In this two part essay, Corley Miller explores a simple question: is football fair?


This year’s World Cup had four penalty shootouts. The winner’s side of the bracket featured a solitary one, in which Brazil’s Julio Cesar either valiantly or luckily saved two Chilean penalties and saw a third glance off the woodwork. On the other side, penalties seemed infectious—as did timidity. Costa Rica’s penalties were joyously decisive against Greece, but tentative in the quarterfinal against the Netherlands. The Netherlands in that match were arrogant and certain but later limp and impactless against Argentina. Surely if the final had gone to penalties Argentina would have lost.

Really, though—penalty kicks? Football, like most sports that want to avoid ties, has a simple solution: play some more. And if still no winner? Most sports once again play some more. Football gives up. It admits that playing more football may not produce a winner. So, instead of continuing to play, it proceeds to penalty kicks. Five players from each team shoot once from 12 yards, opposed by just the other team’s goalkeeper. Whoever scores more wins.

Especially on television, some things about penalty kicks are nice: they’re conclusive, and, in a sport that can be difficult to humanize, the very reductivity of penalty kicks—Vlaar, Romero, the single stroke and single save—lends a particular personal drama that is sometimes missing from (for example) a two-hour nil-nil. Penalty kicks are great television, in the same way that Real Housewives is great television: intimate, memorable, and almost inevitably catastrophic for somebody involved.

The only problem with penalties is that they may not have much to do with football. Football is insolubly a team game and elementally a game of instincts. Most matches are settled by immediate unconsidered reactions to vanishingly small opportunities, later realized consciously as correct or incorrect. Most goals are communal, made by a scorer, a passer, and an unknown hero whose two suggestive steps four seconds previous drew the defender in the wrong direction. But penalties are individual and premeditated. The goalkeeper discusses the taker’s chances, the shooter breathes and looks and thinks. The other players huddle like wheat on the halfway line, unimaginably distant. And then Vlaar, Romero, save or goal, ecstasy or agony.

Even more: football at its most beautiful is a game about space, about where it will be and who can get there first, who can imagine its existence with a pass or touch, or remove it with a prophylactic run. Vlaar and Mascherano abhor open space and have made whole careers of ending it; Messi and Robben and Muller are inventive Euclids seeking it. A ball moves, and then a player, and a new geometry appears. But penalties are above all static. Nothing moves and no one can anticipate. In a sense, penalties aren’t even football. They’re a football-related program activity, a tangent on or joke about football: something of such delicacy and length as football, decided finally by an American Gladiators event.

But if you look at it another way—if you’re willing to read Vlaardipus Rex as an allegory rather than a mishandled fairy tale—penalties are intimately related to some other, deeper, football whatness. That’s because while some sports pretend to be comic, football is (like penalties) frequently and explicitly tragic. “Comic” is a drama that ends with appropriate rewards, in which the ingenues get married to the virtuous inheritors, the evil aunts are humorously undone, and the better team wins. A fair sport.  “Tragic” is a drama that ends in unjust punishments, in which the king marries his mother, or is tricked into killing the lovely Desdemona. In which the result is frequently, explicitly unfair, or at least capricious.

When you think about it, some of the most memorable moments from at least the last three world cups are identifiably tragic: lax refereeing in this year’s quarterfinal was allowing a cultish, frantically fouling Brazil to edge plucky Colombia—but just until Zuniga, exasperated by both laxness and fouling, led with his knee into Neymar’s back, breaking a vertebra and ordaining a later emotional meltdown so complete it can only be described with the language of intoxication and lost time. In 2010 Brazil’s Julio Cesar, playing for a much better team than this year’s and already 1-0 ahead, is botching an uncomplicated take against the limited Dutch, then conceding from a corner, and sending Brazil out in the quarterfinals. In 2006 the imperial Zidane, in a final that’s also his last international game, is provoked by Materazzi into a headbutt which leads to his ejection and a tearful French loss. Put out Zidane, and then put out the light.

This happens in the club game, too, though there it’s less often a matter of human drama overwriting  sporting than of plainly unlaudable victors. Of Iago winning rather than Othello losing. This is unfamiliar to American viewers: a ‘worse’ team can win at basketball or American football (both comic sports) only by a series of sensational individual acts. But when a ‘worse’ team wins at football, more often than not, it’s through dreary Vlaarish nothing-securing rather than escalating heroism. Few football fans root programmatically for underdogs, because underdogs in football aren’t pluckily valorous overachievers swept up in their own self-overcoming—they’re petulant, often violent, and overwhelmingly cynical. It’s much easier to root for Chitwood’s last-second three than for Asmir Begovic taking twenty seconds at a goal kick.

And yet these underdogs (or the teams that choose to play like underdogs) win all the time. Because of the extraordinary difficulty of scoring goals, and the relative of ease of space-removing as opposed to space-creation, it’s frequently possible for technically poor, aesthetically regrettable sides to frustrate better/more capable teams, tempt them into committing too far forward in attack, and then scrape lucky counterattacking goals. The Champions League, the major European club tournament, is won about half the time by sides like Mourinho’s Inter or di Matteo’s Chelsea (also basically a Mourinho side—if football is a tragic sport, Mourinho is its irrepressible Iago, constantly tempting the great and the good into varieties of overreach and then efficiently deposing them), who don’t want to win but only let opponents beat themselves. Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

It’s football”s confounding persistence of tragic outcomes—the infuriating frequency with which winning doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with what’s taken as good or pleasant play—that penalties represent the best. ESPN and BBC commentators are desperate to claim that penalties reflect some competitive or other virtue, but it’s the kind of desperation that only reveals its insincerity—in penalties either team can win, and it won’t have anything to do with either the play that came before or any replicable virtue shown by either team. Ron Vlaar misses his penalty, the previously-anonymous Messi scores his deftly. John Terry slips in Moscow. Baggio leans online slots back too far. Each will have felt they should have died thereafter.

