Soccer-phobic Americans may feel more justified in their skepticism this week after watching a victory against Slovenia snatched away by referee Koman Coulibaly's dubious call that nullified U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu's goal. Why bother watching a sport, they might think, where a seemingly arbitrary calls by referees determine the outcome of games, officials are notoriously corrupt, and players routinely disregard rules and fake injuries. This is missing the point. Strange as it might seem, rule bending is an integral part of international soccer. Everyone cheats, and there's a lot to be learned and enjoyed from how each team does it.
Henry Kissinger famously wrote that national soccer teams reflect what political scientists used to call "national character." It's great fodder for a barroom debate, but if Kissinger wanted to pass academic muster, he'd have to track down measurable data. It's not so easy to correlate ball handling with political engagement or goalkeeping with patriotism, but there is one element of national character where there's measurable data and an easy soccer analog: corruption.
There are all sorts of measures of political and social corruption, including Transparency International's famous annual index. And world soccer has more than its share of corruption-related headlines: recent months have seen criminal investigations into soccer corruption in Germany and league-wide corruption scandals in Italy. And, of course, every single soccer match is replete with examples of players bending and breaking the rules. A comparison shows that fans are right to give credence to some of the less savory national stereotypes -- but they should also probably show more composure when confronted with bad behavior on the pitch.
Given national stereotypes and corruption statistics, we would expect South American and southern European soccer teams to be more prone to corruption and cheating in soccer. And, indeed, Argentineans and Italians, players and fans alike, have been known to embrace deception on the field -- at the least, they prefer to push the limits of what they can get away with when the referee isn't looking.
Fans and players in these countries tend to be nonchalant about time-wasting, clever tricks, and dissimulation -- like diving in the penalty box to attract a penalty kick -- accepting them as "part of the game." In South America, soccer fans admire precisely the very tactics (for instance, the pulling of shirts and tugging on shoulders during corner kicks that are near impossible for referees to spot) universally condemned by soccer's rule enforcers. It is no coincidence that Lucio, Maicon, and Samuel -- the most notoriously sneaky stars of this year's Champions League victors, Inter Milan (note: an Italian team) -- hail from Brazil and Argentina. These are countries with a long tradition of El Gueguense, the game of deceiving colonizers. The rules of the game are simple: never tell a lie, but never tell the whole truth.