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FIFA World Cup: Lack of scoring leaves American reporters unable to describe 0-0 draws

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JOHANNESBURG — In what’s become an all too familiar refrain throughout this 2010 FIFA World Cup, sportswriters like Andy Sasser of the Dallas Morning News are channeling creativity, elaborating on their surroundings and searching tirelessly for descriptive adjectives. As professional soccer continues to seek a wider audience in the United States, the reporters whose words breathe life into the sport are seemingly at a loss in describing action in the absence of goals.

On what would otherwise seem an ordinary day in South Africa, Sasser and his American cohorts are finding themselves desperate for text, scrambling to fill column inches not only by deadline but by the word. Witty anecdotes and man-on-the-street reactions have replaced goals and assists for this American contingent and days have turned into weeks. As the tournament edges towards crowning a victor later next month, when it all comes down to it, writers like Sasser say what they miss most about American sports is the scoring.

“Are you kidding me? I’d take a (Dallas) Stars-(Phoenix) Coyotes game over this in a heartbeat,” he said, shortly after the June 11th Uruguay/France match in Capetown ended deadlocked at zero. “The NHL figured it out. You finish regulation scoreless, that’s all fine and good but now break the damn tie. I can kill a paragraph on the goal, another on what led up to it, who got the assist, a quote from the player, maybe another from the coaches. That’s five or six paragraphs and it already writes itself. Instead, I’m having fans describe their reaction and finding myself going into detail about what it feels like to actually be here. It’s nauseating work.”

Draws ending 1-1, 2-2 and beyond have not faced the same viscous animosity because these provide more than enough material to complete a story but scoreless draws have historically been the bane of the American soccer writer.

“I literally was pasting paragraphs twice and hoping they wouldn’t catch it in copy,” Boston Globe soccer editor Andy Hurst admitted, shortly following the 0-0 draw between Switzerland and Honduras.


“A local writer I spoke with told me that asking why there are draws in soccer would be like him asking me why the Red Sox and Yankees can’t stand each other. Can you imagine a Sox/Yankees game ending in a tie? ‘Yeah, we’re just gonna end it here, fellas.’ How do you think that would go over? I don’t want to be in the stands that night, I’ll tell you that. Instead it’s ‘nice match, you played well today, let’s grab a pint’ and off they go, like nothing happened. It’s embarrassing.”

Andy Lovullo of USA Today said he sees it the same way. “Why do you think everyone in the world is talking about freaking vuvuzelas?? Probably because, like me, they just came from the Ivory Coast/Portugal match and don’t even ask me if either team won,” he said.

“I spent 3 paragraphs talking about those damn horns — what they sound like, where to buy them in the states. It wears me out to write that both teams ran around kicking the ball for 90 minutes and then that was it. I just want to stick a pen in my eye.”

“I was at Portugal/Brazil and we got nothing,” said Los Angeles Times beat writer Andy Swift. “Scoreless draws are no biggie in pre-season, any sport, well maybe not basketball. If a spring training game ends in a 0-0 tie, nobody pitches a fit. It’s an exhibition game — this is the world championship of soccer, for crying out loud. I speak for a lot of Americans: we like our games to have a winner and a loser. It shows that something on that day was accomplished. It’s not the end of the world but one team gets to have its moment. If you don’t care who wins a game within a tournament, then how can you care who wins the tournament?”

When a member of the foreign press attempted to reiterate that only the Group stage features draws of any kind (the Knockout stage is an elimination round with a penalty shootout), the American writers persisted.

“A for effort only goes so far,” said Andy Sparks of the Cincinnati Enquirer, fresh off the nil-nil draw between Paraguay and New Zealand. “The players tried to do this and they tried to do that — that’s how it feels when I’m writing,” he said. “This is what they wanted to do if the other team hadn’t stopped them and this is what the other team did to prevent them from scoring in return. It’s like I’m making excuses for good intentions. Here’s what we did and how we failed to execute.”

“Some British jerk-off told me it’s no different than a 1-0 pitcher’s duel in baseball but that’s the difference, you get a freaking run,” argued Miami Herald’s Andy Samuel. “Somebody eventually scores and wins the game. A zero-zero game isn’t real. It’s a stalemate. It didn’t happen. It doesn’t exist. Scoreless means no score, no points; pointless.”

Bookmakers have also noticed the trend and say it’s effected business. “The over/under is 1 and maybe it’s a push,” said Vinny McDowell, an oddsmaker at the Las Vegas Hilton. “I edge the line to a goal and a half — everyone’s pounding the under and I can’t get no takers for the over. I lose my shirt. You read the wire story after the match and if the writer’s talking about his favorite cheese or that parrot in Singapore, you know there weren’t no goals.”

Many U.S. writers have tossed around rule change suggestions, such as altering the size of the field or adding a second ball. “What makes most sense to me is with a yellow card, you lose a player like in hockey,” said Andy Banks of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The other team gets a power play. That would loosen the scoring up,” he said. “I heard one guy mention doing something like on that show ‘Wipeout.’ Other team gets a penalty and you get to totally knock guys over with a fire hose. It’s not very sporting but the ratings would be massive.”

Covering Group C for the Washington Times, reporter Andy Worrell had already witnessed the England/Algeria nil-nil and thought he was looking at another after 90 minutes of regulation between USA and Algeria. “I had a few paragraphs about how bad the refs have been,” Worrell said, “how the right calls here and there and we’re talking about the players and the matches instead of the officiating. Suddenly Landon Donovan scores, the U.S. isn’t eliminated, they win the group and move on to the Knockout. Now I’ve got something to work with. Still, you score in the 91st minute of a 90-minute game and that’s pretty much the problem in a nutshell.”

Some writers haven’t been as comfortable with this free-style method of filling space as others. “I went into very specific detail of a lunch I had yesterday in downtown Johannesburg and as I typed it into my game coverage, I started to cry,” said Andy Snider of Soccer America Magazine. “I can’t keep selling this because even I don’t believe it anymore. I’m sure my readers haven’t been interested in my success with the Zone Diet or the pictures from my hotel room. I feel like I’m a part of the problem if I don’t speak out against it.”

Andy Wathan of the Chicago Tribune said his editor gave him the option of writing a feature story on Paul the Octopus or cover the Algeria/Slovenia match. “I went with Paul,” he said. “Had I known there’d be a goal scored in that match, I could have written the story. I definitely could have, I know it. One goal is all you need and from match to match, you just never know if it’ll happen.

“Would it kill them to let the players use their hands?” a desperate Wathan proceeded. “This would allow for running the ball and passing it forward down the field to another teammate. Maybe that player spikes the ball when he reaches the end zone and you just get rid of the net. They could play on Sundays and still call it football. I’m just kidding but I will be honest, there better be some serious scoring in the final. I don’t care who plays, I just don’t know what I’ll do if there aren’t a bundle of goals scored in that game. A real shootout would be nice with some back and forth on the scoreboard. That would be the highlight of the tournament in my opinion.”

********UPDATE********  JULY 11, 2010 — Spain wins FIFA World Cup on 116th-minute goal to secure a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands.

********UPDATE #2********  JULY 12, 2010 — Tribune Reporter Suicide.

********UPDATE #3********  JULY 14, 2010 — Chicago Tribune releases transcript of report sent by sportswriter moments before he plunged to his death.

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