Last Saturday, Oct. 12th, Castel Rigone suffered another tough loss, away vs. Casertana. As one match report put it: “Casertana won 1-0 at the end [goal at 72′] of a knockout more than ever undeserved. One goal was disallowed for a highly dubious offside by Tranchitella [of Castel Rigone] in the second half, and another four other scoring chances were wasted by the Rigonians. The white-and-blues were punished for their only blunder.” (“La Casertana vince 1-0 al termine di un ko quanto mai immeritato. Un gol annulato per un fuorigioco molto dubbio a Tranchitella nella ripresa e altre quattro palle gol sprecate dai rigonesi. Biancoblù puniti nell’unico svarione.”)
Hoping to stave off late-game stumbles, the management began to shore up the team, acquiring 24-year-old defender Gianluigi Bianco from Avellino in Serie B (two levels up). Now second from bottom, they faced a long climb up the table, which they began this past weekend on Oct. 19 at home vs. Tuttocuoio (the name means “all leather”), a team from the town of San Miniato halfway between Florence and Pisa in Tuscany.
Any commentator who covers soccer eventually curses themselves to repeat this banality: “you have to score more goals than the opposition.” Sometimes this is even pitched as a ‘philosophy’ for a ‘simple game’, either in all desperate seriousness, or as a jaded joke about how hard that simple game actually is. Jean Paul Sartre said [I am still digging for the original source]: “Au football, tout est compliqué par la présence de l’équipe adverse.” “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.” The truth is, despite playing hard and well enough to earn results, Castel Rigone have had difficulty scoring goals. And fashioning a goal in soccer is the single most difficult “scoring act” in any sport. Here are recent average numbers of points scored in major team sports:
- Basketball (National Basketball Association, 2012-13): 196.2 points/game
- Football (National Football League, 2012): 45.6 points/game
- Rugby (English Rugby Union Premiership, 2012-13): 44.1 points/game
- Baseball (Major League Baseball, 2013): 8.33 runs/game
- Hockey (National Hockey League, 2012-13): 5.3 goals/game
- Soccer (Spanish La Liga, 2012-13): 2.9 goals/game; (English Premier League, 2012-13): 2.8 goals/game; (Major League Soccer, 2012): 2.6 goals/game; (Italian Serie A, 2012-13): 2.6 goals/game
- Soccer (Italian Lega Pro 2, 2012-13 [the division Castel Rigone is in this year]): 2.4 goals/game
What are some philosophical and ethical implications of these data?
First, goals in a soccer match are worth so much more than a scoring act in any other sport. Most victories are won by a single point. Draws are also highly common in soccer, unlike other sports, which have progressively introduced rules to reduce the possibility of draws (football, hockey), or never had them as a possible outcome (baseball, basketball). In the 2012-13 season of the Italian Lega Pro 2 league, the home team won 42% of games; the away team won 28% of games, and 30% were draws. Nearly one-third of the time, no team walked away a victor (and each team earns one point for a draw, compared to three points for a win, and none for a loss, so there is some motivation for getting something rather than nothing).
ADDENDUM (13 Jan. 2014): David Sally and Chris Anderson’s recent book, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know about Soccer is Wrong (Penguin 2103) dedicates its second chapter to the rarity of the soccer goal (parts of chapter one are relevant as well). They draw upon a much deeper and larger pool of data to show that goals are precious, and in fact, increasingly so.
How much tension builds up in a match if one mistake, or one glorious act, alters the tally by a single notch? How far will an individual player — or a team — go, to get the goal that could change a match, or perhaps, a season? Such psychological pressures can conduce crowd violence, rigged games by referees or players, and simulation by players.
So this past Saturday we packed up and went to Castel Rigone for their afternoon match (renting a car this time). The weather was perfect, and we got there in time to get tickets under the roof (all tickets are 5 euros, regardless of location), part of 550 fans, more than the entire population of the town. Castel Rigone’s woes continued in the first half: after conceding a free kick, they went behind early 1-0, and they weren’t generating much cohesive play. After the interval, things began to change. What I didn’t know at the time was how much they had actually changed, and why.
