Sport


On the 20th of November I went with my friend Miss Y and her sister Miss N to view the Grand Sumo Contest in nearby Fukuoka. This event was supposed to be the event when the current grandmaster (Yokozuna), Hakuho, was due to set a world record for consecutive victories; unfortunately he got beaten on the Monday before, so no record viewing. Also, Misses Y and N are teachers at the same Ninja High School, and as you know Ninjas never rest, so they could meet me until 13:30 on the day, which meant we didn’t get to view the full day – we only saw the Makuuchi, the most important Sumo wrestlers, in the last 1.5 hours of the day. Sumo is a bit like a Japanese version of cricket, which means that it is a full-day event where you lounge around, drinking and talking and occasionally noticing that there’s a sport happening in the background. Here is an example of what I mean when I say lounging: Miss Y and I got a “Pair Seat”:

Special Big Man Viewing seat for normal people

Had we been here all day then just like in an Aussie cricket day, we could have spent the day drinking beers and enjoying the view. Instead we sat on the edge of our seats while the various wrestlers tried to tear each other apart. Here’s an example of two wrestler’s in preparation for the titanic clash:

All Ritual and No Trousers...

For those of my readers who aren’t familiar with Sumo (is there any such person left in the world?[1]), the preparatory rituals often take longer than the actual fight, which typically is resolved within 10-20 seconds of its commencement. Some wrestlers make a big show of the preparation, and the crowd is generally as appreciative of the stand-off before the bout as they are of the actual fight. So you see a lot of salt-throwing and not so much person-throwing.

There are certain things about Sumo that I find surprising. Here is a short list…

  • Sumo Wrestlers are really big: you get to stand near them at the match (there’s not much security or separation) and they really are big, bigger than the few rugby players I’ve met, giants among men. This is even more striking for Japanese people – I’m small in my own country but big here, and these guys make me feel small.
  • The constant flux: Sumo is a serious business – that ring they’re standing in is a significant religious object, kind of like a shrine, and every aspect of the sport is steeped in ritual. But as they prepare for and conduct the fight, there are constant distracting mundanities happening around them – men cleaning up the salt from the ring, new wrestlers entering the area around the ring, people running by. It’s strange to see this holy activity surrounded by such a buzz of normal life
  • Lack of professional distance: The Sumo wrestlers move around the outside of the hall with almost no separation between themselves and the crowd – you can actually stand right next to them and take photos as they line up, and see them wandering around the halls around the changing rooms. This is quite different to western sport
  • Weakening of the sport: A lot of the victories I saw were oshidashi, that is one person pushing another from the ring. I think this is the easiest way to win a fight and I think it indicates a slow loss of skill in the sport. I think in previous eras there was more agility and skill, and I wonder if the size-related arms race has led to a loss of delicacy and finesse in the sport
  • Intrusion of the everyday: As Hakuho, the grand master, was preparing for his bout lines of men entered the edge of the ring and walked around carrying banners advertising Tea Rice and McDonalds. These men were so numerous and their line so long that they actually interfered with Hakuho’s preparations – he was retreating to the salt bin but had to wait for the advertisers to pass! This happened twice in the run up to his bout. I’m surprised that even though the ring is like a shrine and he is the most revered participant, mere advertising is allowed to intrude on his preparations (see the picture below). I can’t figure this out

Who said advertising and religion don't mix?

Sumo is Japan’s national sport, but the top ranks are top-heavy (literally!) with foreigners, but during the day I didn’t get any impression of racist abuse or comments being yelled at the wrestlers. In fact quite a few of the top flight’s most popular members are foreign (e.g. Kotooshu), and my friend Miss Y was recently mortified when a gambling scandal overtook Sumo, but only the Japanese wrestlers were implicated[3]. I don’t think you’d see quite the same attitude in European soccer, though it seems to be common in rugby. For all its many charms, even in NZ rugby is not a religion, though, and if it were I can’t see the English-speaking world being as accommodating of foreign involvement as the Japanese are. But this will never be tested, it’s just supposition on my part.

I’m generally of the belief that sport is better watched on TV than live, but if you get the chance I do recommend a visit to the Sumo, particularly if you go with some friends and spend the day eating and drinking and making merry while Big Men smash into each other in the far distance. Especially if you like the sport, as I do. But ultimately, like every other sport, Sumo is probably better seen on TV.

