Why I watch soccer

The weekend beckons, so I thought I’d write something about the World Cup. At his personal blog, Jonathan Last links to a pretty apt take-down of soccer evangelists he wrote in 2002, when Americans were in the grip of another pseudo-World Cup craze.* I say ‘pseudo’ because despite its best efforts, the media-industrial complex is still unable to gin up genuine grassroots enthusiasm for American soccer. The only demographic the game appeals to consists of young, worldly, educated types – the kind who obsess over Belgian beer, listen to indie rock, and want to telegraph the fact that they’ve studied or traveled abroad and are therefore more sophisticated than the rubes who play Madden or obsess over Kobe’s jumper (damn – I think I’ve just described half of my social circle).

But despite the thoroughly artificial media blitz surrounding the World Cup and the obnoxious social signaling that goes into American soccer fandom, I’m really looking forward to the tournament. So I thought I’d take a stab at explaining how soccer differs from American sports and why I find its distinctiveness so enjoyable.

Lumping team sports together is a chancy business, but I think there is one important commonality between football, baseball and, to a lesser extent, basketball that distinguishes them from soccer. All three American sports are characterized by short, action-packed intervals followed or preceded by pauses – an inbounds pass that leads to an easy dunk; a pitch that results in a strike that ends an inning; an end-zone reception immediately following a thirty second pause. This is not to say there aren’t fluid sequences in American sports – witness fast-break basketball or baseball’s hallowed triple play. But American teams usually see action in short, frenetic bursts instead of the slower build-up of a good soccer match.

To an outsider, the notion that a two hour football game only consists of 11 minutes of televised action must seem absurd. At its best, however, the pauses accentuate tension and allow for more elaborate plays, more back-and-forth adjustments between the teams’ respective coaches, and a level of athletic execution that would be impossible in a less controlled, faster-paced environment. For the most part, this is a trade-off I can accept. To take another example from American sports, good pitching duels include plenty of pregnant pauses. I don’t think this detracts from the action so much as it heightens the tension of athletic competition.

Soccer has fewer pauses, fewer substitutions, and no timeouts. As a consequence, the manager (coach) has very little opportunity to pause or direct in-game play. Soccer also tends to be more spontaneous, more dynamic, and less scripted. While physical contact or bad execution will sometimes slow the game down to an unbearable pace, the rules of soccer allow for a level of fluidity that would be impossible in an American context (transition-oriented basketball is the only exception I can think of, but that’s  still broken up by frequent timeouts, inbound passes, and the tempo of the opposing team). The build-up to the first Dutch goal in the 1974 World Cup final is a classic example of soccer’s distinctive style – despite a slow start, the Dutch control the ball for over a minute before Johan Cruyf streaks through the defense to draw a penalty kick.

Maybe the contrast between the short, frenetic play of American athletes and the fluid build-up of a European soccer match offers some insight into our respective cultural psyches. But I suspect a more fluid style of play already appeals to American sports audiences. Fast-paced, transition-oriented basketball was the calling card of Magic Johnson and the Showtime-era Lakers. A quarterback-directed hurry-up offense is often the most exciting part of a football match. So if you like fast-paced team competition, give soccer a try. But if the World Cup isn’t your thing, I won’t hold it against you.

*For a very droll introduction to the World Cup qualifiers, see this N+1 primer.

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34 thoughts on “Why I watch soccer

  1. I’m not much of a soccer fan but i will watch some of the matches. I’ll admit the constant flow aspect is fun and interesting. I might add that a somewhat American sport, hockey, actually has a lot of that constant flow thing and continuous play.

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  2. Maybe it is the booze that makes watching soccer more enjoyable just as it makes listening to some jam band bearable.

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  3. Maybe I’m just a typical middle class white liberal but I love soccer. Whenever I watch Football I’m bored, baseball is dull, hockey is surreal, and basketball has sucked since they got rid of traveling.

    I thought I was one of those sensitive kids who didn’t like sports. The first time I saw an EPL game the scales fell form my eyes and I knew the glory of sport.

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    • @Rob, yes more thN right. At all game showings here in DC the audience is split by those global hipsters (US peeps with very limited soccer knowledge and ManU shirts), actual euros, and hispanics

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  4. Honestly I think what pisses people off globally at the US attitude towards the World Cup is that they don’t give a shit until the finals start. That is: Most everyone else in the world cares about the qualifying matches because they actually have tough regional tournaments to fight through. (The collective national agony that was the Agony of Doha still resonates deeply in Japanese people like me, for example)

    Americans on the whole take qualifying for granted and then suddenly start making noises like they care about the tournament when it’s a month before the finals begin. Honestly it’s partly because CONCACAF is a horrible confederation and the US and Mexico are basically assured of spots unless they send no one to the games, but this attitude of sports entitlement I think is a good reason why soccer scolds probably do have a point. Once you guys start caring about the qualifiers and maybe play against opponents who can actually beat you in the qualifying stages, we’ll take your enthusiasm seriously.

