Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing"

How do America's domestic sport leagues rig the system to try and avoid drawn results?

Most American sports (including gridiron football, basketball, ice hockey and baseball) prevent draws -- "rig" the system -- in at least one obvious way. If a match is drawn at the end of regulation time, then the match goes to overtime. Only in ice hockey (the least American of the major sports) is it fairly common for the match to end in a draw even after overtime has been played. In baseball, America's national pastime, a drawn match continues into extra innings and will not end until a winner can be declared (external events like weather permitting, of course).

While a draw in basketball is similarly unthinkable, NFL matches do manage to go through two overtime periods and end in a draw on exceptionally rare occasions. This happens every few seasons or so, and leads to a lot of extra ink on America's sports pages because tables of league standing always include a column for ties that is full of zeroes. Of course, this is only the regular season. When American sports reach their playoff periods, draws are even more unthinkable and means are developed (such as shoot-outs in ice hockey) to declare a winner no matter what. While world football does rely on shoot-outs to sort out cup tournaments (including the World Cup), in the meat-and-potatoes league season, draws are always possible.

Draws have long been accepted in world football and even embraced, especially when a match pitches a massive underdog against a formidable favourite -- David against Goliath. This is why two draws against France and Ukraine (both World Cup quarter-finalists) would have been a significant achievement for the Scottish football team. As it transpired, Scotland beat France at home before losing away to Ukraine, suggesting that the Scottish football team has at least retained the ability to fill its supporters with hope (bordering on mass hysteria) before those dreams are ultimately dashed by cruel reality. The steady consistency against high quality opposition that Scotland would have demonstrated by drawing twice would have been more impressive in my view.

Of course, world football has over time tried to limit draws as well, notably by the rule change that occurred sometime in England in 1981 and worldwide by FIFA in 1995 that awards 3 points for victory (rather than the historical 2) vs 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a loss. The change was of course adopted to incentivize winning, though recent research suggests it may have backfired. Perhaps it's time for sports leagues to start thinking more about the merits of draws.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Come on! Let's draw!

Scotland's next two internationals are at home to France on 7 October and away to Ukraine on 11 October. Right now I think two points gained in these matches would be a good result for Scotland and a realistic target, keeping us in contention for qualification. In fact, two points (draw-draw) might be even better than three (win-lose or lose-win) because it would demonstrate great consistency to be able to pull off back-to-back results against France and Ukraine. Also it would deprive one of our rivals of three points for a win.

The drawback of draws is that they would also help Italy get back into contention in the group. However, hopefully Ukraine can neutralize that problem by managing a draw in Rome as well on 7 October. Though given their bad results in the first two qualifiers, I'm guessing the Italians will be using every trick in the book, pull on the shirt, insult of the sisters, and bribe of the officials to get their campaign back on track.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pre-qualifying for minnows

Already in Euro 2008 qualifying, San Marino has lost 13-0 against the Germans, Andorra has lost 6-0 against England and the Faroe Islands have managed to lose 6-0 against both Scotland and Georgia. This has led to calls for the minnows of world football to pre-qualify for the European qualifiers by playing each other. This seems like a sporting idea. The minnows would occasionally get to win a match that mattered, and a successful pre-qualifying campaign could bring a touch of glory to a small nation. If a minnow is playing well and on form, then they could have a go at the big boys.

Perhaps unlike some fans (especially of the Old Firm in Scotland), I take little pleasure in watching a drubbing that everyone knows is coming. I even stopped watching Scotland's win against the Faroes at half-time because it was 5-0, and I was starting to feel sorry for the little guys. Besides, the only notable thing that happened after Scotland went up 5-0 is that two of Scotland's better players (Fletcher and Miller) managed to get themselves booked. Miller managed a second booking against Lithuania so will now have to sit out the next qualifying match against France in October.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Scotland top of the group!