 

 

 

fn1: People unfamiliar with Sumo, that is. I know that there are a few people in outer Mongolia who are as yet unfamiliar with my blog[2]

fn2: Though in a strange coincidence those people already are familiar with Sumo. Maybe this post will complete my saturation coverage of the globe?

fn3: I think this is for the simple reason that Yakuza hate foreigners and won’t deal with foreign wrestlers, not any particular moral superiority of the foreigners[4]

fn4: Though I do think that Sumo is an environment of bullying and abuse that probably encourages only the people with the worst characters to join or stay. So maybe foreign wrestlers raised in foreign sumo schools – e.g. in Mongolia – avoid this culture? I don’t know how they train though, or if they train there or here…

公式観賞です

2010年11月20日に、福岡での相撲大会を見に行きました。私は、相撲に興味があるが、よく分からない。テレビで何回見た事があるが、文化・規則などが詳しくない。

行った時に、誘ってくれた友達が当日13:30まで働いていたから最後の2時間だけ見れたが、楽しかったです。だいたい、テレビと同じような感じでした。

見れば見るほど、いろいろな考えやビックリのことがあった。これで少し説明してみて、友達の意見や反応を集めたい。

ビックリのは。。。力士の大きさ。大きかった!

面白いのは。。。試合準備が進むのに、周りにはいろいろな移動がされている。。。例えば、あの塩をボウキで片付ける人が動いたり、力士が来たり、客様が通ったりする。。。静かの周りではない。

でも、このリングは神殿みたいでしょう?神殿みたいなのに、普通の行動が進む。。。

ビックリのは、ホールの中で力士が普通の人みたいに散策している。えらい人じゃないみたい。

ちょっと間違えるかもしれないが、考えは。。。最近の相撲は弱くなっているかな?5割以上の試合は「押し出し」で勝たれたが、「押し出し」は1番技能がいらない勝ち方だと思う。昔は、勝ち方がもう少し多様性があった?

ビックリのは、白鵬が準備していたときに、たくさん広告を持つ人がリングに入って、かれの準備を邪魔した!彼は2回塩の箱に行ったときに待たないといけなかった!ビックリですよ!横綱なのに広告を持つ人に邪魔された!神殿みたいな所なのに、広告をする人が公式の間に入った。。。

相撲は日本の国技なのに、外国人の力士が多かった。それはビックリじゃない(数年増えていたからなれている)が、友達を聞いたと、ぐんしゅう達(?日本語変?見る人って意味)が差別を表すことを言わなかった。オーストラリアかイギリスだったら、差別の言葉が多いと思う。それが面白い。珍しいと思う。

以上の考え以外の意見は。。。相撲が楽しかった!見るチャンスがあったから嬉しい!

Introduction

This is a bit of a weird diversion from normal programming, but I thought I’d give it a go. On the weekend it was the final of the Australian Rules Football League, the AFL, and – rather remarkably for the game – it ended in a draw. Those of you who know anything about scoring in AFL will guess that this is pretty unlikely, especially in a grand final. So a blog I regularly read, Larvatus Prodeo, have a post up pondering the possibility that we live in an era of close grand finals. I offered to attack this problem with my (apparently somewhat rusty) time series analysis “skills”, and this post is an attempt to present the results.

Method

Winning and losing scores since 1950 were provided by the author of the post at Larvatus Prodeo (I rather suspect he’s been writing them by hand on the day of the final since 1950, but let’s assume they’re accurate because no AFL fan would get something as important as this wrong). Visual inspection was used to investigate the possibility of a narrowing of winning and losing scores. The margin of victory was divided by the winning score to give a measure of the proportionate margin (referred to as such from now on) and ARIMA time series analysis used to estimate the seasonal patterns (if any) in the proportionate margin. A linear model was then fitted to the proportionate margin by year, and serial dependence in the residuals estimated using another ARIMA model. Where serial dependence was evident, a second linear model was fitted using generalized least squares adjusted for the identified serial dependence, and the resulting estimates of the straight line fit were presented.

It was my original intention to fit these models using Stata 11 but my version of Stata seems to be broken so I used R. Unfortunately, R’s time series analysis software is … dubious. And I’m all at sea doing time series analysis outside of SAS, so you should take this with a grain of salt[1].

Results

Figure 1 shows the winning and losing scores in the grand final for the last 60 years. There appears to be a narrowing of scores before the 1980s and another narrowing the previous 10 years, though the results shown in this chart are hardly conclusive. There’s also a hint of a jump in scores at about 1980, which actually shows up very clearly in the differenced time series plot of loser scores but not of winners.

