Outcome and Intent

A rugby match in England at the weekend featured a player being sent off early in the second half.  One point of interest was that the team now reduced to 14 men was sitting low in the table, but fought back to within just seven points of the much higher-placed opponents, all the more creditworthy because rugby is a sport where a one-man advantage counts for a lot.

That, however, isn’t the point of this post.  The thing that struck me when I saw the report of the match was the reasoning for the red card.  To quote The Times: “The pivotal moment came when a towering kick was launched towards Le Roux… As he leapt high and early, Le Roux made contact with Heem’s shoulder, his body twisting out of control and he landed with a sickening thump… There was nothing that Heem could have done to avoid the collision, but such matters are judged on outcome rather than intent and the referee had not option but to brandish a red card.”

Really?  The reporter here seems to give every indication that the “offender” (Heems) was innocent in all of this, and the graphic photo alongside rather confirms his role as a relative bystander.  I should state here that I am a supporter of neither side, but as usual flag up the incident as a general point about sport and perhaps life.

I guess I was particularly struck by the story  because it followed my recent observation that football is also tending to take the “outcome rather than intent” line.  One very good example occurred recently in a game between the Republic of Ireland and Wales, when the Welsh player Ramsey turned and tried to control a bouncing ball with his foot (involving what the press next day called a pirouette), only to find that an Irish player had ducked his head down towards chest height, receiving a kick in the head for his effort.  Ramsey was promptly given a yellow card (caution), but it should have been obvious that there was not the slightest intention to kick the opponent, whose head was put in a dangerous position.

Even more obvious is the problem where attacking players carry out the bicycle kick, a sort of stationary Fosbury flop where they are facing away from the goal but then fall backwards and kick the ball over their own head.  Or, of course, miss it and land flat on their back!  But the odd result here is that if the shot comes off it is hailed as a wonder goal – most fans could describe the scorer and circumstances for one of these rarissime events – whereas if there is a slight miscue and the boot hits an opponent (for the above reasons, almost certainly on or near the head) the attacker is likely to get a yellow card.  This is not sensible.

More than in the past, I think, we see referees run over to an injured player and then, on seeing something serious, produce a yellow or red card for the offender.  The natural effect, surely, is to encourage players to over-react when injured.

These are just some reasons for wishing to see these sports move away from the “outcome” criteria.  No doubt there could be a problem with an insistence on intent.  For example, people weren’t happy some years ago when it was suggested that players could be booked for wild  but unsuccessful challenges – in other words, a skilful opponent might have jumped over a flailing leg, avoiding injury himself, but it still wasn’t enough for the culprit to be saved.  That way you wouldn’t  hear the expression “It’s just as well he didn’t make contact there…”  But the more I see these things, the more I suspect that that focus on intent (a scything tackle, or a punch that misses the target) should be the criterion, and not the outcome.


Red, Yellow… Orange?

I’m back to football for this post.  Sorry if you’re not interested in football (soccer for North American readers) but you have to admit that the game produces some good talking points, irrespective of the action.

What I’d like to suggest is the introduction of a third card for a particular kind of offence.  At present, as you probably know, there is a red card for various offences that can be categorised as violent or dangerous, or for collecting two yellow cards in a match.  The yellow cards are not exactly discretionary, but clearly have a greater element of subjectivity, as they range from late tackles through time-wasting and dissent, on to things like removing a shirt in that most curious form of goal celebrations.

This umbrella of yellow-card offences is a bit too unwieldy, it seems to me.  Of course there is a need for cautions, which is what the yellow card essentially means, but the current system doesn’t overcome the cynicism which players deploy to spoil dangerous attacks by the other side. You even (scandalously) hear TV pundits saying that a defender had no choice but to “take one for the team” as he pulls an opponent back, and recently a Manchester United player was openly criticised for being naive when allowing an opponent to go past him and set up a goal.

I reckon that there is scope here for a card between the current two – orange will do – with a correspondingly mid-range penalty of being sent off for ten minutes.  They do this for a yellow card in rugby union, which adopted the sin-bin from ice hockey.  Since a football match is longer than rugby, maybe the time off should be longer, 15 minutes, perhaps, but that’s a detail.

