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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finally discovered why I haven't ever watched an entire game of soccer... and why I won't ever again.

I was all set to steam-clean the carpets at our old apartment today in preparation for our vacate date. Luckily for me, I stopped off at the front desk to get the official forms for my wife to sign. "All you have to do is vacuum the floors, clean the counters, and all that" said the secretary, but I had to verify. "You mean you don't want us to deep clean the carpets?" She waved me off. "Oh no honey, they'll do all that before we rent it out again." I look down at the official checklist and sure enough, deep-clean the carpets fell into the category of "Please do not." The wife had already vacuumed the floors last week. I wasn't going to mow the lawn in the wasp-infested 94 degrees of Carolina heat, at least not if we weren't looking to get rain in the early evening. What was there left to do?

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.


Jerry Hinnen said...

Good heavens, John. "Why does anyone enjoy World Cup soccer?" I could try to explain, but I get the feeling you're going for a rhetorical question there. I'm not one of those obnoxious soccer snobs who thinks that anyone who doesn't enjoy soccer is a backwards rube--it's not everyone's cup of tea, I can dig that--but I'm stunned you feel so disappointed in your one (one!) attempt at watching the sport that you're willing to not only dismiss it entirely but imply that something's wrong with the billions of people who enjoy it. I know you're plenty aware enough to know that a huge proportion of those billions would look at their first Auburn football game--with its 30 minutes of action interrupted by 2:30 of standing around, its heavy-handed, mystifying rulebook legislating the game within an inch of its life, its stop-start rhythms and automated coach-driven play--and wonder why the hell anyone could stand to watch it. You'd dismiss that reaction as naive, silly, provincial, and you'd be entirely right. But what about this response to soccer is any different?

When people don't like a particular kind of food, they don't blame the food and say "Man, why does anyone like sweet potatoes?" I'll never understand why even the very brightest of sports fans can't respond the same way when confronted with a sport they don't like.

Katie said...

I agree! I can get behind a good game of American Football even though it isn't my game of choice, or even basketball. But between this World Cup and the last one I have watched no more than an hour or so of MANY games.

The one thing I can say for it is besides the olympics, it's a sport played against the World and a way to root for your country against another country in sport.

Auburnfan said...

Came Through war blog eagle. Just an FYI regarding "soccer players whimpering on the turf following a solid kick to the protected shin via a legal tackle. " -

Although I agree playacting is the worst thing about soccer/football, you have to remember that many players have ended up with broken shins after tackles even though they were "protected" by shin guards.
Apart from that bit, how would football rate against soccer if every TD just yielded 1 point and not 6 as they are given right now? There would be a lot of 2-0 or 3-1 scores in football too.
Lack of goals is not a case for the game being boring.
Regarding the notable examples of soccer tactics - that was the first time when Rightbacks and Leftbacks were thought as attacking options. Rarely did these players would cross the half line until that point. Its akin to when someone finally decided to use the "forward pass" in American football.

Grotus' Acorn said...

@ Jerry

Nothing meant personally towards soccer fans, honest.

But I really have a very difficult time understanding this sport. I don't think it's my relative ignorance as to the sport itself. I put a good amount of effort into trying to see what was there and I just didn't find anything.

Take the reverse case as proof: were I a soccer fan who had never known the game of football, it wouldn't take much poking around before I realized that football is a complex game, and fertile ground for a variety of strategies, player types and skill sets. I might not understand the sport readily, and I might find the learning curve to be a barrier, but at least I could easily realize that there was meat on that bone.

But soccer is different from football. Modern soccer is so dependent on substitution and fluidity that it is a disadvantage for players to have widely divergent skill sets or body types. And there is basically only one strategy - kick the ball around until you have the opportunity to score. I did try to watch other games. The basic format doesn't change even when more exciting teams are on the field. They just kick it around until some opportunity opens up. If soccer players designed passing plays, for instance, there would be no shallow cross, no play action, no smash or four-verticals. The play would be "all receivers run around until someone gets open." The most stunning examples of tactics I found were either overwhelming the other team with talent and numbers, or things I could have figured out with friends in the backyard myself.

So whereas the soccer fan learning football finds an entire world of strategies, the football fan learning soccer finds little-to-nothing. There ain't no meat on that bone. (To be fair, I probably would not have been a football fan had I lived in the leather-helmet pre-forward-pass era. Not much meat on that bone, either.)

I guess it boils down to this: high-level soccer is a game of waiting. Waiting for penalties, waiting for opportunities, waiting for the other team to make a mistake. And while the soccer players wait, so do I. And while I wait, I sit and watch grown men run around, passing ball to one another, kicking it aimlessly out of the field, falling down on the ground due to real or feigned injury... Do you see what I mean? In order for me to get any benefit out of watching a soccer game, I have to sit there, watching nothing happen until something does, and I just don't understand why people want to wait around like that.

And even then, you're essentially waiting for some hapless defender to fail. Modern soccer defenses seem to be very good at limiting offensive opportunities, so if everyone does their job, the offense has nowhere to go. And when a goal is scored, it's because a defender did not do his job. Not because he was outschemed. Not because of some mismatch. Just because he sucked. Just because he let it happen.

That's the picture of high-level soccer that I've gotten from this world cup: you sit around for hours and wait for a talented athlete to fail his country. This is unlike any other sport, and yes, I have to wonder: why do people want to watch that?

Imagine if football was the same play run over and over until a defender lapsed in concentration. I wouldn't be a football fan.

Grotus' Acorn said...

@ Auburnfan

Welcome to Grotus' Acorn, sorry that what brought you here is the soccer hatin'.

Still, I'm not buying it regarding playacting. Overwhelmingly, it's only playacting, and the player pops right back up. Kind of like how the kickers in football are usually pretty good actors. Imagine an entire football team of kickers.

And while I agree that if touchdowns were worth 1 (and field goals worth 0?) football scores would be lower. But that isn't the point. Football games show measurable progress, even when there is no scoring. Soccer games' only progress is scoring. And when the latter happens so infrequently, games progress very slowly or even not at all. And that, to me, is boring.

And that last example... you really mean to tell me that for a long time, players would just stand around when it was perfectly legal for them to help in the attack? And someone had to figure that out? I just don't know what to say.