Figure 1: Scores of winners and losers in the grand final of The Only Real Footy

A plot of winner’s scores against loser’s scores suggests a strong relationship between the two, but this is not unexpected given that both teams are trying to win, so is not presented here.

Figure 2 shows the proportionate margin by year. There appears to be a periodic relationship in this margin, but in fact analysis of this period does not suggest it is very significant[3].

Figure 2: Margin by which 22 men become Gods for a year, as a proportion of their total score

Analysis of autocorrelation and partial autocorrelation functions (not shown) suggests that the serial dependence in this model is AR(2), that is the margin of victory in any given year is related negatively to the margin of victories in the previous two years, and very strongly to the previous year. This is to be expected – teams learn from a very large margin of victory in the prior year, and adapt to fit new tactics, significantly reducing the margin the following year. Fitting a linear model, with year as the only predictive term, we find that there is no serial dependence in the residuals of the model, but that year is not statistically significant (p=0.151). This means we don’t need to fit a generalized least squares model, though doing so with an autoregressive (2) term makes no difference. On visual inspection the residuals do seem to be uncorrelated, suggesting a model with no serial dependence. The linear model only explains 0.1% of variance, suggesting a lack of predictivity for simple models of AFL scores.

Conclusion

There is no evidence of a strong pattern, either periodic or linear, in margins of victory in AFL grand finals. There is some evidence that the margin of victory in a given year depends on what happened in the previous two years, and tends to regress towards the mean, suggesting that teams learn from previous blow-outs. There is otherwise no evidence of any time dependence in this data.

Note that there are two important additional caveats: one, that estimates of significance in ARIMA models in R are thought to be wrong[4]; and two, that there is an additional source of serial dependence in this data, in that some of the grand final scores are for the same team in multiple years. Obviously the blow-outs in figure 1 correspond to the years when Port Adelaide won the grand final, or when the Crows lost. A more sophisticated analysis of AFL scores would use all scores for the year, adjusting for serial dependence by team and game, and using a version of Stata that works rather than R.

Finally, I think that the AFL maintains a draft system and a salary cap. This would be consistent with the findings[5] presented here.

fn1: I think it would be great if all research papers presented their caveats in this style. But I’ve had 3 beers, and that is not the usual condition under which research papers are written[2]

fn2: He assumes, bravely

fn3: possibly because I’m pretty crap at fitting periodic models, and after 3 beers really not even very good at working out how many radians to divide 40 years into, or what should be on the top or bottom line of the sine function. But I think I got it right.

fn4: I read this in a journal article when I was actually doing something important, but I can’t be bothered finding it now

fn5: May I use this term loosely?

Video of my kickboxing fight is here, at blogger… WordPress don’t allow it. The first video is very small and hard to see but the second one is clearer.

I’m not the first person to have considered the possibility that Paul the Octopus is the spawn of Cthulhu, based on his “remarkable” predictive powers. However, being unconvinced, I presented the possibility that he is not a normal octopus to my students last week, as an example of a basic non-parametric test (the runs test). I thought I’d present a couple of results here, and contemplate some of the complexities of hypothesis testing against a backdrop of crawling chaos.

Introduction

So the basic tale is that Paul predicted the outcome of 5 German games and then one Holland/Spain game successfully, and he had an 80% success rate in the European cup (4 games out of 5 predicted correctly). We will present some statistical tests of this situation, and finish up with a few discussion details.

Aim

To test whether or not the Oberhausen Sea Life aquarium is housing one of the gibbering dark ones from beyond time and space, or whether, in fact, Paul is just a normal octopus who happens to be lucky. Additionally, are the cult of the Ancient Ones who surround him actually a bunch of charlatans making money from our credulous belief in the crawling abominations of the netherworld? Should we sacrifice Paul, perhaps lightly-battered with a slice of lemon, for the good of all humanity; or should we accept his fundamental normality and get on with our lives safe in the knowledge that the Nameless Ones do not, in fact, inhabit our mortal realm?[1]

Method

We can posit the fundamental question as to Paul’s normality or infinite evil in terms of the null and alternative hypothesis of a non-parametric statistical test, as follows. Let the random variable X measure the outcome of Paul’s attempt to guess the result of the next Germany match. Then let X=1 if Paul is successful in his prediction, and X=0 if he fails. Define the probability that Paul successfully predicts a soccer match as p=P(X=1). Then, we can write the null and alternative hypotheses as:

