Monday, August 03, 2015
Normally I wouldn’t watch it, but my nearly 15 year old grandson is visiting and he’s a fan, so we tuned into American Ninja Warrior. The subtitle was “USA vs. the World.” Given the recent Women’s World Cup fever, the premise sounded promising. However, apparently “the world” in the Ninja Warrior universe is made up of Europe (one team) and Japan (another team). They couldn’t even muster Asia as a team. The European team had four members, two of whom were expat Americans. The contest is a series of obstacle courses over water where the teams compete in heats against one another, the clock and the treacherous obstacles. In the background are two announcers whose sole job is to hype the drama playing out on our television screen. We are told regularly how no one has yet completed the third course, how the hand grips are just two inches deep, how much upper body strength is required and naturally how the competitor overcame a major life obstacle on his/her way to this course in Las Vegas. At the end of three courses Japan was eliminated, the irony of which was not lost on the announcers who mentioned Ninja and Japan at least 20 times in the space of two minutes, but the USA and Europe were tied leading to an unprecedented showdown. The showdown is on a mountain of steel scaffolding, dramatic lighting and strategically placed cameras. Contestants must shimmy up a rope some 20 or so stories to the apex of the industrial peak and hit a buzzer. Again, the issue of upper body strength is flogged, remarking often that rock climbers do the best at these events. This show takes up two hours on NBC, and despite the obvious athleticism of the entrants, its main purpose is hype a la arena wrestling.
When we attend sporting events we create our own build up based on our love of the game, the team and the players. We don’t need any externalized boost to our enthusiasm through embellishment of information. We understand the talent needed, the sacrifices made, the obstacles faced and the competitive context for the game. Any tension in the match is created by the events unfolding on the pitch and our own knowledge of the history surrounding the contest. However, when we watch on TV, we get an entire scenario of drama based on whatever facts, figures and stories the announcers can dredge up. We get enveloped in a cloud of statistics pulled out to further tout the tension of the game: If she scores it will be her 100th career goal; that yellow card made him the most penalized player in the league; only seven other players have more international caps. While these facts rarely have anything to do with the outcome of the match, they are used to make it more exciting, as if that was necessary. Statistics are kept on sports as much for adding color to the game as for keeping records. Nevertheless outside of the game day pronouncements I do get intrigued about many of these superlatives. They add interesting details to my knowledge of soccer and can present some fascinating information. With my curiosity piqued by the Ninja Warrior experience, I decided to glean some of the better statistical superlatives such as most, fastest, first and oldest as they relate to soccer.
Soccer, as we play it, had a morbid start in the early 1800’s in England in Newgate prison. Thieves who had lost their hands as punishment adapted their ball playing to feet only. The game was originally called basket-ball because overturned wicker baskets served as goals. The first football club was Sheffield FC founded in 1857. The term “soccer” was actually created by the British in the 1800’s as a slang term for Association, but while the US and Canada are corrected for calling the sport soccer so too do many Pacific Ocean nations who were once under British control such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. The first televised soccer game was in 1937 as a friendly between two Arsenal practice squads. The soccer ball is actually a bit oval but the pentagon pattern gives the optical illusion of a perfect sphere. There are 32 panels on a traditional soccer ball originally representing the countries of Europe. Yellow and red cards were first used in 1970, and England’s Premier League tried using teal cards in 1994-98 to indicate possible fouls to be reviewed by instant replay. A soccer field is called a pitch because it was built with a five percent incline from one baseline to the other so teams play uphill for half the game. In 1872 the first international match was played between England and Scotland. The first World Cup was played in 1930. Worst miss would probably be when five Viera FC players shot on goal within eight seconds and all missed. Their shots were foiled only once by the keeper; the rest bounced off the side net, the upright, the crossbar and over the net. All shots were made within three yards of the goal mouth. The average professional soccer player will run between six and nine miles during a match and use over 100 different joint and muscles movements.
Players have their share of amazing statistics. Asmir Begovic, goalkeeper for Stoke City F.C., is credited with the longest soccer goal of 91.9 meters when he sent a drop kick down the pitch 12 seconds after kick-off. It hit the ground, bounced over a defender and the opposing goalkeeper and landed square in the back of the net. Nawaf Al Abed is generally recognized as scoring the fastest goal in two seconds, although the game was ultimately disqualified due to ineligible players. Two seconds was also all it took for the fastest red card ever issued when Lee Todd colorfully remarked about the loudness of the opening whistle. US Youth Soccer alum Carli Lloyd scored the first and only hat trick during a Women’s World Cup final. Seven players have scored more than 10 goals in Men’s World Cup competition with German Miroslav Klose holding the record at 16. For the women, Marta from Brazil has 15 with US Youth Soccer alum Abby Wambach close behind at 14. Two women players have appeared in six World Cups: Brazil’s Formiga and Japan’s Homare Sawa. On the men’s side the top number is five World Cups held by Mexico’s Antonio Carbajal and German’s Lothar Matthaus who also has played the most WC games. Pele’ had an amazingly efficient goal-scoring ability recording 1,279 goals in 1,363 games or achieving a 94% scoring average. German soccer player Mesut Ozil donated his 300,000 Euro World Cup winnings to provide surgeries for 23 children in Brazil. Giving John Kerry a run for his money, Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast and Chelsea FC brokered a cease fire ending a five year civil war in his country. Discounting 18 month old Baerke Van der Meji signing a 10 year contract with VVV Venlo FC of the Netherlands, the youngest professional player to actually have minutes is Bolivian Mauricio Baldivieso who in 2009 entered a game between Aurora and La Paz in the 39th minute 3 days shy of his 13th birthday. Freddy Adu attracted attention when he was 12, but had to wait until his 14th birthday to sign with DC United. The most violent player might be a subjective choice, however when combining the lists of most cautioned, most ejected and most sanctioned, three players fall at the top end of each list: Roy Keane, Eric Cantona (who actually fly-kicked a fan in the stands), and Patrick Viera. Honorable mentions have to go to Zinedine Zidane, who is the most penalized player in World Cup history, and famously head-butted a player to earn one of those penalties, and Luis Suarez, who sank his incisors into three players between 2010 and 2014. The male player with the longest career was Yorghos Kudas of Greece who played for 27 years. His female counterpart was Lily Parr of England who played nearly 31 years between 1920 and 1951. A more contemporary example and in second place is Kristine Lilly of the US who played 23 years. The oldest professional soccer player was Neil McBane who made his last appearance in a game at age 51. The longevity of players proves that training well can extend a career.
Although these facts have less to do with understanding soccer and more to do with adding detail to what we watch as well as giving us a leg up in trivia, it’s still significant for fans of the game to appreciate the extremes within which normal play and players exist. Many of the major impressive superlatives have been achieved by players of little notoriety otherwise who simply worked daily to better their game and lift up their team. When teams achieve it comes from group efforts which may include a few superlative moments, but generally rely solely on good, solid performances. Best, worst, most, least, oldest and youngest will always be in flux. Despite being categorized as the ultimate they will surely be surpassed. We can enjoy these facts for the moment, chuckle at many of them, gasp at some and then be assured that these anomalies don’t define soccer play. Besides something newer, better, and bolder will tweak our emotions again. That’s the best that can be said for any trivia.