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The feast is almost over. For six weeks, barely an evening has passed without television schedules filled by soccer from one, or more, of the world’s major leagues. In England, almost every game was given its own time slot. In Spain, they tried not to miss a day. In Italy, they played late into the sweltering night.
This weekend, our appetites for European soccer long since sated, we have the final few morsels: Saturday’s F.A. Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea, and a round of fixtures to conclude the Serie A season. And then, no sooner than the table is cleared, the next course appears: two weeks in which the Champions League and the Europa League will be decided in World Cup-style tournaments.
In the spring, as soccer plotted its way out of its pandemic shutdown, the fear was that this would prove a watershed, a revolution not just televised, but one available only to subscribers. Networks would not willingly turn back the clock to a world in which some games could not be shown live. Soccer’s transformation from attendance event to broadcast content would be complete.
If anything, though, the opposite is true. The Premier League, for one, is inclined to reduce the number of games it broadcasts domestically next season. It is likely to return to scheduling some games simultaneously, meaning even outside the United Kingdom, fans will not be able to watch every single game. Italy and Spain should be expected to go the same way. (Germany, first to the finish line, maintained a more traditional schedule.)
At first glance, the change seems counterintuitive. After all, the more games that can be broadcast, the more television rights should be worth to the leagues and their clubs. More significant, with no definitive timeline on when fans might return to stadiums, it raises what is almost an existential question: If a game is played in an empty venue and it is not broadcast, what is its purpose? Soccer is an entertainment business. Why would it happen with nobody to entertain?
But on a deeper level, it is entirely fitting, an (unwitting, most likely) acknowledgment of one of the central ingredients that has made soccer, the game, the most popular on the planet, and soccer, the elite competition, one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena in history: scarcity.
There is a scene in “The Simpsons,” from back before it grew old and bloated, in which the residents of Springfield go to watch a soccer game. After kickoff, the team in green passes the ball to one another aimlessly. The crowd cheers. The team in red just stands there, waiting. The green team keeps passing. The cheers die down.
The joke, of course, is that soccer is dull, that nothing happens, and that nobody ever scores: “fast-kicking, low-scoring and ties? You bet!” as the show would later describe it. (We can safely assume that Matt Groening was, at best, ambivalent toward the world’s game.) But that is a fundamental misunderstanding: The rarity of goals is not soccer’s shortcoming, but its magic.
“The excitement unleashed whenever the white bullet makes the net ripple might appear mysterious or crazy,” as the great Uruguayan author and journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote, “but remember that the miracle does not happen very often.”
Even the smallest, least significant goals have the power to make “the stadium forget it is made of concrete and break free of earth and fly through the air,” as Galeano put it. It is the breaking of a dam: a pent-up force, waiting and waiting to be unleashed. Goals mean more, mean everything, because you never know how long you might have to wait for the next. It is here that the passion soccer can engender is rooted. It is from here that soccer draws its power.
Among major team sports, that makes soccer unique. In their book “The Numbers Game,” Chris Anderson and David Sally found that, in (American) football, there is a score every nine minutes. In rugby, it is every 12 and a half. In hockey, every 22. In soccer, that rockets up to a goal every 69 minutes. Soccer’s “genius lies in the way it makes fans and players alike wait for their reward,” they wrote. “It is a sport of delayed gratification.”
It is worth considering, though, that the value of rarity does not only apply on the field. In the United States, Major League Baseball is currently going through what we might term the “Asterisk Debate.” It is a conversation that Europe experienced several months ago, though with one central difference.
In soccer, the assertion was that a title awarded without completing the season — as happened in Belgium, France and Scotland — should be accompanied by an asterisk, because it was not won over a full, traditional campaign. (In England, this was later amended to: a title won with all of the games completed but some held behind closed doors should have an asterisk because it was won by Liverpool).
In baseball, it is not quite the same. M.L.B. was merely in spring training and had not started its regular season when the pandemic hit. It is not awarding a World Series to the team with the best regular-season record. The asterisk is because of the length of the season: only 60 games before an expanded postseason, rather than the traditional 162.
To the sport’s devotees, that is simply not enough. Baseball Prospectus idly wondered if a season so short could be counted as legitimate, or whether “randomness is going to have a heavier thumb on the scale.”
Sports Illustrated acknowledged that playing 162 games is “arbitrary,” but pointed out that “seasons of that length are, at the very least, large enough samples to separate the good teams from bad.” The Houston Chronicle was even more damning: “A 60-game season isn’t really baseball,” one of its columnists declared.
It is a view shared by players, past and present. Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers believes there “will be an asterisk next to this year, no matter what happens.” Mike Stanton, a three-time World Series winner with the Yankees, is sure that the “teams that lose, they’ll be the ones going, ‘Well, it’s not for real, they didn’t play 162, they didn’t have the marathon.’”