Desperate for goals, the home side poured forward, the manager making a quick substitution in midfield that helped coalesce Castel Rigone’s attack. At 10′ a scramble in front of the net after a corner kick yielded the first goal, and eleven minutes later a superb low strike by the striker Dario Tranchitella from 25 meters out gave the locals the lead. Tension in the stands mounted (we were seated between fans from both sides); the manager from Tuttocuoio protested plays and calls as his team fought for an equalizer, and he then found himself addressed by the crowd. (Twice, early in the game, an elderly gentleman got up to shhh home fans who he felt were being too critical; I’ve never seen that before, much less imagined it actually would have an effect.) But near the end of the match, emotions were running high, and fans were becoming more expressive. Castel Rigone was playing very physically (they ended up with four yellow cards to Tuttocuoio’s one, and their right midfielder Bontà seemed constantly on the verge of being dismissed), and were missing other chances to extend their lead, so that when Tuttocuoio put the ball in the net in the 92′ there was a collective groan in the stands until they noticed the flag of the linesman, signaling offside, and no-goal. The referee blew a few short blasts on his whistle, and Castel Rigone’s losing streak was over.
The drama, however, was not. In the post-game press conference (see video below), the president of the club, Brunello Cucinelli, described an issue that had arisen with his manager, Marco Di Loreto, who has been in the job only since the summer. Di Loreto apparently did not play a particular defender named Sbaraglia, and misrepresented that the player was not fit for the match. In effect, he didn’t tell the truth to his boss. Managers and owners often have a curious relationship about team and tactical selection; some owners just let coaches do their job; others want to be involved or consulted at a very close level. At Castel Rigone, there seems to be the custom that both parties come to agreement.
Cucinelli said: “in questa società, una cosa è certa: le regole sono uguali per tutti.” (“At this club, one thing is certain: the rules are the same for everyone.”). The paper that day (Giornale dell’Umbria, 20 Oct, 2013, 30) twice used a phrase in its coverage: “se non ci fosse di mezzo il Castel Rigone,” which was colloquial enough that I needed my friend Marzia’s help to understand it. It means: “If Castel Rigone wasn’t a part of it,” in the sense that, for most teams, this would not be enough of an offense to sack the manager; or for most teams, they’d just be happy with the victory, regardless of the issue of honesty over team selection. Cucinelli continued: “A Di Loreto un leggero shampoo non glielo toglie nessuno.” (“For Di Loreto, a light reprimand does not let anyone off.”) This is an interesting expression that I also learned from Marzia, in which “shampoo” (“reprimand”) is a variation on “lavata di capo.“ An English equivalent would be a ‘hairdryer’ halftime speech such as that administered by the former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In other words, a scolding would not be enough. Finally, Cucinelli said: “perchè ci sono delle cose che detesto per nature.” (“Because there are some things I loathe by their very nature”), i.e., not keeping one’s word or being completely honest.
It is clear that Castel Rigone is not “most teams.” Twenty-four hours later, despite directing the squad to a badly-needed victory, Di Loreto was no longer its manager. We will see what effect this decision has on the players and their season, but there seems little doubt that how they comport themselves is more important then whether or not they win.
Justice, or Expediency? That was the central question asked by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue of his History of the Peloponnesian War. How often do we make the harder choice, the one with overarching and long-term consequences, rather than the choice that seems to bring us the most immediate advantage, even if it is not right? And what is the real human cost in each case?
We are seeing a case-study of applied philosophy in professional sports, in which ideals and concepts are in tension with concrete results. With Cucinelli, perhaps there is no tension; perhaps he is simply saying that standards matter, and they only matter if they are honored. But can standards be unattainable? That’s a question for next time.
Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 8 victory v. Tuttocuoio
(includes portions of the press conference with Cucinelli’s and Di Loreto’s statements):
Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 7 loss v. Casertana:
(Note that the Firefox browser often does not display YouTube videos properly; you may need to use a different browser.)