I did what any American twenty-something is bound to do: get on facebook. And almost immediately, I notice someone talking up the US-Ghana game set to start at 2:30.
Now, I've never been a soccer guy, either to play or to watch. Maybe it's my Southern upbringing and my thus-inevitable love of football, in all its idiosyncratic glory. Maybe it's the American meh-ness regarding soccer that isn't currently being played by the middle-school fruit of your own loins. Maybe it's the fact that whenever I tune into a soccer game, I watch for a good five minutes without any sign of either team making any progress whatsoever, get bored, and look for something exciting like, say, golf. Or fishing. Or mold growing. I digress - it's safe to say I've never understood the sport probably for lack of exposure, and just haven't been able to get into it.
But World Cup fever has been sweeping the hospital, and is about as ignorable as (you guessed it) 38,000 vuvuzelas. Even I have to wonder what the fuss is about when everyone I know has been crowded around TV's in vacant patient rooms for the past week. The craze really got out of hand when, in what I am told is typical fashion, the US footballers got a single goal against Algeria and in doing so, improbably won their group on the strength of a single win and two heartstopping... ties. Everyone was getting pretty excited about this thing that, frankly, sounded more whimper than bang.
So, this afternoon, when the heat had me hanging out on the couch and the old apartment seemed to be more cleaned than I'd expected, a high-stakes soccer game between two world-caliber teams, one of which I could actively root for, seemed like just the thing. And moreover, what better opportunity to finally discover the sport that has the entire world captivated from cradle to grave? The die was cast. So I made some popcorn and grabbed a beer, and sat down for what would be my first and, most likely, last full soccer game. And why the last? Not because soccer is boring - it isn't boring at all. Soccer is unbelievably, overwhelmingly, mind-numbingly frustrating to watch.
I know. Five to six BILLION people disagree. Hell with that. This is, perhaps, the worst sport I can think of. I like watching soccer less than baseball, less than golf. Less than gymnastics.
It was clear even to me, neophyte, that the Americans were simply outplayed. They came out slow, they walked when they should have been running, they let balls sail, they gave it up to the Black Stars. And they would do inexplicable things, like on the free kicks, just kick the ball right into four Ghanans. As if the soccer ball could be physically pounded through two grown men. The real kicker (ha!) is that Ghana retained possession. Did you catch that? The Ghanans committed a penalty sufficient to warrant a free, indirect attack on their goal, and the end result was that they got the ball back. I spent the entire match gritting my teeth, thinking, okay, when are you guys going to do something? You know, beyond all this knees-bent running-about.
Ghana's two goals were frustrating, not because anyone got outplayed but because the US players outplayed themselves. The announcers themselves were a little taken aback, even, at the rapid-fire error parades that cost the US two points. And of course there was the inevitable spectacle of ass-up soccer players whimpering on the turf following a solid kick to the protected shin via a legal tackle. Get up you jackass. Get UP. Get off the FIELD. If an actual football player pulled that kind of stunt, he'd get something real to cry about. Even the US goal, which was the result of our brilliant strategy of... drawing a penalty. That was exciting, to see us score, and I found myself leaping and yelling until I remembered the helpful pregame show, which mentioned that penalty kicks such as those have a 78% chance of success. And that our goal, apparently, had resulted from a very slight change in formation which we had adopted at halftime - forty-five minutes into the game, we altered strategy a tiny bit and surprised the Ghanans into screwing up and we scored a goal that we had a 4 in 5 chance of making.
I realized I was leaping and yelling not because I was happy, but because I was relieved. Relieved to see something, anything happen. Even if I couldn't understand why we couldn't simply score. Why the US team waited forty five minutes to make that crucial change.
I really don't think that, had the US won, I would have felt any less disappointed by the game itself. Nor would I feel compelled to watch another game. That was two hours of grown men sprinting aimlessly about a grassy pitch punctuated by moments of sheer idiocy and/or crybaby sissy-boys shedding their tender, tender tears onto the grass - spare me.