    Until then, I hope the US continually gets crushed in world cup competition.

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  5. I’d just add one thing as a young, poorly educated, and unworldly type- Soccer is the only sport that every single person of my generation participated in. This is not true of any of the big four sports in America. I think this enables people to engage as fans every four years. While I enjoy watching soccer, I am confident that it also has the largest disconnect between playing and watching. When I asked my girlfriend, who played ODP-quality soccer for 10 years, where she wanted to watch the soccer game saturday, she responded: “What soccer game?”

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  6. There’s a good deal more stop-and-start in hockey than soccer, but yeah basically it’s the same idea. But it doesn’t ruin your thesis because hockey is not an American sport by origin or even current primary source of interest. It’s probably one of soccer’s main rivals as the most international game (though of course soccer doesn’t really have any rivals in that category).

    So I do think there is something to your thesis. But I also think you overplay the extent to which basketball is not fluid. It’s really a pretty continuous game, isn’t it, albeit with much more scoring than soccer? One style/strategy of play does lead to frequent moments of physical calm, but in reality there’s still an entirely continuous flow of play going on the whole time. Play isn’t divided into “downs” or “deliveries” as in football or baseball. As you say, some soccer teams’ play style pulls their sport in a similar direction, though not as far.

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  7. You’ve exactly nailed it, and I think that’s also reflected in the relative popularity of the ‘Big 4’ American sports (if you count hockey, which I am, grudgingly). The most popular two are football and baseball, which have relatively the most pauses, then basketball, then hockey.

    A lot of it is definitely tied to the fact that soccer can end in a tie, but more important is the nonstop nature of it. It keeps going, but it also seems like nothing happens. Witness France-Uruguay yesterday, in which two teams played for an hour and a half, and the game ended in a 0-0 tie. To many, what’s the point?

    There’s no opportunity in soccer to savor a situation. It’s not only the ‘short bursts of action’, it’s appreciating what may or may not happen in just a few moments. 4th down, 1 yard to go, down by 3. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first, full count. And here’s the pitch…

    No suspense like that in soccer at all.

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    • @Graham J., Right. Also ther eis the matter of the unexciting scoring. If a team is down by a goal with just a little time left, then the stakes are pretty much either they lose or tie. At least in hockey, if the team ties it up they’re going to a long extra period, and then to a shootout in the NHL. And in basketball and football, depending on the specific deficit, if it is close usually all possible outcomes remain very much alive down to the very last seconds. With baseball, there’s no clock to run out – it’s just a matter of how long a team can keep their chance alive, and once again, scoring in multiples is possible so all the outcomes often remain viable down to the very end.

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        • @Simon K, Boegiboe below makes the point I was trying to in a different way that I think addresses your point. But even still I don’t think hockey and soccer are comparable (okay, comparable yes, but not nearly equal) in the role ties play in determining standings, and especially championships. If we take Nob’s point that the Cup is essentially analogous to a U.S. major sport’s post-season “playoffs,” then your hockey analogy doesn’t hold up. Stanley Cup playoff games (finals or otherwise) can’t end in a tie. Contrariwise, we’ve had three draws in the first six games of this Cup. The contrast is pretty clear. Also, scoring is more frequent in hockey, and the extra periods are greater by proportion to the regular playing time, so even in the regular season, the game is tilted far further against draws than is just about any soccer match. Doesn’t that seem fair?

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  8. Pingback: “Are You Ready For Some Futbol?!?” « Around The Sphere

  9. Pingback: Apple of Doubt : Soccer Season

  10. The problem Americans have with soccer is that the game, in general, cannot be won suddenly, at the end, by some decision by a coach during an advertizing break. Americans like to watch an exciting game, and then have the end be the most exciting part of the game. That rarely will happen in soccer. Real soccer fans will watch a few minutes of a game and be entertained, whether it’s at the end or at the beginning.
    I love soccer, as the only sport that ever suited me. I haven’t seen a game yet, but while the US tied the UK, I showed my little girl what few moves I have. And she loved em. The whole idea of soccer is the love of actually playing the game. That is fundamentally different from the fandom of all the other American sports (including hockey, over the past decade).