The important thing is that it would be used to punish and thereby deter the cynical late challenge when a guy would otherwise be running clear, typically in a breakaway run.  Oh, I know my proposal wouldn’t deter such cheating in the last minute of a game, such as the shirt-tug by a Manchester City player yesterday against Arsenal, but I’m not claiming it would solve everything.  What I do feel is that the blatant “I’ll take a yellow here” obstruction, at any point in the game, is not only unfair for opposition and fans, but also cheats the neutral, who is almost by definition watching the game to see some good action, and preferably goals.  Goals are so rare in football that any attempt to reduce the chances must be a bad thing.

And because goals are so rare, penalties will always have a big effect on the result, so the orange card could also be used for players who are seen to dive (that is, to simulate contact inside the penalty area and earn a spot-kick).  At the moment the balance of risk and reward is unfair: the reward for conning the referee is great, while the risk of punishment – if it comes at all – is likely to be a trivial yellow card.  Make that a temporary sending-off and it would be a fairer equation.  Referees can already give a red card for denying an “obvious” goal-scoring opportunity; so it makes perfect sense (does it not?) to introduce a lesser charge for a likely or probable opportunity.

Football is one of the slowest sports to evolve when it comes to accepting new rules, so I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this in the near future.  After all, ask any group of fans about using technology to review key decisions (as they do in cricket, rugby, tennis, etc) and they’ll almost certainly agree that there is scope for this; yet apart from some  isolated experiments such as in the Dutch league we seem to be no nearer doing anything.  But introducing a third card would not involve any technology, or cause any delay in the game.  All it would require would be a recognition – easy to see for any experienced referee – of the deliberate denial of a likely goal-scoring opportunity by means of an “off-the-ball” block, trip or obstruction.  Come on – as one might almost say, “The future’s bright, the future’s….”



Goal celebrations in football go through fashions and phases, don’t they?  Back in about the 1960s people were horrified when, instead of a quick and embarrassing handshake as players trotted back to the re-start, there was a lot of apparent kissing and cuddling.  Then, towards the end of the century, there developed a range of eccentric celebrations, involving the rocking of imaginary babies or fairly erotic uses of corner flags, and this went on for some time.  Now, in addition to career-threatening knee-slides, it’s all about huddles and cuddles, not to mention fairly explicit kisses.

Now this is a little odd insofar as football is often held up as outrageously outdated in its sexual attitudes, and with allegedly no sympathy for homosexual activity.  We often read about the hounding of players who are suspected or accused of being gay.  Yet when it comes to goal celebrations they are all over one another , not content with high fives or manly hugs, but all heads-together intimacy.

This is only one of the curious – and rather annoying – contradictions of the phenomenon.  I mean, when players feel the merest touch of a hand on their large, well-muscled bodies they collapse in a heap; if the offending hand goes near their face they go down like a boxer on the wrong end of drubbing.  But after scoring a goal players will stand facing the crowd and miraculously bear the weight of team-mates leaping on to their shoulders from behind with little or no warning.   Players can even survive being on the bottom of a ten-man pile-up, surely crushed and asphyxiated, but instead, coming up last and brushing themselves down as calmly as if they had just come out of the fitting room in Fat Face. The effects of the goal are just so amazing!

Of course, there is an element of calculation in all this, as can be seen in the cases of non-celebration.  Those who score against former clubs often manage to stifle any expression of triumph, even managing to look embarrassed.  Meanwhile, a player who scores when the side is 0-3 down with ten minutes to go will also by-pass the cuddles as he retrieves the ball with ruthless single-mindedness to hurry back to the centre circle for what he hopes is a rapid kick-off.

I can understand this.  In my own current sport of bowls, it feels great for the team to celebrate a good shot noisily and with hand- or shoulder-slapping, in the knowledge that the opposition will feel all the more deflated.  In other words, there is an element of intimidation in the celebration – and it’s harder to intimidate someone when you are getting a hammering: you just have to get on with it and hope for a miracle.

But I don’t want to be too cynical.  The scoring system in football means that there is such a premium on putting the ball in the net that when it happens it often does seem like a bit of a miracle.  The scorer is briefly elevated into another form of existence: just look at how the dour, earnest faces of these hard-bitten professionals are transformed into the innocence of childhood by their achievement. It’s a look of such simple, unalloyed joy that you wonder if there is anything – really, anything! – to compare with it.  And you can’t celebrate that with a simple handshake…

Logic, Grammar and Sports Reports

Exploring my new laptop the other night, I looked up the sports app to find out more details of my team’s performance on Sunday.  It looked like this:

ImageNow, depending on where you are in the world you will find the headline either totally natural or very strange.

