Most sports become more interesting as the skill of the players advances. This is why pro football is more compelling than watching sixth-graders play the game. The striking exception to this rule is World Cup soccer. In soccer, the higher you go, the duller it plays.
I say this despite a fair knowledge of soccer. I've been writing sports copy, including soccer, for decades. I go back far enough to remember, affectionately, the voice of Danny Blanchflower, the color guy for CBS's pro soccer broadcasts in 1967. (Yes, America had soccer in '67.)
But soccer is a troubled sport that exposes its underbelly every four years in the dreariest, costliest, most predictable sports tournament on Earth.
How bad is soccer? Today is June 16. The tournament ends a month from now, and I know already who's going to win. I know the final score will be either 1-0 or 2-1. Or it will be a 0-0 or 1-1 tie decided by one of these silly kicking-contests because, after two brief overtimes, "the world's best-conditioned athletes" are just too tuckered out to play on 'til somebody actually wins.
Soccer's fundamental problem is that it's not fun to watch. It's maddening with suspense -- but fun? I remember sitting in a London pub while a big Premier League game was on all the TVs. I wasn't watching. All my input was audio. What I heard was long stretches of tense silence, interrupted by an occasional hopeful shout from fans around the bar, followed by a group chorus of "Aaaaaaw..." punctuated by a few uniquely British epithets like "Blimey!" and Bugger!"
The reason for these predictable soccer noises is that teams hardly ever score. In the past Premier League season, only a handful of teams averaged two goals a game.
I've long held the theory that the paucity of scoring in modern soccer explains the violence of its fans. There are many sports bloodier than soccer -- football, rugby, wrestling, girls' field hockey -- but no fans more thuggish, brutal, and vicious than the frustrated maniacs who follow soccer and rarely get to high-five a goal.
For example, in World Cups from 1934 to 1954, games averaged more than four goals. In '54, the average per game was 5.38. Since then, scoring has dwindled to the point where the typical game is a 1-1 tie. There have been 167 World Cup ties (in 412 games) since 1986, concurrent with thousands of Major League Baseball, NBA, and NFL playoff games that have recorded dozens of overtimes without a tie.
So, have soccer players deteriorated that badly since 1954?