The world at play

FORGET ABOUT THE QUEEN: God needs to save the English soccer fan, that most wretched creature who works himself into such a lather every four years, only to be cruelly disappointed. How did it happen this time? Wayne Rooney mugged an opponent to earn a red card, and both Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard -- go-to guys, really -- missed penalty kicks. As if they knew what was coming, English fans in the stands of Saturday's quarterfinal against Portugal broke out singing "Que Sera, Sera" before the deciding penalty kicks. Four years from now, they will have to find a new way to choke. They always do.

So it goes at the world's most popular sporting event, soccer's monthlong World Cup, being held in Germany. By now, the tears have flowed freely across the globe -- in South Korea, Brazil, Argentina and Spain (whose players vie with the English for most consistently choking despite their talent). The U.S. team, eliminated in the first round, showed that it still has a long way to go.

This has been a fine World Cup, on the whole, but lacking that one breakthrough, phenomenal, classic match.

One reason soccer remains an alien passion to many optimistic-minded Americans is that the game, much like life in many parts of the world, can be frustrating. Sometimes the hurdles cannot be overcome, and you end up with a 0-0 tie. Yet sometimes, even a 0-0 tie can be inspiring, as it was for tiny Trinidad and Tobago against mighty Sweden. Trinis celebrated as if they'd won the World Cup, and why shouldn't they?

Soccer's biggest problem is disciplinary. It's too easy to nip fluid, creative playing with violence, and the latest trend is for players to pretend that their artful playing was disrupted by a supposed foul. So every natural collision seems to trigger a protracted death scene befitting an Italian opera, or at least a Vlade Divac highlight reel. Referees are left to whip out their cautionary yellow cards more than ever, both to those who dole out violence and to those who feign being on the receiving end. It's as if the sport had been hijacked by U.S. plaintiff lawyers; no one just falls anymore -- a card must go to the one who trips or the one who falls.

The card system is clearly broken; it's no deterrent. Perhaps the world's game could learn a thing or two from hockey, which yanks misbehaving players for short spells. But that's a problem for some future summit in Zurich. For now, the world is focused on the surprisingly retro, all-European semifinal stage featuring Germany, Italy, Portugal and France. May the least operatic side win.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World