This has been a great week for international football, especially here in Scotland. The Tartan Army once again can get their hopes up after the national side demolished the Faroes 6-0 in Glasgow at the weekend and then played a good game to win 2-1 away against Lithuania. This has put them top of their qualifying group ahead of a few fairly reputable sides. This is a pretty site:

2008 Group B Table



1 Scotland 2 2 0 0 8 1

7 6
2 France 2 2 0 0 6 1

5 6
3 Georgia 3 1 0 2 8 6

2 3
4 Ukraine 1 1 0 0 3 2

1 3
5 Lithuania 2 0 1 1 2 3

-1 1
6 Italy 2 0 1 1 2 4

-2 1
7 Faroe Islands 2 0 0 2 0 12

-12 0

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Who should start for Scotland against the Faroes?

Responding to an article in The Scotsman called "Miller still gets nod over Boyd, insists Smith":

In addition to trying to boost Kenny Miller's confidence, I think Walter Smith is just trying to get the incentives right for Kris Boyd. If he waltzes too easily into the Scotland first team, he might not bother working hard for the team and just focus on what he's good at: poaching goals. Probably Walter will start Boyd but wants the youngster to sweat a bit for the chance. If he doesn't start him, I'd expect Walter to throw on Boyd very quickly if the goals aren't coming against the Faroes.

As for the defence, Elvis is a good choice for this match, but hopefully Andy Webster will be playing regular football by the time we have to face the likes of Italy, France and Ukraine.

The Faroes match should come down to how aggressive Fletcher chooses to be. He should be able to dribble at will all over the pitch. Who scores should just come down to who he bothers to pass to when all 11 Faroe Islanders are forced to collapse on him as he nears their goalmouth.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Week 5 SPL picks

This may not be a Scottish perspective on football much longer, but it's been an interesting season up here so far. Not only is no team perfect after four games, every team has dropped points on at least two of their outings, and the top of the table is very tight. Here go my predictions for this week:

Aberdeen v Dunfermline Athletic should see the home team earn an easy three points, though you never know. Aberdeen seems to play to the level of their opponents sometimes, so the goalie might toss the ball into the net to save Dunfermline's blushes. Pick: Aberdeen, 2-1.

Celtic v Hibs should also see the home team trot away with three points. Celtic have not looked very good so far this season, but neither have the visitors to Parkhead. A couple of new signings this week might also give the Hoops a boost. Pick: Celtic, 3-1.

Falkirk v Motherwell is an interesting one. Last year you would have expected Motherwell to waltz away with all three points, but Falkirk had a terrific start this season until last week's loss against Killie. Meanwhile, Motherwell has yet to achieve so much as a draw. I'm going to keep the faith with Falkirk to officially launch relegation panic in the town of Motherwell. Pick: Falkirk, 2-0.

Hearts v ICT will test whether the Jambos can bounce back quickly from European disappointment. For the sake of a good race at the top of the SPL, I hope they keep it tight at the back and poach a win, just as they did when I went to Tynecastle to watch this fixture last year. Pick: Hearts, 1-0.

St Mirren v Dundee United. This is exactly the kind of fixture that Tangarine fans should think is an easy three points for their expensively acquired side. They are, of course, doomed to disappointment. Pick: St Mirren, 2-0.

Killie v Rangers. I haven't picked any draws yet, and I certainly don't want Rangers to hold on and potentially open water at the top of the SPL, so I'll back Killie to get something from this. Their confidence should be fairly high after winning a couple of matches, so I'll forecast a 1-1 draw in this fixture.

Champions League Hearts Broken

Looking back on last week, I can say that I actually underappreciated the extent that Hearts would be distracted by their Champions League participation. The Jambos haven't won in four games since AEK Athens showed up at Murrayfield over two weeks ago, as dreams of Champions League glory came to nothing against an obviously superior opponent. One can only hope they can pull themselves together again in order to stay in contention in the domestic league, and if they can finish in the top two again, perhaps this year's Champions League experience will make them more mature, formidable competitors in next year's competition.