Still, I was willing to give futball the benefit of the doubt. After all, lots of folks who haven't grown up with football don't even know how to watch a game, and the learning curve is terribly steep. There's a lot to understand before you can even know what's going on. Probably, I humbly maintained, there's just a lot happening that I don't understand. This would be little obstacle, ultimately, thanks to the intertubes, right? Given the overwhelming popularity of this sport, there had to be loads, piles of information explaining the subtleties and strategies of soccer.
My warning was right at the head of the wiki:
Football is in theory a very simple game, as illustrated by Kevin Keegan's famous assertion that his tactics for winning a match were to "score more goals than the opposition."This did not bode well. But I soldiered on, reading dutifully the distinctions between possession football (pass the ball to your teammate) and direct football (pass the ball ahead of your teammate) even though most teams don't play direct football anymore. I read how important it is to substitute out your most tired players with other players who can fill their role, and also how most teams play "total football" in which most players can function well in multiple roles. I attempted to appreciate the difference between "pass and move" in which a player passes the ball and then gets in position where he can receive a pass, and "give and go," in which a player passes the ball and then gets in position where he can receive a pass. I learned how if you aren't making much headway on one side of the pitch, you should kick the ball to the other side. Or how crucial it is to kick the ball past the other team sometimes.
I was already gritting my teeth. These were concepts I could have figured out for myself in the space of an afternoon and they're presented for all the world like revelations, as though the world of soccer emerged at some point from a dark, nascent inception, a time when players had not yet figured out to kick the ball past their opponents. A benighted age when soccer players would attack one side of the field and finding no headway, would simply give up. This couldn't be true. Even in other fluid, field-type sports like basketball, rugby and hockey, there are definite tactics and plays. Soccer could not be the dearth of tactic it seemed. I read on.
Toward the end of the wiki, there was a section listing notable examples of soccer tactics played beautifully by titans of the game. For instance, the final goal of the 1970 World Cup, which according to the wiki is "considered by many to be the best combined team effort in Cup history." And even in merely reading about this goal, it must have been stunning. The goal is, it is said, illustrative of two key principles: width and depth. First, the Brazilian Clodoaldo beats three men as he runs to the left side. He passes it to his teammate, who breaks inside and passes to Pele, who draw the attention of three Italians while the Brazilian fullback sneaks down the right side, unnoticed, to receive the pass in-stride and score.
AMAZING. Did you catch that? I sure did. The key elements of this lasting perfection of soccer tactics were 1. one attacker completely classes three defenders, 2. another attacker occupies the full attention of three other defenders, 3. the offense brings an extra attacker to score, and 4. the defense completely ignores the extra player, alone by himself with a clear path to the goal. This brilliancy, this classic goal basically boils down to having two legends on your team who are able to draw or defeat three-on-one coverage, and even then bringing an extra dude the the fight to further overwhelm the defense, and even then depending on a bone-headed error by the defense. These are so-called "principles."
What lunacy. Many fans seem to be impatient with soccer's recent low-scoring nature and hell, so am I. However, I unlike many don't think this has anything to do with recent advances in strategy or changes in the style of play. Instead, it seems to be the result of everyone playing sound soccer. In a game as simple and tactically shallow as soccer, if everyone plays the game correctly then there really shouldn't be any scoring at all. This fact was completely evident in the USA-Ghana match - both Ghana's goals resulted not from sound play or inventive tactics, but from strings of errors by US footballers. In a match in which one side was clearly outmatched and outplayed, a single correct play by any of the three American players involved would have saved the goal.
This is to say nothing of the controversy that has swirled around the official soccer ball being used by FIFA this year. I don't really even know where to begin with that one. I'm not even going to start on that little corner of complete insanity.
Why does anyone enjoy World Cup soccer, which seems to be nothing more than twenty men running around fitfully, doing nothing productive and in fact doing the same thing over and over until several of their opponents screw up all at once? Or until one of their teammates can convincingly fake an injury? Why does anyone actually want to watch that? Why do billions of people care?
All I know is: I don't, and I can't wait for the fall.