H0: Paul is a normal octopus (p=1/2)

H1: Paul is a crawling abomination from the pits of hell (p>1/2)

In this case we can test the possibility that p>1/2 by means of a runs test. That is, under the null hypothesis, is the chance that Paul would predict 5 games correctly in a row unusually low, such that we might reject the null hypothesis with some confidence? We will choose a confidence of 95% and reject the null hypothesis if the probability of 5 games predicted correctly in a row is less than 5%. Note that we are using a runs test here, requiring sequential successes; we might want to allow the possibility that he can make a mistake at any point in the process, in which case we are interested in the probability that he gets 5 games out of 5 correct in any order.

This second test is important because in 2008 Paul predicted 4 games out of 5, for 80% accuracy. I’m not sure whether this happened sequentially or not, but it seems reasonable to suppose that his mistake could occur at any point in the chain of games, so then we need to calculate the probability of 4 games correct out of 5, in any order, and identify whether this is less than 5% (for a one-sided test), in order to reject the null hypothesis in favour of the terrible omens of destruction and chaos.

Results

So, the probability that he correctly predicts 5 games in a row under the null is (1/2)^5, because the predictions are independent events and the probability is thus the product of their separate probabilities. This gives a probability of 1/32=3%, or less than 5%. We reject the null hypothesis of normality, and conclude that in fact the Elder Gods stalk the (aquariums of the) Earth.

However, the probability of 4 out of 5 correct in any order is (5 4) (1/2)^5 under the null hypothesis, where (5 4) is my crappy non-latex way of writing “5 choose 4”. This gives us 5/32=1/6=16% (approximately) so we retain the null hypothesis, that Paul is a normal octopus. Note the probability of 4 predictions in a row is 1/16 (exactly) or 6%,so no dice…

So, we have contradictory results concerning the nature of evil. Having proven statistically that British people are idiots and the Australian government didn’t burn the house down, I’m a little disappointed at this mixed result. I’m sure no priest of Sigmar would accept such equivocation where the agents of chaos are concerned. What to do?

Discussion

We could combine the results of the two football matches, to get a total of 10 games with 9 correct results, but we don’t really have 10 games, because the 5 predictions of each series are correlated – Paul was a younger, and presumably less infinitely evil, octopus 2 years ago, and maybe had a different predictive method/ ritual, plus of course his cult followers were probably making different/smaller human sacrifices. So we need to consider the possibility that those 5 games are more similar to each other than they are to the next 5 games. Without any knowledge of the degree of correlation in the octopus’s predictions under the null hypothesis, we can’t make a judgement.

There is also a question of inter-rater agreement here. It’s possible that Paul always goes for the same box, and the staff don’t randomly assign flags to boxes, or just by luck the Germany box is more likely to be on the side Paul favours. We should probably consider the randomization sequence of the boxes in some way. A variable for the side on which the box is placed, or better still random assignment of the flags to the boxes, would have solved this problem.

But I think there is a more sinister trick at work here. We know that Germany are a strong team, and we know that Paul is lured into the boxes by mussels. So, since the staff can be confident that the German team will likely win most games, it is quite easy to rig the process by training Paul to prefer the German flag[2]. Remember that Octopi have strong colour vision and are very smart, so it could be possible to train a preference. Then, the probability of success in each predictive effort increases significantly. The Probability of success is P(Paul picks Germany and Germany win)+ P(Paul picks the opposition and Germany lose)=P(Paul picks Germany)*P(Germany win)+(1-P(Paul Picks Germany))*P(Germany lose), by the independence of the prediction and the outcome. But if P(Paul picks Germany)>1/2 and P(Germany win)>1/2, the total probability increases a lot. We know Germany won 3 games out of 5 this time around, so we could estimate P(Germany win)=0.6; if P(Paul picks Germany)=0.8, then we have the total p=0.8*0.6+0.4*0.2=0.56, p>1/2. If Germany’s win probability is really 0.8 (because Serbia were a pack of cheating bastards), then the probability increases to p=0.68.

Of course, because Germany win most games and Paul predicts they win most games, the actual fact that Paul is going to pick Germany more often anyway gets missed.

