In this two part essay, Corley Miller explores a simple question: is football fair?
From August, early glimpses of historical topology. Scolari and Fred have been excommunicated. Xavi has retired from internationals and Fabregas has moved to Chelsea with wandering steps and slow. Articles in fivethirtyeight have wondered earnestly if the Germans were the best national team of all time and answered in the tentatively quantified affirmative. It was a good World Cup in both senses: well-behaved and entertaining. No Schumachers, no mysterious illnesses for losing stars, the relevant refereeing all quite decent, and an enormous number of goals.
From a good World Cup, some things will be remembered, mostly moments auguring the victory that arrived: Gotze’s lunging, postulative goal in the final. Neuer indomitable against Algeria. Messi’s exhaustion, Pepe’s idiocy, Lahm’s constant genius. Other things will be forgotten, because they were either irrelevant to or overwritten by elements of victory: that Higuain was through on goal. That Pinilla struck the crossbar. What Krul did to Costa Rica. Wondolowski’s hurried skyward slice. And also that, in June, Germany looked like something very different from the best national team of all time. Reus had been injured in a friendly. Schweinsteiger and Khedira had both been crocked for months and Ozil indifferent for Arsenal. No fullbacks were fit. They’d been poor at the most recent Euros and were well-known for handling travel and chaos poorly. They were in the hard half of the draw; they would have to beat both Brazil and Argentina; they were Europeans in South America; they were given a 10.9% chance to win.
And then they won. By now, mixing stereotypes of German national and footballing psychology with specific traits of these humans, we feel we know why. Like Germans, they celebrated no victory but the last one. Like German footballers, they were simultaneously brave and efficient. Like themselves (like Goethe) they were creative and dramatic. From August we are certain we could see these things from June. We might not have been paying attention to them, necessarily—might have gotten our emphases wrong—but the information was there. Along with the delicacy of the Brazilian psyche, the exhaustion of Spain, Argentina’s enormous dependence on Messi. From August it is possible to believe in a solvable football—in some combination of statistical, tactical and psychological metrics which, if identified correctly in advance, could allow people like fivethirtyeight to understand who will win and lose and why. Which will allow us the predictiveconfidence of American sports. Another way of saying this: it is possible to believe, from August, that the World Cup was fair.
Which is not to say that it was fair. The myth of fairness, in football as in life, requires an elision, a focus on the well-deserving victors rather than all the tragic also-rans. Just ask Ron Vlaar, by now a footnote to this World Cup but briefly a lead ___agonist. Ron Vlaar, called ‘concrete,’ central defender for Aston Villa and the Dutch national team. Beaches of his hair beginning to erode but an icon otherwise of 29-year-old male health. Supervillain name and henchman face. Eight-inch tattoos of his children’s names across his chest. Captain, actually, of Aston Villa, which is like being the hippest dude in Tucson—wayyyy hipper than most people you’ve ever met, just like Ron Vlaar is by purely human standards a magnificent athlete and defender, but on this particular spectrum it’s a pretty marginal magnificence.
In the second world cup semifinal, between Vlaar’s Holland and slightly-favored Argentina, hippest-dude-in-Tucson Ron Vlaar spent most of the game playing against Lionel Messi, who in this analogy is basically Jean-Michel Basquiat c. 1981—in the conversation for hippest dude not just in one particular city or timeframe but across galactic history. But something unexpected happened. Ron Vlaar—this is where the tragedy begins—was neither intimidated nor outplayed. For two hours he and the rest of the Tucson hipsters in the Dutch defense made Messi, Aguero, and Lavezzi look not just frustrated but distinctly square. After the match, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal said “I thought [Vlaar] was the best player on the pitch [notable ellipsis]” and everyone agreed. After 120 minutes viewers might have wished to be as lucky as Ron Vlaar: to have the most prominent two hours in their lives also be the ones in which they were the best.
‘Best’ for Ron Vlaar and the rest of the world’s central defenders has to be a funny thing. They’re probably comfortable with it by the time they’re 29-year-old multimillionaires, but from a ‘fun’ perspective the central defender’s job is that of a particularly careful precognitive hall monitor: the careful, exhausting work of preventing any excitement or spectacle whatsoever. The match in which a central defender is noted as the game’s best player is the kind in which children are falling asleep, pundits are discussing the upcoming club season, and stadium cameramen are seeking out the facepainted photogenic, who themselves are texting. None of which, of course, diminishes Ron Vlaar’s excellence against Argentina.
What does diminish Ron Vlaar’s excellence against Argentina is the content of the [notable ellipsis] earlier. After Ron Vlaar’s two immortal hours of defending (and the corresponding two hours played by Argentina’s Javier Mascherano, better-known and -paid but still one of football’s tribe of essential, hated dementors) is that the game, having failed to produce a winner or even a goal, was decided by penalty kicks. Penalty kicks are regarded as a mostly psychological affair, and it’s precisely because Dutch coach Louis van Gaal thought Vlaar was the best player on the field and ought to be confident that (after two other players, presumably intimidated by the moment, refused) he asked Vlaar to take the narrative-defining first Dutch penalty.