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  11. Shouldn’t soccer’s global acceptance make it LESS appealing to hipsters? Seems to me that since people play it everywhere and follow the same basic rules, it’s kind of the Olive Garden of athletics. If youy are into buying local and authentic culture or whatever, shouldn’t you prefer local niche sports like… American Football or Aussie Rules?

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  12. Americans like last second come backs, miracle plays, and underdog winning. Why get interested in a massive tournament when everyone knows that Brazil, France, England, Italy, or Germany is going to win it all in the long run.

    Americans like game-time situaitons. Look at the Arizona Cardinals versus the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs in 2009. Several tense game time situations versus soccer kicking the ball off each other and most scores looking more like mistakes instead of intentional.

    Also, if you watch the crowd reactions in soccer, the crowd is always appears detached from the play. Singing. blow horns, bang drums seems more important than paying attention to the play on the field.

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    • Your opinions about soccer seem unbelievable to me.

      Let me make an introduction first.

      I love sports. (Yes, American sports too). American Football is my second favourite sport (guess which one is the first). I follow MLB, NHL and NBA sometimes.

      But soccer for me is by far the most exciting sport in the World. I have to agree that the WC is probably where you watch the most boring soccer (weaker teams are always too defensive because they don’t to lose by many goals). Just try to compare with EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga and Champions League. Those leagues can blow your mind and are responsible for making soccer the most popular sport in the World. WC is great because any country can participate in it in spite of not having a good soccer league.

      Soccer is the most unpredictable (proved) sport in the world. So underdogs always surprise people like for example Uruguay in this WC. (It seems that your guesses weren’t right). Also miracle plays are very common. Yesterday a club in my country for example was winning 2-0 and in just ten minutes it started losing 2-3.

      And that comment about goals seeming mistakes than intentional is just ridiculous.

      So my advice is: You should all watch a good EPL match before talking about soccer.

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  13. “Also, I wonder about this:

    “‘But American teams usually see action in short, frenetic bursts instead of the slower build-up of a good soccer match.’

    I will admit that I don’t like soccer much. And I don’t understand it. That’s OK, and I don’t go around carping about how stupid it is. I don’t care if other people like it.

    But I do recall that i was in a bar when the US women won the world cup. I watched the game, completely mystified. And bored. Afterwards, a jubilant fan at the bar said, “That was the greatest soccer match I have ever seen.” He didn’t mean that he like just loved the result. The game itself, he said, was awesome.

    But there was no “slow build up” of tension, or a larger narrative. From what I could tell, the ball was in the middle 50 percent of the field for at least 90 percent of the game. Nobody ever seemed to even THREATEN to score. THere were no large swings in momentum, or great goalkeeping that kept it even. Just… soccer. Athletic! I couldn’t do it! But still, to claim that this was a long, slow arc towards a climactic conclusion seems a bit off to me.

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      • @Will,

        I wondered about that, too. It’s the only soccer match I ever watched from start to finish. But all the soccer people there ASSURED me it was an all-time great example of soccer at its finest.

        Since then, I have had this assessment repeated. When I ask for an example of a great match, they tell me to go watch that one.

        Perhaps I am talking to the wrong people. But everyone assures me it was awesome. And again, I admit that it might have been, and I simply don’t get it.

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        • @Sam M, If you’re talking to Americans, it’s very likely you’re just getting a reference to their best available soccer memory, it seems to me, even if they think they’re telling you about a truly great game. I do relate to your impression of the game, and I actually have a limited background in it myself. I think you have to watch for a while to begin to come to understand what a team that is playing well is doing that is worth appreciating. The individual successful strikes are too rare to discern what makes them successful, so it appears to be all about either luck or a breakdown of defense. I played in my youth but quit before I got to where they started to teach (or maybe I just didn’t progress that far). I don’t watch a whole lot except during the World Cup, though when it comes around, it gets my full attention usually. And I think I’m just beginning to be able to see how the interplay of attack and defense (on one side) works to define a successful strategy. You have to be watching with some knowledge of what else a team might have done either better or worse to create chances or repel attacks, whether in a given moment or over the course of a half, to evaluate the competition between the teams’ approaches. And for that you need to have watched at least few matches through. One thing you get when you do that is a sense of how managers adjust at half. Otherwise you’re right, it totally looks like they’re just kicking it around the midfield only for there suddenly to be a breakaway or a cross where someone gets free.

          But at the same time, frankly I don’t think it can be denied that there is fundamentally a great deal more randomness to the game than most favorite American sports. Just consider what a major part of baseball a pitcher’s “control” is, or how much sharpshooting guards (or forwards) can dominate a basketball game. I marvel at how off-target strikers at the highest level of soccer can compared to even college quarterbacks or jump-shooters. I’m not sure if that’s a hand/foot thing or what.

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