And it isn’t that such caprice is a feature of sports generally. Legible in basketball, American football, and baseball—comic sports of accumulation, that feature many more opportunities to score per game, conversion percentages that creep out of the deviant teens and into the reliable thirties, or else many more games in a decisive series (or all of the above), and in which excellence in one moment or passage of play is almost always markable on the scoreboard—is a belief that generally winners are either elementally the best (the Seahawks, this year’s Spurs) or have managed on that particular day or month to summon a performance of such bravery and unlikely excellence (many baseball champions, Dirk’s Mavericks, the New York Giants) that it’s worthy of victory anyways.

That’s to say: on some basic teleological level most sports make a choice between two parables of moral action. One, the comic, asserts that victory is both earned and accurate—a product of greater talent, intelligence, or virtue. Three hours spent on a game of American football, or two weeks following a basketball series, is time spent basking in the basic rightness of worldly outcomes, in the natural and correct distribution of not only victories but also fame, romance, wealth and happiness. Heroes struggle in these sports, yes, and fail heartbreakingly—but are only beaten by other, better heroes. Lebron matures and then can win, the rightness of the Spurs is recognized, Seattle’s defense is vindicated in its self-belief. The world is as it ought to be, imply the comic sports—losers should improve.

It’s these sports, the comic accumulators, that have been fertile ground for the sabermetricians. That have proven solvable. It shouldn’t surprise us—data journalism of all kinds is ultimately a comic premise, a thesis claiming that winning is a result of identifiable, fundamental correlates. That virtues exist, if we can find the way to count them. And that these virtues manifest in an individual game, an individual series. If they don’t, it’s only because the opposition has eclipsed them with other virtues, also measurable. That this dream of measurable virtues and extricable causes has been proven correct in so many spaces once given as unknowable (in many sports and, notably, in politics) is one of the defining epistemological insights of our millennium. That it can so often appear to be correct without being (as in mortgage default rates and interbank loan repayments) may have had an even larger impact.

Football looks, for now, like one of the unsolvables. There are 90 minutes of play and 27 shots and roughly one in ten will be a goal. Which ones? No one can say. Sometimes Germany wins the World Cup; sometimes Mourinho wins the Champions League. Neymar rarely breaks his back, Messi scores from ten yards more often than he misses. And sometimes it goes to penalties. What are penalty kicks but an admission of comparative failure? A confession that, whatever difference does exist between a pair of teams, playing more football is such an inefficient method that it may never be able to determine it—and that the basically random determination of penalties is preferable at least in that it promises an end. Two hours spent on a football game is often two hours marinating in small-sample-size injustice, in the tendency of the good and talented to fail, the craven to succeed, and the offered outcomes to be horrible disfigurations of what’s intended or deserved. Football: a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying—

Signifying what? Something growing, in the West and America particularly, in a market society until recently assumed efficient, in an assumed meritocracy now regarded as rigged temporarily or permanently. Football has always been popular in nations with ambiguous understandings of historical moral outcomes: post-colonial victims and European countries too-aware of the neighborhood histories of villainy or violence. Societies that get, on both a national and personal level, that there’s no necessary rightness or goodness in the way things happen to have happened. This is a lesson that, for better or worse, America seems just to be approaching, and one whose relevance—visible in the shocking national willingness to embrace a national team that wasn’t likely to win much of anything at all, in our ability to celebrate the failing hero Howard rather than railing against the idiocy of the sport—may be at the root of football’s increasing appeal to Americans. We’re beginning to get, generation by generation, disillusioned Occupier by unemployed esquire, that the way things end up may not be the way they ought to be. If other sports promise a solvable, efficient world, football resists.

Or maybe not. Maybe football-as-tragic, football as unsolvable doesn’t last in the long run. Maybe one day an army of statisticians at Manchester City or at Opta will be proved correct, in football as in the other sports. But it seems unlikely. Mystery and tragedy, as Stalin knew, are creatures of low sample size and scarce incidence—the axioms of football. Again—maybe this is all solvable. But for now—as Ron Vlaar knows and Nate Silver is learning—football resists. Football isn’t fair.

But maybe that unfairness is its genius. Texts do something for their readers, and if the comic sports are fairy tales, chances to believe briefly in a better world, then football is a chance to safely approach the sometimes-tender actuality of injustice. It’s far easier, for most people, to deal with their team losing on penalty kicks than it is to deal with losing a job, a partner, or a friend. Football just doesn’t matter quite as much. But the structures are the same—those deep offended griefs, that Milton’s-Satan sense of should-have-been—and so maybe football, more than other sports, instructs its viewers in the virtues recessionary life requires: how to continue in the face of awful things. How to hope and live and work for change despite them.

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]

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