A final couple of notes. First, in this analysis[3], I have ignored the Holland/Spain prediction, because I read somewhere that Paul used to only predict on games involving Germany. This means that the Holland/Spain game is well outside the range of data on which the predictive model is based, and we shouldn’t assume it represents the same underlying probability structure or process (or manifestation of ultimate evil). So I’ve excluded this observation from my data set.

Secondly, it’s worth bearing in mind that statisticians should never, ever use statistical tests to test theoretically implausible events[4]. Because there is a small chance of type 1 error (rejecting the null hypothesis when the null is true), as soon as you apply a statistical test to a ridiculously implausible theory, you open the risk that you will prove it to be “true” by mistake. So all that is required to prove the existence of God is for some nong to conduct a statistical test of an apparent “miracle” that is really just a carefully trained Octopus, get a spurious result, and before you know it you have people worshipping his tentacly appendages.

Conclusion

Two non-parametric statistical tests have produced inconclusive results as to whether or not the shambling horrors of cthulhu walk among us, predicting our soccer matches. However, the test that rejected the null hypothesis was borderline, and consistent with the possibility that Paul has been trained to pick the German flag more often than other flags, thus ensuring increased predictive success and a high likelihood of a run of successful predictions, provided that Germany remain a strong team. This report concludes that Paul should probably not be burnt at the stake (or grilled) as a heretic, tentacled avatar of the brooding darkness; but it might be worthwhile to monitor him, his aquarium shrine, and the Cult that surround him, for further signs of the manifestations of chaos and, if witnessed, liquidate them and extirpate their teachings from the annals of history in the interests of the human race.

Update: Looking at the Wikipedia entry on our dark and tentacled oppressor, I note that actually he got 7 out of 7 results correct in this world cup, and only 4 out of 6 in the European cup. This doesn’t change the conclusion of our runs test (which simply becomes an even more powerful indication of his brooding and ultimate evil), but it makes his success rate in the European cup look even more merely mortal. Also the wikipedia entry correctly points out that in the group games there is a chance of a draw, so what we actually have here is a sequence of multinomial events with probability 1/3 of three outcomes in the first 3 tests, then 1/2 of two outcomes in the remainder (under the null). We would need to adjust the probabilities accordingly, for both the runs and the binomial test. This actually makes the binomial test a bit fiddly, but my guess is that it reduces the p-value slightly (due to the probabilities of success being lower). I think the wikipedia entry is slightly wrong on the odds of “at least 12 successes in 14 trials” due to the issue of correlation (as mentioned above)[5].

fn1: yet

fn2: My suspicion is that they ran a series of dummy runs with Paul before the cup, and either gave him a second mussel when he picked Germany, and/or sacrificed a virgin and offered her blood to the elder gods to enhance his magical powers; statistical testing seems to suggest the former was the case, but we can never be sure…

fn3: and I do use the term loosely

fn4: this applies to the kids at home too, obviously

fn5: also, has anyone else noticed that the wikipedia entry on the ecological fallacy confuses confounding and the ecological fallacy? At least, I thought it did last time I read it.

… and I will give you the world cup winning team[1]. This from the Spanish coach, in support of my comments about the demise of European soccer. I wonder if Holland has a similar approach? At the end of this article the Spanish coach mentions that the Germans developed the same approach to fostering young talent, but that Spain have been doing it longer.

This is similar in aspect to the remarkable phenomenon of the UK doing better than Australia in the 2008 Olympics. This was a direct result of money being poured into elite sports in preparation for 2012, and will undoubtedly be repeated in London.

But, lest one think that this makes for better sportspeople… the guardian had a graphic showing the most successful teams by GDP, and they largely weren’t from rich nations. But I can’t find it anymore.

Incidentally, my kick-boxing gym is training children as young as (my guess) 5 years old, and it’s very, very cute (you can see them in the third picture)… the teacher was trained in Thailand, and I wonder if he’s thinking of a Thai model for developing fighters – get them at 5 and make it their life. There’s an 8 or 10 year old boy (on the right in the pic) who is ferociously good, though apparently he bottles it a bit during fights. But it will be interesting to see the results when they’re adults…

fn1: yes, yes, I know, it’s premature. But the Octopus said so.

