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Not a betting man's sport?
by Paul Gardner, May 12th, 2008 7AM
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I've heard it put forward as a reason why soccer won't make it in the USA: that betting on soccer is simply too chaotic an affair to capture American interest. Actually, it sounds like quite a good point.

Gamblers who like to keep records and stats and to handicap teams and make allowances for all sorts of extraneous and bizarre factors will not find soccer helpful. Because the most bizarre and utterly unknowable factor in trying to predict soccer results is not the players, or the weather, or the referee, or the stats -- it's simply the sport itself.

The problem is related to another alleged anti-Americanism lurking in the heart of soccer: low scoring. That doesn't really need any explaining, but I'll explain it anyway, not just for the turned-off gamblers (who can't see much of a spread in 1-0 scorelines) but for the benefit of soccer fans, all of us who think we've got the greatest sport in the world.

We haven't. Because low-scoring is a very definite problem, and not just for gamblers. When a game -- and particularly a tight, intense, crucial game -- is likely to be decided by just one goal, then the possibility of fluke results, of downright perverse results, looms large.

One goal means -- possibly -- the winning team's reward for a match full of brilliant play. Or it could mean merely a slice of incredible good luck, against the true run of play. No matter -- it can decide the game. And a wager, and your money along with it!

Consider: The fact that Chelsea was level on points with Manchester United going into the final day of the EPL season can be ascribed to one bad decision that occurred nine months ago, when the season was a mere two weeks old. That was when referee Rob Styles awarded Chelsea a penalty kick against Liverpool, allowing Chelsea to tie the game at 1-1 and to depart Anfield with one point instead of none.

OK. It is possible -- but not very likely -- that Chelsea would have tied the game anyway. But Styles' PK call was pretty bad -- so bad, in fact, that he had to humble himself with an abject public apology: "In mistakenly awarding a penalty, I accept that I may have affected the result of the match, and for that I apologize."

Styles was underestimating his effect. He could well have decided the entire season. But when goals are scarce, the value of a single score becomes that important. Which wouldn't be a problem if all the goals came as the result of convincing attacking play.

But of course they don't. Far too many come from episodes like a bad referee call, or a lucky bounce, or a mis-hit shot, or calamitous errors and so on. In fact, that same list of disasters can also account for most of the goals that were not scored but should have been.

In a sport where scores are plentiful, these strokes of fortune, these moments of slapstick, would not be nearly as significant as they are in soccer, where they are likely to be game deciders, or maybe season deciders.

But even without such aberrations, soccer is likely to confound reason, logic and just plain common sense. This past week, had I been of the gambling persuasion, I would surely have bet high on two Libertadores Cup games. Firstly, it was obvious that Club America, having been ripped apart 4-2 in the Azteca by Flamengo, didn't stand a cat in hell's chance of reversing that result in the Maracana. Yet, in what I would have to rate as one of the greatest comebacks ever, they came away with a 3-0 win, and knocked Flamengo out of the tournament.

That was soccer at its impossible best, superbly exciting and satisfying in every way -- except for the Flamengo faithful. The following night, you'd have bet on River Plate, playing at home -- another huge stadium, jammed with frenzied fans -- to have no problem reversing their first-leg 2-1 loss to San Lorenzo.

After just 12 minutes, River got the goal that tied the aggregate score. Just before halftime, San Lorenzo had a player ejected, and 15 minutes into the second half had another player red-carded, while conceding a penalty kick. River scored, and were now leading 3-2 and playing against 9 men. There followed another absolutely extraordinary comeback as San Lorenzo's Gonzalo Bergessio scored twice within four minutes, thus sending River crashing out of the Libertadores.

Totally illogical, impossible results. But wildly exciting games that went the way of teams playing all-out attacking soccer. Sadly, that doesn't happen often enough. Because the curse of low-scoring and the blight of defensive soccer, the justifiable belief that one goal will be enough, work together to produce cautious, dull, games.

The Champions League final coming up next week, for instance. Here are two teams - Man U and Chelsea -- that are, by modern standards, quite prolific scorers. In 38 EPL games this season, ManU racked up 80 goals, just over 2 per game; Chelsea had 65 goals. In the Champions League, each has scored 19 times in 12 games -- Chelsea has been shut out twice, Man U once. It sounds like a formula for a high-scoring final. Wanna bet?



  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: May 12, 2008 at 6:24 p.m.
    I do think gambling is the secret to US soccer being big. I think the problem isn't the unpredictability of it, every gambler secretly loves that despite the professed love of the 'sure thing' being spouted all the time. It simply that they don't 'get' the systems in place for it yet. I have gambled on soccer and on 'American' sports and they are different beast. To that end, I have gotten at least 5 friends into the game based on gambling alone. Once they 'get it' they are hooked. I doubt they would be that huge of fans otherwise, but with gambling involved, they love it. If MLS was smart they would embrace gambling (to a degree) like European leagues have. The consortium that is looking to put a team in Las Vegas should be given a priority place on top of the pile. It would be HUGE for the sport to have a team there and to be able to hold the MLS Cup there would be simply bonkers.

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