So, in the middle of their European heartbreak, Hearts also lost at Ibrox 2-0 to put Rangers at the top of the pack, aided by an poor performance from Celtic at ICT, who always seems to give the Hoops trouble. Meanwhile, Hibs won at last as predicted, while Killie proved me wrong by beating Falkirk and re-asserting their claim to be legitimate candidates for a top six finish. I also correctly picked the drawn score in two matches. First, a 1-1 battle between St. Mirren, who belong in the SPL, and Aberdeen. And lastly, at the bottom of the pile, in the most predictably rubbish fixture of last week, Dundee United and Dunfermline ran around for 90 minutes and neither managed to put the ball between the posts.

All said and done, that was four correctly predicted results out of six. Not bad at all.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fantasy picks

Thinking more about picking players, I consider these questions important:
  1. Is he a good, productive player for a top club?
  2. With what probability is the player going to play in each match for his club?
  3. How often is his team going to play before it is possible to trade?
For reason #3, I am avoiding Liverpool and Arsenal players on most of my rosters. They play only twice in the inital window of games whereas most teams (certainly Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs) play three times. There are only a few serious candidates at each position.

At striker, all my teams feature the partnership of Shevchenko and Saha. Henry and Rooney are expensive and won't be playing many games at the start of the season, though of course could be expensive additions later on.

In the midfield, Lampard is a prolific goalscorer and a must. Gerrard probably is as well, but I'm holding off until after trading begins. At ManU and Chelsea, Ronaldo, Robben and Joe Cole (currently injured) are all good but quite expensive. Kevin Nolan has done well in the past, and Bolton are just outside of the top clubs in terms of their performance over the past couple of seasons. Aaron Lennon and Cesc Fabregas are cheap and could be steals if they live up to their potential. Shaun Wright-Philips is exceptionally cheap and could end up starting regularly for Chelsea. I'll keep a watchful eye.

In defense, John Terry is an automatic pick. I'm slightly nervous about picking other Chelsea players because they may not play regularly, though Paula Ferrerra and to a lesser degree Ricardo Carvallo are tempting, especially with William Gallas not in the mood to perform. Wayne Bridge is also tempting as a trade until Chelsea manages to close a deal for a new left back, probably Ashley Cole. From ManU, Rio Ferdinand looks a bit too expensive, but Gary Neville and Wes Brown look cheap and appear likely to start due to injuries to other players. Gabriele Heinze will be worth a look when he recovers from injury. From Spurs, I understand Michael Dawson is a stalward in central defense and is worth consideration.

As for the goalmouth, Chelsea's Carlo Cudicini is cheap and likely to start for at least a couple of weeks, but I'll have to keep on the lookout for the return of Petr Cech. If I'm less inclined to spend a trade like that, Liverpool, ManU, Arsenal and Spurs all have goalies who are a bit cheaper than Cech.

Telegraphing my strategy

I've entered the Daily Telegraph's Fantasy Football game for the English Premiership, looking to build on my success in the The Times 2003-04 Fantasy Game and the 2006 Elsevier World Cup pool. The DT has the biggest prize money of any of the fantasy games that I have seen, while The Times appears to have scaled back their prize money. I was disappointed with the way The Times handled my winnings back in 2004 (including their failure to send the prize until I contacted them about it) as well as the way they set up their game in subsequent years. Oddly, for instance, they ask you to choose a manager as well as an 11 man team.

So, this year it's the DT. Like The Times game of 2003-04, you get £50m to spend on 11 players, each of whom is given a value by the gamemasters. However, the DT scoring system seems to be more complex, though I haven't thoroughly examined it yet. Another big difference is that you can have as many players from one Premiership team as you wish, whereas The Times allowed no more than three from one club. My initial reaction to this is that it is good strategy to load up on players from the best teams, specifically the big four.

To buy players from other teams, they had better be pretty hot, give you good returns, and provide value for money. One player that looks a good possibility is Kevin Nolan from Bolton. Also, on one of my four teams I have speculated by dipping down into Tottenham Hotspurs players, specifically goalie Paul Robinson and defender Michael Dawson. Early on this looks like a bad idea as Spurs got thumped 2-0 by Bolton yesterday. However, Spurs are considered good enough to compete for a Champions League place this season, and if that comes to fruition, some of their players may score well in the fantasy game.