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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: They're right to call it the beautiful game

| Tuesday, July 10, 2018, 7:09 p.m.
France’s Antoine Griezmann celebrates at the end of the semifinal match between France and Belgium on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, at the World Cup in St. Petersburg.
France’s Antoine Griezmann celebrates at the end of the semifinal match between France and Belgium on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, at the World Cup in St. Petersburg.

Detractors may criticize the beautiful game, but say this about soccer: Matches never last four-and-a-half hours.

That’s a big part of what makes the game beautiful.

Friday’s baseball game at PNC Park was a parody of sports: Thirteen pitchers, 22 runs, a snail’s pace and a crowd of 24K made up primarily of visiting fans who delighted in the torment of the home team. It took 270 minutes, longer than the entire second season of “Brockmire” and about 10 percent as entertaining.

Meantime, the World Cup is winding down with a surge in its television ratings.

Through the first knockout round, the TV audience was down 36 percent from 2014 and down 19 percent excluding United States matches from that year.

The World Cup buzz in this country has been diluted by the absence of the U.S. team. The 2014 World Cup was in Brazil, so games were televised in the U.S. during afternoons and prime time. This year, games from Russia air during mornings and afternoons. Big disadvantage for broadcast partner Fox.

But Fox is rallying: Saturday’s quarterfinal between Croatia and host Russia averaged 5.6 million viewers. It was the most-watched quarterfinal since 1990.

It’s been a captivating tournament despite the elimination of defending champ Germany at the group stage and the exit of superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the first knockout round.

But it’s not a he-man American sport like football, nor steeped in convolution disguised as tradition like baseball. So critics keep taking shots.

“Why do they dive all the time?” Yep. It stinks.

Why do NFL players stage Broadway musicals after meaningless plays?

Neymar collapses and writhes.

Antonio Brown twerks and rubs up against the goalpost suggestively.

Every game has an annoying subculture that won’t change. At least soccer’s doesn’t carry over to the crime blotter so much.

“Why do they break ties with penalty kicks? Why not overtime to a finish like hockey?”

Hockey uses free substitution and has 15-minute breaks between overtimes. Soccer doesn’t.

If overtime had no limit, an extraordinarily lengthy OT would fatigue the winner to the point of being noncompetitive in the next match. Such a circumstance in a World Cup semi would ruin the final. Ninety minutes of regulation plus 30 minutes extra time is enough.

Allowing free substitution, more substitution and/or player re-entry would tamper with soccer’s foundation.

Penalty kicks are a bit random. A skills competition, not a test of the teams. But matches can’t go on indefinitely.

Anyway, what’s it to you?

To soccer fans, the game’s fine.

Unless extra time is required, a game fits nicely into an hour and 45-minute time slot. Two-and-a-half hours if it goes to OT and penalties. (That’s a short baseball game.)

The ball is always in play. The game keeps moving.

Spontaneous creativity abounds. There’s always a chance you might see something unique.

Soccer is played by normal-sized athletes. It’s not above the rim or in the trenches.

Goals are sometimes sparse. But it’s about the buildup and the anticipation.

Baseball is a quagmire. Visits to the mound. Batting gloves get unfastened and refastened. Sporadic action. Too many home runs, walks and strikeouts. According to MLB writer Tom Verducci, the average time between balls in play is three minutes and 45 seconds.

The average NFL game lasts three hours and 12 minutes. There are 11 minutes of actual action.

The NBA is all dunks and 3-pointers, and the players are the GMs.

If you like baseball, football and/or basketball, fine.

For me, hockey and soccer stand alone.

All each of us really knows is what he or she likes.

The World Cup has two more games left. Europe’s top leagues start in a month. There’s no offseason for soccer.

England is one win away from the World Cup final. Like the English aren’t already insufferable enough.

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