The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Sunday, 20 June 2010]

Soccer and the tyranny of the score

Nic explores why America’s attitude to soccer has a lot to do with the things wrong with America.

First, some background: I’m about as far from a sports dude as you can get. I will voluntarily watch the olympics (apart from curling and ice dancing) and the soccer World Cup and that’s it. Any other game will require a gun to the head.

Obviously, soccer has had a hard time raising interest in the States, but now that the U.S. is participating and has a decent chance of making something of it, Americans who’ve never cared about the game before are giving it a go. Which is great. Soccer, when played at world-class levels, is a sublime sport.

But from the chatter I’m seeing and hearing, the most common complaint is that the games are too low-scoring.

0-0? 1-2? What the hell? This is boring.

And sure, there are few goals in soccer when great teams are playing—they don’t let themselves get scored on. Goals come about from defensive screw-ups. A tight defense means you don’t suffer a goal from the other team. You want to see goals aplenty? Subject yourself to watching bush-league soccer and you’ll get your plenty of goals. But the teams in the World Cup are far too good for that.

Obsessing over the number of goals is a misunderstanding of the game: goals are few and far between, but that doesn’t matter because what you’re doing is watching the game unfold. It’s all about watching the players react in real-time to fluid situations and making non-stop tactical decisions, including attempts at goal.

What you pay attention to are the situations on the pitch. Even in a low-scoring game, there are tons of situations to watch and be carried away by.

The goals are cherries on top.

It’s easy to see why Americans not used to soccer fail to understand this. If you look at the typical American sports, especially baseball and football, they have two things in common: constant stop-start with measurable results, and micro-management.

No, no, bear with me.

Look at baseball: Each pitch is as a mini game of its own with a clearly defined beginning and end. The pitcher is told how to pitch. The runners are told when to stay and when to run. For all their physical skill, they are pawns for the coach, executing his tactics. And you know when each mini-game is over, since the players go back to staring into space and scratching their balls and the TV switches over to a commercial. Baseball—oh yes, and football—is a background sport where you can talk to your friends and drink a beer and be alerted whenever something’s actually happening. You are not encouraged to pay attention to the whole game. Although from the baseball I’ve seen on TV, you sure are encouraged to drink a lot of crappy beers.

Compare to soccer, where the coach of course has a plan and has drilled his players in how he wants them to perform, but when it comes to the actual game, the players don’t execute plays, they execute strategy. The coach can do little but yell while the players are on the field. Which means they are infinitely more autonomous than baseball or football players. Their plays are their own, and above all, soccer is designed to let those plays unfold in the time they need.

So when you watch a high-caliber soccer game, if you sit with your nose in your beer until you hear a whistle, you are missing the point of the game—which is what happens between goals during the play. Which is completely unpredictable. Which makes it compelling.

So if you want to watch a game where you can let your attention wander and know that you’ll be alerted whenever something happens that you should see, stick to baseball and football. If you want to watch a game where two teams fight it out on a pitch using only their wits and cunning, keep watching soccer.

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