Goblet of Fire: Page 106
Hassan Mostafa, Omnioculars, Quidditch Moneyball, and how defense works.
Welcome back! This week, we dive into a pure Quidditch scene: it’s the Quidditch World Cup, and the match is starting. Enjoy!
Page 106 of Goblet of Fire starts with the introduction of, frankly, one of my favorite characters: Chairwizard of the International Quidditch Association, Hassan Mostafa. He’s the referee for the Quidditch World Cup final, of course; he’s a small, skinny, bald man, but he has a mustache to rival Uncle Vernon’s. My girlfriend’s family is Persian, so I recognize this description immediately.
Right off the bat, there’s something strange going on here: the Quidditch World Cup Final, the championship of the most prestigious Quidditch competition in the world, only has one official? It’s just the one guy flying around? Not even a linesman or a back judge? Obviously Mostafa has some magical assistance — the Snitch has flesh memory, so there’s no chance of a disputed capture — but still: what if one player shoots the quaffle and scores at one end of the pitch just at a beater attacks the opposing keeper at the other (as we know, because Madam Hooch shrieks it at Crabbe and Goyle, you can’t attack the keeper unless the quaffle is within the scoring area)?
It’s literally impossible for one official to control an entire pitch at once — especially when in addition to length and width, players can fly at whatever height they want. It’s completely impossible even without the mascot distractions we see later, which quickly turn into outright violence.
Look at it this way: in the World Series, baseball games have six umpires. NFL officiating crews have seven members. NBA crews have three, but a basketball court is a much smaller area to cover than the entire volume of the Quidditch World Cup stadium. Mostafa is completely alone, and the game absolutely can’t run smoothly with just the one referee. This isn’t some wacky Justice Breyer-type hypothetical, either: we see it play out literally pages later, when Mostafa completely loses control of the game because he’s the only person in charge.
There’s one other thing wrong with this: the chair of the International Association of Quidditch is the referee? That would be like if Sepp Blatter was the referee in the World Cup Final, or if Rob Manfred strapped on the gear and got behind the plate for game seven of the World Series. Presumably, Mostafa has other duties, and pretty important ones: growing the game internationally, overseeing various committees that make schedules, set the rules, and manage the sport, making sure the association and the World Cup are in legal compliance, managing labor relations with the players (lol)…it sort of skates by as a passing reference in the book, but it’s incredibly strange that they chose the guy who seems like roughly the equivalent of the commissioner of the world governing body to referee the World Cup Final.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman probably doesn’t know the fine points of awarding a penalty shot. NBA commissioner Adam Silver almost certainly doesn’t know how to figure out the gray area between a blocking foul and a charge. Usually, commissioners and chairpersons of major sports leagues are lawyers or executives who have worked their way through league hierarchies over years or decades. Even if Hassan Mostafa was once a referee, there’s no way he’s stayed sharp over the years. You can’t chair a global sporting body while also refereeing a game every other night.
One thing Mostafa gets right: he’s wearing golden robes. Wouldn’t all sports postseasons be better if the officials had to wear gold uniforms? Not just yellow, either; they should come out in bright, shiny gold, looking like Elton John. Unfortunately, even if the idea catches on, we’ll never see Joe West in a gold umpire’s uniform now that he’s retired, and we missed Jim Joyce by a few years. Still, though, it’s worth exploring.
Functionality of Omnioculars
As Mostafa takes the field to begin the match, Harry spins the dial on his omnioculars back to normal (from slo-mo). The omnioculars are interesting, in that they demonstrate the limits of wizarding capabilities. They can do all sorts of fantastic things: they can zoom in across incredible distances, slow down live action, rewind things they’ve just watched, and provide live textual commentary. What they can’t do, however, is do all that only mentally. Everything the omnioculars do is strictly physical.