So, that festival of the boot is on again, and although since I moved to Europe my interest in soccer has waned considerably[1], I still watch the World Cup quite avidly. Of the 6 European soccer giants – Spain, Italy, Germany, England, France and Holland – only 4 made it to the round of 16, and in that round already another – England – has been knocked out in a match they lost 4-1 to a German team that beat Australia 4-0. This is the same England team that struggled to get through the group stage. The two finalists from 2006 went out in the group stage, and in such an ignominious fashion as hardly befits European minnows, let alone France or Italy. Italy was beaten comprehensively by Slovakia and only drew with tiny New Zealand after pulling a penalty with traditional Italian diving methods[2].

I noticed that the three European giants who have bombed so far all have quite old players. Italy and England particularly, but even France still has players like Thierry Henry. Holland has also been playing a little poorly – they really struggled against Japan – and they also have quite a few holdouts from previous cups. On the other hand, Germany has a very young team. This article in the Guardian makes the point that this is not a coincidence, and that the Germans have been putting a lot of work into developing local talent. It’s also the first German team to be representative of Germany’s multicultural modernity, with 5 or 6 players being of Arab/Turkish/Eastern European/latin American origin. I take this as a sign that the German FA has been searching far and wide for talent.

So what is with the old teams that bombed? I think that these three countries – the UK, France, Italy – have opened their football markets simultaneously[4] to easy foreign transfers and massive television marketing money in the last 20 years, and the consequence of this has been an easy-come-easy-go attitude by the clubs. Instead of doing the hard work of developing local talent, they’ve taken the low-risk approach of buying in talent from abroad. This makes FA Premier league games fun to watch, but it has had the dual effect of a) importing players from smaller countries and giving them exposure to world-class coaching and playing techniques and b) reducing the pool of talented local players. The consequence of this at the world cup is that these countries’ national teams not only have to select their line-up from a shallower pool of talent, and thus rely increasingly on has-beens like Rooney; but they also find themselves facing a wider pool of nations with quality players who have been groomed by these big football nations’ leagues. New Zealand, for example, has a line up whose entire transfer value was  a third that of one player on the Italian team (de Rossi, I think). They had one player from Blackburn in defense, another player from an English team in midfield, and another in offense, and they assembled around this spine a team that included several amateurs. In 1982 their team was entirely composed of amateurs. So while the available quality for NZ has increased considerably, England and Italy find themselves relying increasingly on old men, and in the washup of last night’s defeat the press are also claiming that the young players aren’t so great.

Make no mistake, this is good for football. Having an increasingly diverse pool of finals contenders, with 2 Asian teams through to the round of 16 (and one a favourite, I note, to go to the quarters!), an African team through to the quarters, and a selection of latin American teams, is good. But from the point of view of the football giants of Europe, something has gone wrong. Compare the British approach to football with the Australian or NZ approach to rugby. If a NZ player ever plays for a foreign club, they can never again play for NZ. So even though the foreign clubs pay vast sums more than the local clubs, NZ players wait until their world cup hopes are over before heading overseas – after their (shameful) 2008 World Cup loss, a whole stack of players who knew they wouldn’t be selected again headed to French and British clubs to earn the real money. As a result of this the All Blacks have players lined up 3 deep for most positions, and the lead players can’t guarantee selection in the next game if they don’t keep their act together – and this is the stated policy of the NZRB[5].

This should also be the case for the European soccer giants. There is no way that in a nation obsessed with football, as England is, a 30-something second-rate striker like Rooney should be able to even get in the squad, let alone onto the pitch. There should be a 28 year old and a couple of youngsters ahead of him – the same for Lampard, Cole, etc. Beckham stayed in long past his prime, and was a crap captain to boot. I think this is a result of market forces operating in England, and although one should rightly observe that although these market forces have had a good effect on the rest of the world game (and on the viewing public’s enjoyment of football), the British FA needs to think about some countervailing mechanisms to groom up a new generation of English players.

I suppose it could be argued that the Italian problem is not so much an effect of broadcast TV as the general corrupt and moribund nature of Italian institutions. But I think that Italy and France have similar broadcast models to the UK, and I wonder if the Northern European countries have (as is traditional up there) opted for a more genuinely social democratic approach to the game, that strikes a balance between the market model of “buy the best team you can” and the long-term good of the game. Because football is notable for its intense nationalism, I think that the long-term good of the game and national success are inextricably linked, as you can see from the excitement about soccer that is stirred up in rugby countries (like Australia) when we have international success. It strikes me as interesting that some of the European countries with the most intensely nationalistic fans – Italy and the UK – have managed to somehow water down their own national teams in a way that pours cold water on that nationalism. Transferring that national allegiance to clubs is not going to be  a good thing for social order at local soccer grounds, and the game isn’t going to maintain its populist appeal if it loses its nationalist appeal (not that it will ever be unpopular – soccer is a very very good game to play and to watch). But Associations like the FA have an important role to play in fostering local talent, otherwise why have them? And I’m sure there must be more than a few people in England and Italy and France this week thinking “why do we bother with an FA at all?” when their national teams perform so badly, their local leagues are essentially deregulated in every significant particular, and the FA doesn’t even properly monitor on-pitch referee or player behaviour.

