blackpool stays up and -- say -- Wolves is relegated instead. In that instance the individual award actually distorts the competition.

Um, welcome to modern professional sports, Jonathan.  Even if we didn’t have individual awards, we would still have contracts between teams and players that have bonuses for individual accomplishments.  This is true in both European soccer and American sports.  Additionally, players know that they are judged in the market by their individual accomplishment.  Every goal a striker scores increases his value on the transfer market and his wages per week in his next contract.  Every additional game that Cal Ripken played on his march to Lou Gehrig’s record meant more advertising dollars. 

Hell, this isn’t even limited to pro sports.  There is a current story line in Friday Night Lights where Coach Taylor is having difficulty reining in his star quarterback Vince Howard, whose father is pushing him to make spectacular individual plays to get scholarship offers.*  If you accept FNL as an accurate portrayal of high school football (and that’s one of the show’s many strengths), then the dilemma that Wilson poses is simply endemic to team sports.  There will always be conflict between individual and team incentives (how about the basic scenario of when an injured player will return to the lineup?) and we just have to accept that fact.  It’s part of the job description of a coach or manager to successfully sublimate the individual goals of his players to the overall objective of winning.  That tussle is part of what makes sports interesting.

* – Here’s what I didn’t like about the end of last week’s episode.  Howard shows off his arm by throwing a 65-yard touchdown pass on the final play of a 31-7 blowout.  Is he supposed to be impressing recruiters by violating a major football norm by scoring at the end of a blowout?  And more importantly, it would have been obvious to a recruiter from Coach Taylor’s reaction that Howard had ignored his coach’s playcall by throwing the pass.  Are colleges going to line up to take a quarterback who ignores instructions?  FNL is usually great in getting the little details of small town Southern high school football, but that wasn’t the show’s best moment.

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