Saturday, 26 June 2010

Group G - final games

Brazil 0 - 0 Portugal

Ivory Coast 3 - 0 North Korea
Yaya Toure 14
Romaric 20
Kalou 82

Well that was just shit. After Japan and Slovakia show the world how it's done, two of the top teams had the chance to re-establish their credentials. Hey look at me they could have said, through the medium of flicks and shimmies. But no.

And I wasn't expecting anything else. Neither of them had anything to gain, you see. Brazil were through anyway and Portugal knew a point was enough. Top place didn't matter, or rather it wasn't clear whether first or second place was best because the Group H games hadn't been played, and under those circumstances why would they bother entertaining us?

Is that cynical of me? Only if you forget that all these players have been selected. Not just selected in the sporting sense, but selected in the Darwinian sense as well.

Actually that's a misrepresentation. Even in the case of footballing dynasties like the Redknapps or the Lampards, it's not as if footballing prowess is actually affecting their ability to reproduce as such. There is no natural selection at work here. But there is an application of the principle of the survival of the fittest.

It's straightforward enough, if you think about it. Within the niche environment of football, clubs rise or fall according to their ability to score goals, and stop their opponents scoring them. The ones that succeed are promoted, those that fail are relegated. The environment changes from time to time, rules are tweaked, new strategies emerge, and teams have to adapt or pay the price for their rigidity. Players also rise or fall individually, by getting transferred to better or worse teams.

The footballing equivalent of camouflage or sharp teeth, the things that get you selected, are fitness, positional sense, being tall and so on. The ability to control and direct a bouncing ball without using your hands is obviously an asset. As is the fine art of moral compromise.

In football, morals could for instance mean a distaste for cheating, or a desire to give something back to the public, even if you don't personally benefit. If you have morals in football, you aren't going to be prepared to fall over to win a penalty, demand a corner when you know it's a goal kick, pass the ball from side to side for ninety minutes and so on. In footballing terms, a strong sense of ethics is simply a form of poor ball control.

Ask any West Brom fan. West Brom are a team who spend half their time getting promoted from the Championship and the other half getting relegated from the Premiership. Their fans are intimately familiar with the difference between the two. They will tell you how much dirtier the Premiership is, just as they'll tell you how much better Premiership players are at all the other football skills. Championship players, on average, aren't quite as spectacularly good at shooting, crossing or moral abdication as players on the next level up.

At World Cup level, we're watching the cream of the cream. Anyone who fails at any football skill isn't going to make the cut, because there are always other players to come in and fill the gap. There are probably plenty of Brazilian and Portugese players looking at the crowded stadium and thinking well, they've come a long way and spent a lot of money, surely they're entitled to some kind of spectacle, but they're all watching on the telly like the rest of us because they've failed to master the skill of shamelessness.

It's just maths. If the rewards for a certain behaviour outweigh the risks, then that behaviour is going to emerge. Emerge in the technical sense, of simply following from the initial premise without any intent being required. To address the problem you have to change the maths, and to change the maths you have to tweak the rules. Take simulation, for instance.

Make simulation one of the most punishable offences in the game, make punishment retroactive and introduce a committe whose job is to review all games and apply it, and the maths changes. Even if individual players didn't change their behaviour, their selection fitness would fall because they were suspended so often, and in the end they'd find themselves playing at a lower level. Players who disdained simulation, on the other hand, would find empty places to step into in teams like Portugal or Real Madrid.

Not that it would have helped much yesterday. You can tweak the parameters around simulation, but I know of no rule change that would make teams come out and play.

In the other game, Ivory Coast scored about a third of the goals they would have needed if Brazil had made the necessary effort to beat Portugal, and like every African country except Ghana they're on their way home. North Korea, meanwhile, finish with zero points, one goal for and twelve against. Let's hope Kim Jong-Il isn't from the Saddam Hussein school of sports management.

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