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Soup of This Day #118: Been Driving Detroit Leaning

January 8, 2012

Assorted coins
Assorted coins. Heads you bat, tails you punt – Photo: Egrian, 2009. Egrian is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

The 1968 European Football Championships started with 32 nations in the qualifying stages. They were whittled down to 8 group-winning quarter-finalists who were further trimmed to 4 semi-finalists via 2-legged home and away playoffs. Only once there were just 4 teams left did the tournament proper begin, with England, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union heading to Italy to face the hosts. The format was simple – The winners of each semi-final went to the final and the losers to a 3rd-place playoff.

Yugoslavia edged England 1-0 in Florence to progress through to the Stadio Olimpico finale in Rome. The Italians and the Soviets though didn’t make it as uncomplicated – For a start they finished the regulation 90 minutes in Naples locked at nil all. After a short break they charged back out for extra time but that still couldn’t separate them as neither could find the back of the net. There was no provision for a replay and penalty shoot-outs weren’t in vogue in 1968 so this could have developed into an awkward situation.

It didn’t. It got real simple, real fast.

They tossed a coin.

Italy won and went on to knock over the Yugoslavs in the final. At the 2nd time of asking. See, in the final the Italians again were level with their opponents (1-1) after extra time. This time though a coin toss was deemed to be inappropriate – A tournament of coin tosses would have looked a little farcical – and the match was replayed 2 days later whereby the Azzuri won 2-0.

I’m opening with this anecdote because I’ve had cause this week to reflect on the role of coins in sport. The driver for this was a story out of the UK, where a series of commemorative coins is being released to celebrate the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. 1 of the designs, chosen in a competition features a particular aspect of football.

The offside rule.

Longworth72 has previously contributed a succinct synopsis of the offside rule and hopefully demonstrated that it wasn’t as complicated as people seem to think it is. This coin takes that spirit, sans Longworth72’s totally reasonable bias against strikers, and somehow conveys the concept of offside on just 1 side of a 50p coin.

It’s genius.

You can toss it to decide which goal you’re aiming for and then have a quick squiz to freshen up on the ol’ offside thingamebob before you get started. Even the referees can have a look.

In football the initial toss is now 1 of few uses for coins in the game. It can also be used to work out who is taking the 1st penalty in a shoot-out, which ironically replaced the coin-toss as a match-decider. In addition I think there are some extreme situations whereby it might still decide an important issue, such as qualification from the group stages of a World Cup tournament, however there are many metrics by which opponents can be separated before the toss comes into play.

And no, none of them are a rock, scissors, paper square off.

The coin toss also has a start-of-match role in cricket, the call of heads or tails deciding which team gets 1st crack at batting. It’s a critical call to make as some pitches inordinately favour the side that bats 1st before disintegrating rapidly, meaning that each successive innings yields less runs.

Meanwhile in the NFL, the coin toss seems to be a full-on spectacle, with the umpire describing the commemorative coin to the crowd before the toss. It’s a ritual that works, coming across as simple and fitting rather than tacky.

I presume it will be in play for this weekend’s round of wildcard playoffs. Today, Detroit are at New Orleans and Cincinnati are at Houston. Tomorrow, Atlanta are in New York against the Giants and Pittsburgh are at altitude in Denver.

In full awareness that this will bite me in the arse I’m tipping the Saints with Drew Brees at the helm to be too much for the Lions. The Bengals have been erratic for mine so I’m going for Houston deep in the heart of Texas. The Giants look too good for the Falcons and that just leaves the Steelers against the Broncos in a game laden with sub-plots. You can read about most of those elsewhere, including whatever the hell is being written about Tim Tebow today – For this post I figured I’d touch upon the story of 1 other guy – Steelers’ safety Ryan Clark.

Clark won’t be playing in Denver. He has sickle cell trait. I’m not a doctor so I’m not going to go into great depth on this beyond saying that this means that his blood can carry less oxygen to his organs in certain situations. Denver is at altitude, being the Mile-High City, exactly 1 mile or 1.6km above sea-level. This means less oxygen and a greater risk for Ryan Clark. It’s not an unproven superstition either – On a previous trip in 2007 Clark got into difficulty and had to be rushed to hospital mid-game. He lost his spleen, gall-bladder and some 15kgs of body-weight.

Which is awkward.

Since then Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin has pulled Clark from 2 games in Denver. Despite Clark and medical staff feeling like it was gonna be ok this time Tomlin pulled the pin again for tomorrow. His reasoning is simple and just a bit honourable. Said Clark on Tomlin:

‘He said he wouldn’t have let his son play and so I’m not playing either.’

All of this I communicated to my wife in 1 of those moments where I wanted to talk sport.

‘Well, with sickle cell he’ll be better protected from malaria,’ she said brightly.

Yeah. That’s her takeaway from this. Ryan Clark is safer from malaria.

Ok. I hope someone has told Coach. I’ll wager he still thinks it’s too much of a toss-up to risk Clark’s health though.

In Australia we have a game, imaginatively called Two-up, that involves the tossing of 2 coins into the air. The toss, precipitated by the cry of ‘Come in spinner’ is wagered on by participants. Two-up was big in the Australian goldfields in the mid to late 1800s, possibly because of its ease of play and complete and utter lack of required skill. It then faltered in the national conscious but came back big during World War 1 when Australian troops, aka Diggers, played it in the trenches. Because of this the game is now synonymous with ANZAC Day, the day on which we commemorate our military and its contribution to Australia.

Such is our reverence for the game we even invented a wooden paddle-type device, called a kip, that allows for efficient tossing of the coins.

We invented penicillin too. It’s just that we had some downtime there and tossing the coins is kind of difficult and… Look, you’ve probably barely even noticed us down here. That we invented a piece of wood to toss coins is just part of our quaint charm.

The quaint charm of the offside coin has been overlooked as well – It’s been criticised by Referees’ Association member Mal Davies, who feels that it simplistically reflects the offside rule as it was in 1995. His view is that it does not take into account that a player is not deemed to be offside unless they are actively involved in play.

Which it doesn’t. It also doesn’t articulate that you can’t be offside from a throw-in. Or if the opposition player inadvertently diverts the ball through.

The coin it turns out fails to replicate the entirety of that section of the rules of the game. But here’s the thing Mal, I don’t think it was meant to. What it does do is provide a nice simple understanding of the ethos of the offside rule. I think for a more in-depth interpretation people should probably read a book.

Meanwhile malaria directly killed around 655,000 people in 2010. It’s total cost is immeasurably high. The connection to the sickle cell trait is relatively simple as far as I can understand it – The sickle cell trait is a defensive mechanism, a genetic mutation that allows the body to better handle malaria – It’s prevalence therefore is highest in populations that derive from or exist in areas that are malaria-rich, i.e Sub-Saharan Africa. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have a mission to eradicate malaria – It’s a noble aim and 1 that will take a lot of money. Fortunately Bill and Melinda have that, the Microsoft founder and his wife have poured a lot into this fight and progress is being made worldwide, by them and many others.

I reckon that’s an effective use of coins.

Been Driving Detroit Leaning

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