This is a complicated point, so let me explain it. Here’s what I mean: if the omnioculars could somehow magically connect to the brains of their users, they could show things in slow motion without lagging behind. They could convince the viewer that they were watching in slow motion, while still keeping up with the real world so that the viewer could tell what was happening and make out every detail but still wouldn’t fall behind the real-life crowd. They could rewind while also magically letting the viewer know what was happening in real time. The omnioculars, however, can’t do that. Functionally, they’re the same as a slow-motion video camera. Sure, they pack all those capabilities into a portable, functional design, but practically speaking, watching the match through omnioculars doesn’t seem to make it much more comprehensible than just watching live. You can zoom in on a certain player, but if you do, you can’t see what anyone else is doing. You can watch in slow motion, but if you do that, you’ll fall behind the action.
What the omnioculars need (this is so obvious, you’ll be annoyed you didn’t think of it first) is picture-in-picture. Obviously, slow motion can be huge if you’re trying to break down a complicated play or re-watch a lightning-quick dodge, but you shouldn’t have to completely turn off the match to do so. The omnioculars are all-consuming: they require both eyes. You literally can’t see anything else. So it’s really not helpful to restrict them to showing you one thing at a time while the rest of the world goes on beyond your view.
Quidditch Needs Strategy
Mostafa starts the match, and it’s immediately evident that this is Quidditch as Harry has never seen it played before. That’s not me; that’s a quote from the book. In fact, it’s Quidditch on such an unprecedented level that there seems to be something wrong with it. Here’s Ludo Bagman’s opening commentary:
“And it’s Mullet! Troy! Moran! Dimitrov! Back to Mullet! Troy! Levski! Moran!”
If you remember, the Irish chasers are Troy, Mullet, and Moran. The Bulgarian chasers are Dimitrov, Ivanova, and Levski. Harry notes that “the Chasers were throwing the Quaffle to one another so fast that Bagman only had time to say their names,” but the commentary takes it a step further: they’re not only throwing it so fast that there’s barely any time for commentary, they’re throwing it to the other team and back with nary a pause.
What’s actually going on here according to the commentary? Mullet passes to Troy, who passes to Moran, who throws an interception to Dimitrov — fine so far — who immediately throws another interception back to Mullet? Who passes to Troy, who throws another interception to Levski — who immediately throws another interception right back to Moran, without even taking a second to regroup?
Frankly, this doesn’t seem like the most effective offensive approach. That leads seamlessly into my next, related point: relying entirely on super-fast passing seems like a flashy but not entirely effective strategy. It reminds me a little bit of when the Denver Nuggets hired Paul Westhead, previously the coach of the Lakers and Bulls, away from Loyola-Marymount University. Westhead had basically devised an offense where his teams would run down the floor and shoot immediately: the statistics, he thought, justified moving as quickly as possible, thus disrupting the opposing defense, and always aiming for big plays. He encouraged his players to shoot once every seven seconds, twice as fast as the league average. A tremendous shoutout, by the way, to the book “Scorecasting,” from which this story comes.
So what happened when he went to the Nuggets after they hired him?
“At the pro level, Westhead’s experiment failed spectacularly,” the authors write. “Opposing players took advantage of the Nuggets’ chaos and the irregular spacing. The Nuggets’ strategy of shooting early and often led to easy baskets on the other end. As it turned out, it was the Denver players who were often huffing and puffing — and on injured reserve — from the relentless running. (One Denver player complained that his arm hurt from throwing so many outlet passes.) Games came to resemble the Harlem Globetrotters clowning on the Washington Generals. In one game, the Phoenix Suns scored 107 points, most on dunks and layups, in the first half, which still stands as an NBA record. The Nuggets started the season 1–14 and finished a league-worst 20–62. They scored 120 points a game but surrendered more than 130 and were mocked as the Enver Nuggets, a nod to their absence of ‘D.’ Westhead grudgingly slowed down the pace the next season but was fired nevertheless.”
It's a cool strategy, one that might tire out the defense, and lead to points, but it also seems disruptive to your own team. Why not take a second once you steal the quaffle to figure out what kind of defensive system the other team is running?
