I spent my latest Friday night staying up until the early hours of the morning, in not-so-eager anticipation of the USA v Antigua and Barbuda game. I wished to report on it for Sportsideo as I feel it would be a good way to connect with a largely American audience who would have perhaps seen the game, and do a tactical analysis of the game like the one here. After suffering through what was one of the most disappointing games I've watched all year and subsequently not being able to report on it, I turned my attention to the USA v Guatemala game last night. But alas, rationality kicked in. I decided to use the time this game was going on to get the valuable sleep needed so that I could watch the Presidential Debate which started a little over an hour afterwards (3am for me over in the UK). I sacrificed a game of soccer so that I could inform myself on what is likely to be one of the most influential decisions in international politics over the next few years. I am simultaneously proud and disappointed of myself.
"But Jordan" I hear you cry, "why put up a blog post if you are unable to do what you intended?". Well, despite my suicidal tendencies after the USA v Antigua game, there was one interesting point that came up over and over again in that game. The pitch. The commentators kept remarking how the pitch was the minimum dimensions required (90mx45m), a tactic used by the Antigua coaching staff to try nullify the USA's on ball ability and use of width to attack. Clint Dempsey also posted this picture, commenting on the quality of the playing surface. For Antigua and Barbuda, the plan almost worked. The USA were poor on the ball and failed to create many goal scoring chances throughout the game, relying on a last minute winner from Eddie Johnson to achieve victory over the tiny island nation.
It begs the question, should changing the dimensions of the pitch by legal. And though there is no evidence of such tampering, should deliberately changing the quality of the pitch be legal too? In the English Premier League all pitches have been standardised to 105mx68m this year in an effective ban on changing the pitch, and perhaps this signals a change in the global game towards a standardisation of pitches.
But what if we look elsewhere in the game? How do we begin to decide what constitutes a "home advantage" and what should be considered illegal in the sport. If we take the fans in the stadium, many professional sports players have commented on how the supporters would have an adverse or positive effect on their game. When we look at some of the most passionate fans in the world, it is very easy to understand how they will influence a game.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the game who would advocate suppressing passionate fans' chanting and support, but if we consider it as a third party affect on the game at hand then ultimately how different is it to a change in pitch dimensions?
To further this point, there are many other existing circumstances that would obviously have an affect on the travelling team. It can be as simple as the fact they are travelling, and the journey can be tiring and lead to a sub par performance from an athlete. Though not much of a problem in my native England, in international soccer players are regularly required to travel across the continent. Certainly in the US it becomes an issue, when the Miami Dolphins travel the length of the country to play the New England Patriots or when Houston Dynamo have to travel to Montreal to play Montreal Impact, this is more than likely going to affect player performance.
It could also be an issue of a difference in pre game comforts. Beyond spending hours on a coach or plane, it was common in the 1970s for away team changing rooms across Britain to be drab, dark and uncomfortable compared to the home team's relative luxury. This has changed over recent years, but it emphasises the wider issue - that some cases of "home advantage" are considered illegal or poor sportsmanship and others are considered 'part of the game', with no clear line being drawn.
The question is where to draw the line, and it is a difficult line to draw. In some cases, the line has been drawn and swiftly rubbed away again, such as when FIFA imposed a temporary ban on playing international soccer above a certain altitude in 2007 to see it being repealed in 2008 (see here for a review of that issue). Playing in La Paz, Bolivia at 3600m above sea level has obvious adverse affects on a players cardiovascular performance as well as the flight of a soccer ball, but is still allowed to be used as an international soccer stadium, provoking several teams to complain at its use.
Ultimately, it is a question of consistency. Where certain practices are deemed unsportsmanlike and others outright against the laws of the game, others are allowed to persist though consistently affecting player performance. Obviously at lower standards, circumstances will prevail and many things will be waved on despite being frowned upon at an elite level. But at the elite level, should it not be the job of an organising body to try, in every way possible, to let the actual game decide the outcome, rather than a wave of outside influences?
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