With the exception of the N.F.L., American major leagues are not sports of scarcity. The baseball season is particularly unwieldy, but basketball and hockey both have regular seasons of 82 games, plus a playoff system that normally includes 16 teams.
A cynic might suggest that is because more games means more money in ticket sales, but in reality, it seems like the sort of arrangement where everyone wins: the owners, the players — as the pay dispute around baseball’s return made clear, the players earn more the more games there are — and the fans. Who doesn’t want to watch more of their favorite sport?
Soccer, of course, runs contrary to that. Most league seasons play somewhere between 30 and 46 games, plus knockout and continental tournaments, and the sport as a whole is confident that a sample that size is large enough to separate good teams from bad.
Randomness does have a stronger hand with fewer games, of course, but that is part of the charm: It makes the experience more unpredictable, more compelling. More important, scarcity heightens the meaning of — and therefore the emotion at stake in — every game. Soccer’s slim-line calendar infuses every occasion with jeopardy. With every additional game, that effect is diluted. If tonight’s defeat can be set right tomorrow, then perhaps it does not matter so much.
Soccer is turning away from the model it established to escape the pandemic. The endless television buffet will, slowly but surely, be removed. In doing so, the sport’s major leagues will restore to their televised fixtures a sense of occasion, something to be savored and anticipated, something not to be missed. After all, you will have to wait awhile for the next one.
Perhaps, though, baseball — a sport that has wrestled with declining attendance, aging fans, dwindling attention spans and an ever-less certain place in the modern sports landscape — could approach this shortened season with an open mind.
Perhaps the answer is not tweaking the rules or changing the games, but in making them more rare. Maybe each hit, each out, will seem to matter a little more. Maybe each game will appear more decisive. Maybe the tension will be ratcheted up a notch, and maybe the joy of victory and the despair of defeat will seem heightened. Maybe, just maybe, it might come to seem that less can be more.
Erling Haaland Will Be Taking Questions (He Likes)
The night before I met Erling Haaland had been the night of that television interview. You may remember it, from back in the before times. On his first appearance in the Champions League for Borussia Dortmund, Haaland had scored twice against Paris St.-Germain. The second had contained enough power to rattle the bones of Signal Iduna Park.
As he walked off the field, he was steered toward the waiting banks of television cameras. Everyone, at that time, wanted a piece of Europe’s shooting star. His first appointment was with German television. The reporter was polite and assiduous, asking questions in English, simultaneously translating the answers into German for his audience.
It became clear that Haaland, pretty quickly, did not want to play ball. He gave brief, matter-of-fact responses: not rude, not exactly, but seemingly designed to highlight that he did not think much of the questions. The reporter, gamely, persisted. At one point, Haaland rolled his eyes and nodded his head, the universal gesture for “what’s with this guy?”
The prospect of my sitting and asking him about his relationship with his father, the former Leeds United and Norway midfielder Alfie, suddenly seemed a little more daunting. If Haaland was not in the mood to talk, if he decided not to play ball, then it might be a very long 30 minutes indeed. For both of us.
There is a risk in judging a player from what you see in a postgame television interview. There is a limit to what a reporter can ask — there is no time for an in-depth investigation into anyone’s psyche — and a limit to what a player can say. They are still caked in sweat. They are often still catching their breath. And much of what they have just done, out on the field, is not immediately explicable to them; it is, instead, a mixture of instinct and instruction internalized so deeply that the two are indistinguishable.
Haaland was a reminder of that. He does, I think, have a prickly side: closed questions tend to elicit a closed response. He will not do your work for you. But once he settled down, and stretched those long legs out on the table in front of him, and talked about his father, and what it’s like to be the Son Of Someone, the sentences grew longer, more considered. He is surprisingly offbeat. He is a little quirky. A flash interview after a game is no time to show that. But that does not mean it is not there.
Many of you, it seems, have been nursing the same sense as me that Karim Benzema has spent his career at Real Madrid not getting quite the credit that he deserves. Rick Burroughs wrote to say that Benzema has “often felt that he was this strange outlier, one that demanded respect from the teams Real played and always made those around him better.”
Kudos to Edward Baker, too, for probably putting it best: He has always liked Benzema, he wrote, “and one of his great attractions is that José Mourinho never did.”
But Richard Whiddington made an observation than warrants exploration. The fallout from the rumbling incident with Mathieu Valbuena, Benzema’s erstwhile France teammate — a tabloid affair involving a sex tape and accusations of blackmail — served to preclude Benzema from “permanently reaching superstar status: particularly losing his place in the French side. How might it have been if he had been an integral part in Russia?”
It is just a personal view, but there was a reason behind the choice not to focus on the Valbuena allegations: Benzema’s being overlooked and underappreciated predates the scandal. That it has had an impact on his public image is without question, though, and while the World Cup is no longer where reputations are made, it is frequently where they are reassessed, particularly as the twilight starts to descend.