What happened next will, unfortunately for both Ron Vlaar and any notion of historical fairness, be remembered far better than the two hours of perfect nothing he’d just come from curating. Vlaar took the logarithmically lonely walk to the penalty spot, bent to adjust the ball with both hands, stepped back, collected himself briefly, and then directed a slow, mostly central tulip-crash of a penalty towards the right side of the goal, where Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved it with a strong left forearm. Vlaar turned and looked upwards, as though appealing to any available deity, and then put his hands on his head. Romero saved the next penalty as well, and sent Argentina to the World Cup Finals.
Eight days before Vlaar took that penalty, fivethirtyeight had posted a long article indicating the chances of each team winning a penalty shootout depending on the outcome of each kick. Vlaar’s miss, by their math (an assumption that 72.5% of penalties are made, basically) had a greater statistical impact on the likely outcome than any other event in the game. As he walked up both teams had something like a 50% chance to win. As he walked away, Argentina were 70% favorites.
Consider, then, Ron Vlaar’s evening. To have entered as a marginal participant in an affair of brighter lights. But then to have been the earnest best of all assembled. To have prevented Messi, Aguero and Lavezzi (any of whom would on the open market be worth whole battalions of Rons Vlaar) from scoring, to have done so valiantly, intelligently, and at times desperately. And then at the end to have been the only Dutchman willing to take the first penalty. That is: to have been throughout the game the best and at the end the bravest of these athletes. But then for all that excellence and bravery to ultimately ensure that Ron Vlaar—not the captain van Persie, who toiled anonymously for 96 minutes before a deflating substitution, nor the star Robben whose first shot on goal came in the 99th minute, nor the goalkeeper Cillessen who twice touched but could not divert Argentine penalties, nor finally the coach van Gaal who had chosen a dull and dour match, but instead Ron Vlaar who missed the penalty, would be the first and heaviest on the list of Dutch failures in this World Cup.
After being saved by Romero, Vlaar’s penalty bounced upwards, spun off the ground and almost back into the goal, finally coming to rest a just an infuriating shoelace or two from salvation. It was somewhere here, between adjusting the ball and pleading with the referee to watch it trickle back towards goal, that Vlaar’s evening veered out of the merely unfortunate and into the actively tragic. Sophocles particularly would have appreciated this: a man distinguishes himself, solves riddles or stifles superstars, earns by his excellence a brief elevation to the spotlight. But then, because he is elementally unsuited to his new position in ways for which he cannot very plausibly be held culpable (Vlaar is elementally a center-back, a preventer, designed to impede balls’ passage into nets rather than to guide them there—and little evidence exists that he had ever taken a competitive penalty before in his life), he fails, and in failing becomes an icon of damaged futility out of all proportion to his earlier success. Vlaardipus Rex, it might be called, or the Vlaarestia.
If the penalties against Argentina were a dark or tragic moment for Ron Vlaar and his Holland, they were a rare bright point for fivethirtyeight’s football coverage, and for the notion of the sport as solvable. Just before the semifinals, data-journalism-vatican fivethirtyeight posted their official analysis of bothsemifinals. The analysis itself was mostly interesting for its mystical vagueness: all four teams were pretty good, fivethirtyeight felt, and would be about evenly matched on neutral fields, but home-field advantage matters a lot in football, and so Brazil were given roughly a 70% chance to beat Germany and to then be favorites in the final. Argentina and the Netherlands were predicted to play a close game, with Argentina slightly more likely to win—and of course they nailed the penalties.
More interesting than the semifinal previews was Nate Silver’s analysis of how the absence of Brazil’s two stars, Neymar and Thiago Silva, would impact the game. Fivethirtyeight’s basic tool for understanding football teams is SPI, a metric that attempts (via a mixture of recent team performance and the strength of individual players) to determine how many goals each team would score and concede against an ‘average’ team. Unsurprisingly, SPI also understands players in terms of their goals-contributed and goals-prevented per game—a football-specific implementation of a common sabermetric trope. Silver’s analysis—considering the estimated values of Neymar and Silva and the players likely to replace them—was that Neymar and Silva’s combined absences were likely to make Brazil about a third of a goal worse per game—sufficient to make Germany the (very slight) favorites on a neutral field, but not to overcome the weight of home-field advantage. Brazil were estimated to have about a 65% chance of beating Germany without these two, and around a 70% chance, depending on their opponent, of winning the final if they did.
Obviously, something went wrong. Germany beat Brazil by 6 unprecedented goals. It’s unclear whether this was a flaw in the original estimation of the two teams (many people who had been watching football with their eyes felt that Brazil had been playing poorly all tournament, and that things were going to be very difficult indeed for them against Germany even with Neymar and Silva), a failure in the adjustments made for absences (the biggest ways Neymar and Silva seemed to be missed was intangible, in their total absence of defensive leadership and sense of attacking cluelessness), or simply a historically outlying result—probably a combination of all three. But the bigger story, the story connecting Ron Vlaar with Nate Silver, and both of them with Neymar, Materazzi, and Mourinho, is about the tragedy in football’s heart, and how that’s related to the sport’s extraordinary resistance to the sophisticated, reductive analytics that have dominated the discussion and development of virtually every other major sport in the last decade.
Check back tomorrow for Vlaardipus Rex II.
Corley Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn. He tweets and tumbls @amcorley, and he’s working on learning how to write plot.
[Photo credit Flickr user Henrik Thorn]