Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Thinking-Person's Guide to World Cup Analysis

"Football is a simple game," Gary Lineker famously said after England's 1990 defeat in the World Cup semi-final (on penalties, of course). "22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win." But seriously, the same twenty or so FIFA laws of the game govern both my kid's U10 club matches and the World Cup finals. Ball, goals, keepers, offsides, throw-ins, fouls, cards, free kicks, penalties. That's about it.

Partly because it's so simple a game, it ends up the subject of a lot of analysis. Like its closest American sports analog, basketball, when played well it is highly improvisational and fluid, so it doesn't allow itself to be understood through simple measurement or statistics. It is about the use of space by players with and without the ball, and it is memorably about what skilled players do with the ball in that space. Goals are rare, matches turn on single events, and what happened between the lines over 90-odd minutes is often the subject of intense debate.

The World Cup is the apotheosis of football analysis. Sure, the "quality" of football is better in the Champion's League, where money-is-no-object mercenary squads of the greatest skill players on the planet play. But nothing matches the history, the crucible of national character and the test of individual character, and the clash of play styles that you get in the World Cup.

Here are some of the resources I use and recommend:

Historical Results: The RSSSF archive is unbelievable. It's the wikipedia of football. The official FIFA archive for previous World Cups is great, too. There's also great historical coverage of the World Cup on wikipedia itself.

Analysis: There are unfortunately no American equivalents of the English style of deep thinking, good writing, and snarky gossip. Personally, I love the stuff coming from the team at The Guardian. They are providing some of the most humorous and objective coverage of the tournament, in particular Irishman Barry Glendenning. Their World Cup Daily podcast, full of bad puns, inside jokes and sexual innuendo, is awesome.

Grant Wahl, of The Beckham Experiment fame, writes for Sports Illustrated and has been ok -- not as good as I had hoped, but smart and insightful. The LA Times coverage is pretty good, too. I am not a huge fan of their cranky senior football writer, Grahame Jones, but their site is nicely organized and has some cool content. The New York Times has been spotty.

ESPN's Soccernet site is doing a pretty good job, and has some unique resources such as the great political statistician Nate Silver.

The communal World Cup blog has been variable in terms of quality, but is winning on breadth of coverage and subject matter. does a great job with technical match analysis and player ratings. They've been providing some good in-depth coverage of the US national team. If you want to understand the science of space, tactics and positioning on the pitch, you must read the match breakdowns at Zonal Marking.

For dedicated coverage of the US men's national team, US Soccer's official site is boring but comprehensive A lot of the players are on Twitter, so you can see updates from Donovan, Edu, Altidore and others there. Speaking of Twitter, the World Cup app at TweetBeat is fantastic stuff.


JR said...

Coverage of the World Cup is at least half of what makes is such a special occasion. There's something endlessly satisfying about reading a report of the previous night's game, and finding that each seasoned commentator is saying exactly the same things as you!!

wolfteam hacks said...

I guess they weren't completely without quality outside Europe after all, huh?

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Anonymous said...

I also look at the RSSSF archive. Brazil and Germany done really good in the world cup. Thanks for sharing this.

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