You Don't Need Stats to Love Soccer
`ITS all so simple, the game of soccer.
After a month of World Cup USA '94, the statistics for 24 teams fill only three pages - about 2-1/2 more pages than soccer fans care about.
International soccer magazines and newspapers are filled with action photos, provocative headlines, tactical analy-ses, and personality profiles, but offer few boxes filled with numbers. Soccer broad-casters can talk forever about people, decisions, and tactics. They don't dwell on percentages and averages; they don't need a calculator to figure out what it all means.
``You know those stat sheets they bring us at halftime?'' said a Venezuelan journalist at the Rose Bowl. ``We don't look at them. Why do we need them? We can see the game.''
Since the World Cup Italia '90, the international soccer federation (FIFA) has insisted on keeping track - in addition to basic goals, assists, penalty kicks, and yellow and red cards - of numbers of left-leg shots, right-leg shots, cross passes, inside- and outside-penalty-area shots, offsides, out of bounds, missed shots, blocked shots, and more.
``It's for history,'' says World Cup USA '94 Press Chief Jim Trecker. ``Maybe some day it will prove to have an application for a long-range analysis of how the game evolved.''
Soccer does not lend itself to quantification. Keeping track of every turnover, as in American football, seems silly to soccer fans. A soccer player will run more than seven miles in a game. He is constantly in motion. It's the big picture that counts.
``The game itself is so fluid and balletic that I don't need someone to tell me how many times something happened,'' Mr. Trecker says. ``Soccer is not played in any delineated breaks,'' as in football's timeouts and first downs. ``It needs to be watched like a performance,'' he continues. ``Americans don't have any problem with a Broadway theater production - it builds up to a climax. Soccer is the same way.''
Soccer, Trecker says, ``is not a sport you can take in small bites. Soccer is not a fast food. It requires an attention span.''
It also requires a collective consciousness. The data bank is in the hearts and minds of the people. Soccer's fleeting moments of brilliance are declared so by consensus, not by statistics.
Search the data, for example, for the finest goal of World Cup USA '94. Greatness is not in the statistics: Was it creative, artistic, impossible, and powerful, concluding with a perfectly-placed shot?
Saudi Arabian forward Saeed Owairan uncorked such a goal in a first-round match against Belgium. On an inspired run from midfield, he eluded two defenders and slammed the ball into the net as another defender and the goaltender closed in.
After the game, Owairan said modestly, ``I just made some moves and scored.''
Americans, in our naivete, have brought fresh eyes to the game and consequently have made World Cup USA '94 a remarkable success. ``Americans are appreciating the game generically,'' Trecker says. ``We have no preconceived leanings. The stadiums are full. Our fans are coming to see the World Cup, not just certain teams. Americans are going to everything.''
Other World Cups have not filled up stadiums in the early rounds, when weaker teams are routinely chewed up and sent home. The traditional soccer fans are too sophisticated.
At Italia '90, Trecker says, a second-round match in Bari, Italy, between Czechoslovakia and Costa Rica drew just 20,000 people. ``The stadium was sold out,'' he says, ``but 45,000 people didn't show. There were three great goals in that game, too. I was there.''
US viewers also appreciate good sportsmanship, fair play, and newly minted heroes.
Americans don't like cheaters and crybabies. When FIFA suspended Argentina's Diego Mara-dona for using stimulants, the American response was ``You were wrong. Deal with it.'' The Argentine fans and journalists are still crying ``Conspiracy!''
``The World Cup,'' Trecker says, ``has taught Americans a whole new way of loving sports - loving with our hearts, not just our heads. Yes, we love our sports, but with an intellectual approach. There is no question that the Washington Redskins fan loves his team, but he doesn't take to the street with flags and colors.'' When you have passion, who needs statistics?
We cheered for the tenacious South Koreans, who had the world-champion Germans on the run with a spirited and fiery second-half comeback. We cheered upstarts Romania and Bulgaria, freed by democracy to excel. We hated to see Cameroon and Nigeria drop out. We loved Ireland. We shared the Italians' anguish every time Roberto Baggio waited until the last minute to connect with a dazzling goal.
But most of all, we loved our scrappy US team - the affair was too short. We loved Marcelo Balboa's sensational bicycle kick. We loved the US holding Brazil scoreless in the first half on the Fourth of July. We winced when Tad Ramos took an elbow in the head from a Brazilian player. And we shared the pathos when Ernie Stewart wept on the field at the end of the game.