“Swansea wins…”  Yes, ok, it’s a singular noun and therefore a singular verb, but for anyone in the UK it will jar.  Here we say “Swansea [or whoever] win”.  And it is odd to see the phrase “Swansea doubled its lead”, as opposed to “their”.  The idea is that we are talking about the team, as represented by eleven players – in other words, people).  The same oddity is seen in this report with “Sunderland, which only [recently] secured its place in the top flight…”: despite the accurate idiom of the final phrase, the “which” here is particularly odd, as it removes the idea of people altogether – British people would be bound to say “who”.  One could imagine a sentence like “Sunderland, which has the most beautiful beaches in Europe” (ok, a slight exaggeration), but that clearly refers to the city and geographical entity that is Sunderland.

Obviously (from the use of the phrase “soccer match”) this is an American site.  That is not a criticism – I know that in Australia too they take this extremely grammatical approach to sports reports.  So the Australian press will report that “England collapses”, which to us here looks more like a political headline from wartime than a cricket headline. Saying this reminds me that the final straw in making me give up umpiring squash was a new rule, instigated by Australia, that the opposite of “No let” was no longer to be “Let” or “Let ball” but “Yes let”.

This grammatical logic also appears in other languages like French, where there is a strict need to make words agree in terms of number – so they would say “La France a gagné”, using the singular.  It would be impossible to use the plural form of the verb, parallel to the UK English method. In my blog on the French language I stress how important this is in French (or Italian, etc). In other words, I’m very much aware that the British way of expressing this is actually very much in a minority – even though I think it is the natural and sensible way to do things. To quote a headline I read two minutes ago: “Italy take a chance on Cassani, but France say ‘non’ to Nasri”. And I guess this shows why we do it this way: if it were a politician being elected it might be “Italy takes a chance…”, but here there is a kind of code that the (strictly) ungrammatical form indicates that we are not dealing with the country, but with a small group of sportsmen who represent the country.

Anyway, I was glad of the Bing update, and shall no doubt continue to use the site.  But here’s the odd thing: there is such a massive strangeness about the grammar that it really gets in the way of the content. That is, you are immediately aware that it’s being produced far away, in language that is a little strange, that you feel an emotional distance from the report, too.  And if there’s one thing you need in sports reports, it’s emotional closeness!


Apparently last weekend’s win for Wales over Scotland (rugby union, should I add?) was a record victory.  I didn’t see in the press why it was a record, but would presume that it referred to Wales-Scotland matches, and certainly that it meant the winning margin.

Whenever I see references to such records in rugby (union) I find myself wondering what the all-time records would be if the scoring system had remained unchanged.  There can be few sports where the system for scores has changed so much so fast.  Fifty years ago or so it was three points for a try, which of course made it the same as a penalty.  Reasonably enough this was felt to be a poor incentive to score tries, and in due course the value went up to four.  I don’t think that lasted very long, and maybe should check it out, but after a while (maybe round about 20 years?) the value was increased again, to five.

Now, it is clear that any big win involving (say) seven tries against one would result in a margin of 12 points more now than fifty years ago.  So a “record win” could be merely the result of adding value to the try.  If it became a six-point score next season there would be yet more scope for some new records.

I don’t suppose this will have many people lying awake at night worrying, but it might be interesting to see what the best winning margins might be if values were standardised for comparison.  I suppose it’s even possible to say that some recent narrow victories would in the past would have been defeats in the past simply because the modern winners’ number of points would have been less.  Which in turn raises the spectre that Lions Tours or Six Nations might have had different outcomes…  Oh no. let’s forget the whole thing!

What a coincidence!

How strange that is!  Within an hour of publishing my last post, about the blurring of footballers’ appearances as substitutes, I came across an article in the paper about Arsène Wenger’s 998 games in charge of Arsenal, and a bar chart which showed the players with the most appearances.

The chart made clear, in colour, how many starts and how many appearances as sub each of the players in question had made.  So you could see that the second- and third-top players (Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp) made 377 and 376 appearances respectively, but that Henry made 337 starts as opposed to 298 for Bergkamp.

That’s not to make a value judgment on the guys, and it still isn’t the same as the “fte” count I mentioned, but it is a meaningful figure all the same.  Oh, and who would you say is the top player of the lot under Wenger?  Answer in the next post.



