Soccer stereotypes win through, as UEFA 2008 hits the semi-final stage
About a week ago, I promised that we'd eventually cast an eye over the UEFA 2008 tournament taking place in Austria and Switzerland. True, soccer is not something we've covered (at all) in our year and three month existence to date, but outside of the Olympic Games, this is one of the big showpiece events of the year, and so we felt it important to have a brief look at the tournament.
Those who've followed it will by now know that we're into the semi-final stage of the tournament, and the line up consists of:
- Germany vs. Turkey
- Russia vs. Spain
The stereotypes of football and a lack of supportive data
But last night, as I was torturing myself by watching Spain against Italy, it occurred to me that with the exception of surprise teams like Russia, soccer tournaments like this are often almost scripted long before the first ball is kicked, as a result of stereotypes that tend to persist in the complete lack of evidence to support them (and herewith the science part of this post!).
For example, consider the following teams, and the associations you automatically make in terms of their playing style. Germany will be efficient, workman-like, ruthless, effective under pressure, and disciplined. Portugal, on the other hand, are skillful, but unable to deliver when the pressure is greatest, and tend to be temperamental and volatile. Holland meanwhile, play "total football", with a focus on the skill level of every player, emphasizing a passing game which is often entertaining to watch, but lack a hard edge. So, in a tournament like this, expect Germany to find a way to win, expect Portugal and Holland to promise much, but fail to deliver...
Note that these three generalizations come from BEFORE the tournament began, but you could just as well write them now that the semi-final lineup has been decided. In other words, Germany were disciplined, efficient, ruthless and effective when under pressure, as they knocked out Portugal, who did falter under pressure with some careless errors.
Holland meanwhile, did play the most attractive football in the tournament, scoring nine goals in three matches, and eventually got dumped out the tournament by Russia! The stereotypes don't stop there - Italy are known for grinding out results, playing dull football and adopting negative tactics which are often effective in these tournaments (they certainly enhanced this reputation last night against Spain, barring a penalty shoot-out loss!).
Point is, the stereotypes that the teams enter the tournament with often end up proving to be self-fulfilling prophecies in terms of the eventual result! But if one thinks analytically about it, there's very little data (at least, none that I can see) that proves these stereotypes to even be accurate. For example, it's not as though Holland do pass the ball more than any other team - the only statistic that has been shown on the TV coverage of the tournament is a passing stat, and the Dutch team are similar to any other in this regard - the same number of attempted passes, and the same completion rate. And how does one quantify the efficiency of the Germans? Is it in fewer mistakes? Well, first we must define mistakes. Missed passes? Missed tackles? Allowing opposition time on the ball? We haven't seen these stats, though I'd love to know what "hard" proof there is to suggest that the German way of playing is different.
The point is, there is a lack of evidence on which to base an outsider opinion of the game. And all this reminds me of the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he talks of a concept called "Thin slicing", where an expert in a topic is often able to make extremely accurate judgements on very little hard information. I suspect a similar thing happens for soccer. Both Jonathan and I played soccer, albeit to a relatively low level, and so we would not consider ourselves experts. However, the experts tend to line up and predict the patterns of play and strategies that will be adopted by teams, and these predictions often turn out to be quite accurate.
The scientist in me would however love to get hold of information that "proves" (or at the very least suggests) that this instictive, "thin-slicing" opinion is correct. Or is it a case where informed insight is based on "intangible" science and information? Any data would be most welcome - an exercise in clever data interpretation to prove what experts and performances suggest to be the case...
Back to the soccer
But, back to the actual on-field action. The biggest pity in the tournament is that Russia played The Netherlands in a quarterfinal matchup, which means that one of the two most entertaining teams was eliminated. Having watched the 3-1 extra time thriller between Russia and The Netherlands, followed by the drab and painful Italy-Spain matchup, it's indeed a pity that the Dutch are no longer involved.
Italy-Spain was a war of attrition. To modify the old saying: "It's a shame somebody had to WIN the match", and for the neutral, the most pleasing result would have been to eliminate both teams and let The Netherlands play Russia again in the semi-final! Italy were dreadful - I've never seen a team drop all 11 players back behind the ball instantly when the opposition win it! It was more like watching a rugby match, where the two teams were completely separated, so defensive were the Italians. So from a neutral, it's Ciao to Italy, with a smile and fond farewell, and let's hope Spain have more attacking flair than they showed last night.
Team of the tournament though is Russia, who have, apart from their opening game against Spain, been spectacular. They have "no name" players who play with freedom, pace and a sense of adventure that is rare and thrilling to watch. It comes back to preconceived ideas and stereotypes about countries, but if the Russian Number 10 (a guy called Arshivin) was playing in a red jersey of Portugal, he'd be praised as one the world's great players right now, the most skillful and the most exciting, because he's been absolutely spectacular. Instead, he plays for Russia, not a glamour team, and those titles are given instead to Ronaldo, who was completely neutralized against Germany in their 3-2 defeat. If Arshivin can even play half as well for a season as he did last night, then Real Madrid would quickly forget their pursuit of Ronaldo and spend that money on the Russian instead!
As for Holland, unlucky again, though outplayed by Russia, who thoroughly deserved to win. The Russians now meet Spain, who will carry more confidence into that game than they did against Italy, and therefore should attack a little more (please let them attack more!). I hope Russia win the game, because I think they'll be invigorating for the final, where I'd pick them to play Germany.
Germany have been patchy, losing to Croatia and grinding out a win against Austria. But against Portugal, they were anything but efficient and workman-like, they were actually exciting and aggressive, and I expect they'll have too much for Turkey, for whom just overcoming Croatia may prove to be a high point. So Germany-Russia for the final, and then who knows - we need an expert to "thin-slice" the possible result for us!
P.S. Before I hear from people for criticising their teams (soccer fever tends to run high!), let me admit right now that my own nation, South Africa, played against the Mighty Sierra Leone, ranked number 163 in the world, in NOT ONE, BUT TWO MATCHES, and couldn't score a single goal. That's right, 180 minutes against a team ranked 163rd , and we couldn't score a goal...
Bring on the 2010 World Cup and the best in the world. We'll be ready....