The Italian captain made a comment last week to the effect that not beating NZ would be like the All Blacks failing to beat Italy in rugby. It’s noticeable that recently Italy have beaten England at Twickenham, and the IRB is moving to include Argentina in the Tri Nations. I wonder if this week a lot of Italian soccer fans are thinking of teaching themselves the rules of rugby, and diversifying their football interests? If Australians can do it[6], so can Italians.

fn1: Football culture in England (and probably much of Europe) is a horrible, macho and nationalist display of male tribal bonding that I just can’t get behind or support. From afar in Australia the Champions league was fun to watch, but in England it feels like you are participating in a form of ritualized abuse. The complete and total exclusion of women from all aspects of the sport, the hyper-macho posturing of the fans, their sudden exaggerated Englishness, it’s all horrible, as is the tense atmosphere the football areas, the armies of police, the dogs, the chanting aggressive dimwits wandering around in dangerous gangs, the implicit acceptance of this phenomenon as a side-effect of the game that has to be tolerated in order to enjoy its limited benefits. And, of course, there is the gender divide – with women thoroughly and completely uninterested and excluded. If you’re wondering why British women are so thoroughly unsporty, you don’t need to look any further than the crowd of a British football match, completely and utterly devoid of women. To people from outside Europe – or people from a rugby tradition inside Britain, for that matter – this all looks very strange.

fn2: Note as well that Italy had a particularly easy run, being drawn in a weak group and being given amazing referee favouritism – in their final game against Slovakia with 10 minutes to go their two strikers attacked the Slovakian keeper, kicking him and punching him, and the Slovakian keeper received a yellow card. The whole thing was caught on camera too – if it were Aussie Rules Football or Rugby those two men would have been sent packing immediately; and this came after another unprovoked attack in the first half. Italy should have finished that game with an 8 man team and a much less flattering scoreline[3].

fn3: In case you hadn’t noticed, I really hate the Italian national team. I have done ever since they beat Australia in the 2006 quarter finals with a shocking piece of diving. The sooner FIFA accepts the inevitable and introduces video refereeing and summary execution for diving, the better.

fn4: After that British player won a case in the European court, a case which ended up not benefiting him at all but completely changed the face of European football.

fn5: On a side note, I don’t much go in for the complaints of some in the British press that the English players are paid so much that they don’t care whether they win or lose internationally – I think they care very much, although I do think that injury-wise they probably assign their first loyalty to the club that pays them so much. But Southern hemisphere codes have a salary cap, which I think does have the consequence of reducing the prima donna element of player behaviour, and preventing the players form influencing the selectors as much. I also wonder if the greater respect rugby players show the referee compared to soccer has anything to do with their relative pay grades. At a rough guess, an Aussie football player is paid maybe 5 times as much as a referee, while an English star would be paid 50 times as much as a referee. Obviously institutional factors are the main driver of this, particularly the post-match judgements made in rugby which mean that you can’t just argue your way out of trouble on-pitch. But surely that pay grade differential makes a difference to on-pitch behaviour. As an example of down-to-earthness, when I did weights at the University of New South Wales I spotted bench press for a professsional rugby league player, who was doing rehabilitation weights during the summer break[7] in between contracts, before heading to Europe to play with a French team. I somehow doubt that your average premier league player ever has the misfortune of having to share training space with us mere mortals, let alone having a non-professional human being assist them with their weights.

fn6: Australia has 4 codes of football that we divide our attention between, and we’ve been world champions in three of them.

fn7: “rehabilitation weights” for a dislocated shoulder in this case meant doing 85-100kg bench press sets of 12, with clap push ups in between and 30 second rests; followed by dumbbell flies with 35 kg on each shoulder, and more clap push ups. The man himself probably weighed 100kg. That’s some rehabilitation!

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