Just Dive In, They Say

Not me!

                                 [3-minute read]

I don’t want to just dive into the water, and I don’t care if I’m a rotten egg. I don’t dive into much, actually.

Which is strange, because I love beginnings, the freshness of unstained hope not yet wracked by reality.¹ I think it reminds me of a future that I deny. Go jump in the lake can mean, in the wrong mind, I hope you die soon. Some of my resistance to jumping into water I can’t see the bottom of, I begin to glumly theorize, arises from my diffidence about death. It doesn’t feel like dread, not quite, but I do sense my unpreparedness. Strange waters or familiar, they feel like a presentiment of extinction. This explains a lot of things.

¹ Except for writing. The terror of the start is not quite matched by the eventual, fitful flow of production and the relieved delight of having written. So swimming is like writing, too, except that I don’t imagine ever being competent in water.

Some of this nervous distaste is less abstract. It comes from my blasted confidence in water, stoked by a childhood failure at lessons in my small town’s cracked outdoor pool. Simple stuff, but I couldn’t do it. Ever since, a lake or pool or pond is above all a glorious thing to get out of, to put sand or clay or concrete underfoot again, to gaze from solid ground on the seductive beauty of water in motion, water still, water frozen and forever. I stare at it, fascinated, confirmed to find it in front of me, not over my head.

Diving in, on my preferred footing of metaphor, is letting go of my dried-out conventions and certainties, which is hard to do. I can admit to the occasional thrill when literally doing so, in Actual Water. When hot, even if unbothered, crashing into coolness is a lively shock, and I don’t flounder right away. I just hang there, most of me under the surface. From the hindsight of a desk, I wonder why a man with more than sufficient body fat won’t float with more ease. But suspended in a cold, thought-stunning brew, I always play dead for a while,

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Dr. Jay Saves Soccer

Let me not be the last I never played the game North American pundit to step forward with some Golden Bull to save le foot from itself. Shoot, five billion people aren’t necessarily always right.

The Jim Rome Show normally saves its most juvenile smack for ridiculing the game North America forgot. “How very soccer of you!” is Rome’s favourite word of dismissal for any example of mob violence, shameless fakery or terminal dullness in sport. But the sportswriter John Feinstein was a guest host on the Rome radio show this week, and he actually has some intelligent regard for the game without being blindly attached to its traditions. He had a couple of interesting suggestions to make if FIFA ever decided it wanted to appeal more to North American audiences.

First, he said, eliminate the offside rule entirely. Or, follow the dearly departed NASL with its 35 yard lines that marked attacking zones within which offsides are allowed. Second, whatever you do, Feinstein argued, you can not decide a championship-calibre soccer match with something other than soccer. (You don’t decide a baseball series with a home run derby, or the Super Bowl with a field-goal competition. And now the Bus. Jerome Bettis once kicked a field goal in junior high, and now he’s doing it for all the marbles…) Feinstein was a bit vague on how you’d solve the Game Without End phenomenon, except to suggest that teams knowing they have to score to win will, well, try to score. There’s some truth to that.

Dona and Paul and I watched the 3rd place game, Germany/Portugal, together. I pay occasional attention to international soccer news, but almost never watch anything in between World Cups. What a pleasure to watch with these guys – one from Haiti, one from Togo – who know and love the game so well. (Good practice pour mon français, aussi!). Starting at halftime, I tried out Mr. Feinstein’s ideas, and a few of my own. No offside? My buddies just grinned. Silly idea. (The game would get all stretched out of shape, the beautiful buildup would dissolve into full-pitch dump ‘n’ chase; hockey with no icing, only worse. I could see that.) But what about no offside once a team has crossed midfield? They still weren’t too keen on the idea, though the 35 yard “freedom zone” seemed to intrigue Dona, at least briefly. Hey, would a 4-3 game be so bad?

No life and death by penalties? The guys had cautious agreement with the idea of deciding the game by playing the game, but how to do it? To my surprise, Paul and Dona were interested in hockey’s regular season (partial) solution, opening up the ice by going 4 on 4 for the overtime period; they also hesitantly admired the post-season “however long it takes” approach to deciding tied games. We kicked around the idea of removing a defender in extra time, the need for freer substitution, or at least a greater number of allowed changes. (By the way, how would you like to be Guy Number 23 on a World Cup squad, knowing that you’ll get 10 match minutes – if you’re lucky – in a month-long tournament?) But beyond all that, I also argued that the mentality of the game would change. If teams gotta score to win, then they’ll score. Or give up a goal in pressing to get one. Clearly, the Italians were content to go to penalties, even with their disappointing history in games decided by them. In a way, the penalty lottery ends up being an escape from risk, even though it is such a nervous affair.

Hey, how about simulation scoring? You know, if a guy’s going to dive, he should be scored by the judges. I’m like a lot of North American sports fans in finding the “simulation” of fouls and injuries bloody disgusting. If FIFA goes to two on-field officials, maybe that will help, but so would a video replay panel. Not during the match, mind you. The flow that FIFA maintains by refusing to allow commercial timeouts is a marvellous blessing. (I’m a basketball guy, but the TV timeouts, in addition to the strategic ones teams are allowed, makes the pace especially of pro ball infuriating.) Athletic matches complete in under two hours. WOW! How wonderful is that? No, here’s my plan: a team of judges watches match video, including replays. They count the number of times players are caught, as replays so regularly did, trying to draw a penalty by diving, writhing in badly-acted agony when there was NO CONTACT. Then the scores are made public. In yesterday’s match, Germany’s Michael Ballack received a mark of 3 from the simulation judges. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo still holds the single-game high, with 7 certified dives. I suggest that 2 dives in any match equals an automatic retroactive yellow card. Or a scarlet letter on the match jersey. ‘D’ for ‘dishonour’, ‘S’ for ‘shame’, ‘W’ for ‘wuss’. I’m not particular.

In contrast to the worst of the football world’s fakery, all respect to Thierry Henry, star striker of the French side. He plays through fouls, still trying to score. “He never dives,” Dona told me during the championship game today. Alongside his strong anti-racism efforts, here was the Man of the Hour for me. And here, Fédération Internationale de Football Association and soccer lovers everywhere, are one Canucklehead’s prescriptions for what ails your sport. There’s so much right with the beautiful game – its simplicity, its universality, its accessibility to the poor, the often-genuine sense of fair play that is such a contrast to the blot of diving – that I can’t help throwing my suggestions your way. (You’re welcome!)