Over two billion people worldwide are now watching the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa. That includes me. You’re probably wondering what that has to do with a Judo blog. Well, there are things that the soccer world can teach the Judo world. If we are perceptible enough, soccer also serves as an example of what Judo should not be.
In previous blogs, I’ve talked about positive aspects of soccer that we in Judo should emulate: how soccer grew in the U.S. through the efforts of volunteer coaches and the AYSO, and how an innovative training tool, futsal, lead to an increase in the technical skills of Brazilian soccer players.
Watching this year’s World Cup reminds me that soccer also has an ugly side to it that parallels the ugly side of Judo. Both have to do with rules, referees, and the use of distasteful tactics to manipulate the outcome of matches. This is not Pele’s beautiful game at all.
Since the 1970 World Cup, soccer referees penalize players for infractions to the rules by using a yellow or red card, which correspond to shido and hansoku make in Judo. If a player receives two yellow cards (2 shidos) in a game, he is then shown a red card (hansoku make) and is sent off the field. His team then plays one man down for the rest of the game. If he receives a yellow card in two different games during a tournament run, he must sit out one game. His team is however allowed to field the requisite number of players.
Every soccer referee, like every Judo referee, seems to have a different tolerance level for awarding penalties. Some prefer to let the game flow naturally and let the players play the game, while others try to over-control the game and become penalty obsessed. Needless to say, the latter unfortunately have the power to change the outcome of, and ruin, the game.
Both Judo and soccer are low scoring sports, so the awarding of penalties becomes ultra-critical in determining the outcome of matches. Players in both sports have caught on to this and have found ways to win ugly via tactics. In Judo, far too often it’s easier to get your opponent penalized than it is to throw, pin or submit him: a little foot work here and there, some movement, a few disingenuous “foot sweeps” that make it look like you’re attacking, and voila, the opponent is penalized for non-combativity. Ugly Judo.
In soccer, players know that a good acting job of falling to the ground and writhing in pain can get the referee to issue that dreaded second yellow card or red card to the offending players. Scoring against ten players is a lot easier than scoring against eleven. If the acting job is done in the penalty box, the not-so-innocent victim of the foul is afforded a penalty shot, which almost always changes the outcome of the game. The acting and the dishonesty that goes on during a soccer match make for an unpleasant game.
Both sports have the technology to make sure that referee decisions are accurate and fair. Soccer refuses to use that technology for some reason, in spite of all the blown offside calls, disallowed goals, and phantom infractions leading to penalty shots. Judo has thankfully shown more willingness to use technology to get it right. It fails too often to get it right, but at least it’s trying.
On the bright side, more and more soccer players from Africa, Mexico and the U.S. are now playing in England, Spain, Italy and Germany, homes to the toughest professional leagues in the world. The experience gained from playing overseas helps their national teams’ efforts. U.S. Judo should one day recognize the benefit of placing some of our players overseas, whether in Japan or Europe, where they will be challenged day in and day out by numerous, high-quality training partners. Except for a very few exceptions, our domestic programs are simply not getting the job done at the international level. I think it’s time to do what our 1964 Olympians did: get more and more players to be based overseas for extended periods.
Lastly, I suggest we send our penalty-driven Judo referees to the soccer world, where I am sure they will at least be able to tell when a player is really tripped or knocked down, and when he is acting. Seems like a win-win situation for everyone.