Now, I said it reminds me “a little bit” of Westhead’s Nuggets because it also reminds me of something else: Major League Baseball for almost a century. What if both teams are playing like this simply because this is how the game has always been played? For decades, baseball teams adhered to conventional wisdom: things like “the shortstop doesn’t need to hit for power if he has a good glove” and “swing down on the ball, don’t aim for the home run.” Then people actually looked at the numbers, and it turned out that some of the conventional approaches made sense, but some absolutely didn’t. And of course, once a few teams started playing differently and succeeding, the other teams realized that the different approach was working, so they adopted it too.
Maybe that’s been Quidditch over the centuries: someone developed the fast-passing strategy back in 1723, and it’s been the widely-accepted norm ever since. Now, eventually someone is going to look at the numbers and realize that there’s a better strategy, but clearly that hasn’t happened yet. The Quidditch World Cup scene takes place in 1994, so maybe the next decade or two played out something like this: the “lightning-fast passing” strategy was the norm for a few more years, and then around 2002, a plucky young intern (this isn’t strictly historical; I’m simplifying for people who have seen “Moneyball”) realized that a team’s expected score actually went up if it held the quaffle for eight to ten seconds before passing. So suddenly teams started coveting the players who were particularly good at holding the quaffle for eight to ten seconds before passing, and then everyone started taking shots from wildly unlikely spots on the pitch, because it turned out that you were more likely to score if you took a bad shot than you were if you tried to find a better one, because you usually failed to find a better scoring chance…so Quidditch matches turned mostly into attempts at long shots, and a bunch of people who had watched since the 1970s grumbled about how this wasn’t the game they remembered, but all the young people told them to stop complaining and let the kids play. That’s one possibility, anyway.
At this point, Harry actually turns on the slow-motion and play-by-play features on his omnioculars, which give us an interesting insight into how Quidditch actually works. I’ve written previously that in a future screen adaptation of the series, we need to see better Quidditch; in the films, the way they play Quidditch makes no strategic sense. “Defense” consists largely of zooming at whoever has the quaffle and hoping you can knock it loose, which leads to a lot of unnecessary collisions but even more uncontested shots. Here, though, we see some actual strategic play. The Irish chasers run the Hawkshead Attacking Formation, with Troy in the center slightly ahead of the other two, then the Porskoff Ploy, with Troy darting upwards and drawing the defense with him, then dropping the Quaffle down to Moran. The most important thing here, though? The Irish chasers are defended by the Bulgarian chasers. It’s not like the movies, in which the defense they play is nonsensical; it sounds a lot more like ordinary defense you might play in soccer or basketball. The Bulgarian players are back on defense, watching what the Irish are doing, maybe trying to swoop in and steal the quaffle if they see an opportunity but certainly not just zooming around as fast as they can for no reason.
This, honestly, is reason enough for a Quidditch Through the Ages movie. I really do think that one thing the original eight movies didn’t properly capture was Quidditch (not the only thing, of course, but one of them). A Quidditch movie could fix all that. It could not only show the complicated strategies at work but also explain them, and make up for all the weird Quidditch sequences in the original movies: Harry and Malfoy flying under the stadium, Harry flying a mile into the air and meeting the Dementors, bodies flying through the cloth covering the stands, Harry catching the snitch in his mouth, etc. In the books, we get glimpses of how Quidditch really works, but they’re overshadowed by the screen, on which we actually see the sport. It’s one thing that the franchise really needs to correct.
Anyway, this page doesn’t bring us to the shocking end of the match, so we can’t talk about Viktor Krum’s unbelievable selfishness. The rules of Quidditch are a bigger discussion that I’m not going to get into here, so we’ll pass over that for now. Obviously it doesn’t make sense that the snitch is worth 150 points; I’m not going to write the book about why (at least not right now). Suffice it to say that the trio, along with the rest of the Weasley family, is watching the biggest Quidditch match of the year in some of the best seats in the house. It really is one of the coolest moments of the series, one of the only times we experience the full power of the expanded wizarding world in a positive context rather than as something that Voldemort destroyed. 100,000 wizards are there, there’s a magic billboard and superpowered binoculars, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione have some of the best seats in the house. The only person with a better view is Hassan Mostafa.