There are a couple of issues around personal records for footballers which I often think could be tidied up with some easy calculations.  One of them is seen in the question of appearances, and the other can be “spotted” in the case of penalties scored.

For appearances, it seems that modern players are constantly breaking records for club or country.  In the case of internationals (and this is true for rugby and cricket as well) it is clearly easier to play games these days compared to the number of matches years ago, because of all the extra friendlies and competitions with long qualifying rounds.   Now we can hardly complain about this. or turn the clock back, but when people talk about all-time records it would useful maybe to add in a percentage figure for the proportion of eligible matches played.  In cricket this obviously involves aggregates of runs and wickets: I wonder how Fred Trueman’s records (first to 300 Test wickets, if I recall) would compare with those modern bowlers who have overtaken him.  This sort of thing should be easily worked out in cricket, one of the most stats-obsessed sports.

In football the “number of appearances” issue is further clouded by the possibility of substitutions in the modern era.  Quite apart from the way that many players come on for half an hour (some of them deliberately deployed as impact subs), how many times have we seen tactical substitutions with two or three minutes left, or even deep into stoppage time. The guy hardly has time to take up position before the final whistle goes.  Yet it’s an “appearance”.

When I worked in departments keeping check of staff we used to talk in terms of “full-time equivalent”  (fte) posts.  Someone who worked for three days of five was working 60% of time, or 0.6 fte.  So you could work out how well staffed departments were even if they had a number of part-time staff, and compare them across the board.

If football appearances were worked out in the same way, it might give a better indication of how record-breaking players like Ryan Giggs (for whom I have a great admiration!) compare to former players.  Just a thought…

In the same spirit (but much less informally) it might be interesting to work out goal-scorers’ success without the added boost of penalties.  I haven’t got the figures to prove it, but once upon a time (when I were a lad!) penalties were hammered in by beefy defenders.  At some fairly recent point strikers have taken over the duties (the wonderful Bill Edgar wrote an article on this in the Times last year).  So people like Rooney or Shearer have scored scores from the spot, and again become record-breakers.

Now, it is clearly easier to score a penalty than from open play.  I’m not saying it’s easy; or that “me missus could do it”: simply that if you look at the stats (and the fact that we are all surprised at a miss) it is far easier to score from 12 yards with only the goalie there.  So I wonder what the records would look like if we gave (say) 0.5 fte goal for a penalty.  The trouble is, of course, that that in itself is an arbitrary way of counting things – though perhaps something more sophisticated could be worked out.  Again, it’s just a thought, not designed to revolutionise the record books but just to add another layer of meaning to the very bald statistics we so often get.






If it hadn’t been for…

My other blogs are quite specific in nature, for example teaching French or reflecting on the nature of golf.  This new one is a bit more general – ok, a lot more general – and just aims to record some thoughts about odd things that you notice in life.

This isn’t supposed to suggest that I think I’m witty or wise.  I’m just a very ordinary person.  It’s true that a relative told me that I was very self-indulgent (her words, not mine) for doing my French blog, although I have to say I think that was pretty silly.  On this one she might have more of a point!  But I do hope these observations strike a chord with others – and if I fail to see an obvious point, I’m sure someone will let me know.

I mean, there are a couple of sports expressions which commentators and players often use, which are totally nonsense. For example, in football (soccer):”the final pass kept going astray”.  Of course, it did – that’s why it was the final pass.  If the ball had reached the intended target there would have been a chance for another pass (which may or may not have turned out to be the final one).  But the commentators always speak as if that one would have clinched it.

And then there’s the other reflection along the lines of “If he hadn’t missed those two chances the score would have been 3-1, not 1-1.” ; or “If the winger had scored that [rugby] try the result would have been a draw, not a narrow defeat”.

Well, this is make-believe.  Take the last type of example.  The winger failed to score, and maybe as a result there was a scrum near the corner flag with a lot of general excitement and all the players lined up in a certain way.  But if he had scored, all the players – all 30 (or 26) of them – would have been in different positions, many of them taking a breather while one kicker set up a conversion attempt.  And when the game eventually re-started it would have been from the half-way line.  So from that point on nothing in terms of players’ positions on the field would be the same, not to mention their  mindsets.  

The same applies of course to the football example.  The outcomes, depending on whether a shot hit the post or went into the net, are entirely different, and nothing else would have been the same for the rest of the match.  In fact, any subsequent goals might well not have happened, because everything would have been different. 

But it wouldn’t give the managers much to complain about, would it?