Is Football really so very different from Futbol?

Tickets for Seahawks training camp went on sale this morning at 10AM — right in the middle of Team USA’s potentially crucial match against Team Deutschland in the World Cup. I took this as a particularly clever strategy to winnow Seattle’s infamous football fans from its similarly notorious futbol fans — an effort to ensure only the purists would show up to watch the team practice in Renton.

But are the two sports really all that different?

Probably not so much as the “national” conversation about the un-Americanness of the World Cup would have you believe. Take, for instance, the outcome of today’s game. The United States lost, yet still managed to advance to the next round of the tournament even though Portugal won, tied, and drew with the same frequency as Team USA. The reason we advanced and they went home: goal differential. The Americans scored as many goals as they conceded, while Portugal was doomed by its blowout loss to Germany.

Now imagine the US and Portugal had an equal goal differential and actually ended up scoring the same number of goals — what then?

The scenario is not quite so far-fetched as it might seem. Had Germany blown out the US 4-0 and Portugal beat Ghana by the exact score that it did, the World Cup would have been forced to resort to its fourth tie-breaking procedure: Drawing lots.

Explains the New York Times:

The fourth and last tiebreaker is pure, dumb luck: the drawing of lots. No team has ever been eliminated from a World Cup this way, but it has happened in World Cup qualifying, and it decided the placement of two teams — the Netherlands and Ireland — after group play in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. (Slips of paper were placed in plastic balls, which were put in a bowl and drawn.)

The likelihood of drawing lots increased slightly with the current World Cup format, adopted with the 1998 tournament, of eight groups of four teams each.

If you thought losing your way into the Sweet Sixteen was ignominious, imagine landing there by virtue of pure luck. The New York Times was, understandably, less than enthused by this possibility:

This random method — the nonsports tiebreaker — is alien to most every other major competition in the world. So is there a better way?

Almost certainly, yes.

And to its credit, the article doesn’t just complain — it applies good ol’ Yankee ingenuity in proposing three alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms to reintroduce some element of skill.

But is drawing lots to break a tie really all that “alien”?

Take the most American of games, American football. What happens when two or three teams tie for a playoff spot within their division? What tie-breaking procedure does the NFL use to determine who makes the postseason and who does not? Check it out (feel free to skim once you have the idea):

  1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  5. Strength of victory.
  6. Strength of schedule.
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  9. Best net points in common games.
  10. Best net points in all games.
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games.
  12. Coin toss

Granted, “Coin toss” is way down the list, and football is a higher-scoring game than futbol, which makes the likelihood that this would ever actually transpire virtually nil — and still, the very fact that it appears on the list somewhat undermines the claim that the element of pure luck is alien to the outcome of other major sporting competitions.

Maybe this will help change Ann Coulter’s mind.


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