The real football

6 August 2014 13:34 

This is about  the other game, the one that does not have a 100% injury rate and leaves a considerable portion of its players with lifelong, debilitating injuries, or otherwise forces players to retire early because of concussions. In my days of watching football, both Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers and Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys ended their careers early due to head injuries. Indeed, the label football is really a misnomer: except for the placed kicks (kick off, extra point, and field goal) and the punt, there’s not much interaction between a player’s foot and the ball. Taking a cue from how other sports are named,  perhaps a better name would be Tackle Ball or Gridiron Ball or Princeton Ball.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup hosted by Brazil ended a few weeks ago. I watched about six games, most in their entirety – by far the most soccer I had ever watched. I saw Germany annihilate Brazil, and then the Dutch beat Brazil for third place, then watched the final, when Germany defeated Argentina. A lot of the finer points of the game were lost on me – I never played organized soccer, and the only games I attended were those of friends at the local public high school, although I was there mostly to talk to the girls watching the game. For years, whenever there was a soccer related question during the Britannia Arms Pub trivia night, the only team I could ever think of was Manchester United. I had no strong opinion about the sport, and uninteresting were the characterizations of the sport as the thin wedge of European socialism or the sport known for its voting demographics  – soccer moms.

But watching the World Cup gave me a new appreciation for the sport. To be sure the enjoyment was due in part to the environment and atmosphere: being surrounded by soccer fans, and walking around the small streets of our village, hearing a collective yell from separate homes whenever France was playing. Moreover, I decided that anyone who watches football, baseball, or basketball, can appreciate a soccer game.

American football fans must understand that every soccer player is a quarterback – scanning the field while scrambling with the ball, evaluating, sorting, dodging, sifting, deciding within seconds what to do. Every player is a wide receiver, going long and fast, trying to get away from the defender and get to the ball coming his way. Every player is a running back, moving the ball through a pack of opponents. Every player is a line backer and a free safety.

Basketball fans must appreciate all the running that is done – an average player during the World Cup ran over six miles per game. By comparison, basketball players run 2.9 miles per game, and football players, depending on their position, might reach 1.9 miles per game. Like basketball, soccer has the fast break, the give and go, and setting a pick (i.e. screening). There’s also the dreaded two defending against three, and the jump ball, although clearly soccer’s jump ball, with multiple players angling to head the ball, is by far much more interesting and exciting than basketball’s rather bland one on one jump ball. Finally, both sports share players whose superior awareness results in amazing passes to teammates, which can be just as stunning as scoring a basket or goal.

Baseball fans, accustomed to all that inactivity and standing around (the players run about a half a mile per game) will find watching soccer rather exhausting. But there are two aspects to soccer that baseball fans can appreciate. The first is the duel: any good pitcher to batter match up resembles soccer’s tense goalie shoot out. It’s one against the other, the odds usually favoring one, requiring on both sides a combination of talent, skill, experience, and luck. The other aspect that baseball fans can appreciate is the soccer fan’s religious and undying devotion to his team, the pilgrimages to the home stadium and the crusades of away games, the holy and healing relics of caps and jerseys and pins, and other paraphernalia.

Soccer players tend to look more like the average population: they weigh less than 250lbs, there are no oversized steroid heads, and most are less than seven feet tall. They appear fit, not grotesque (as in distorted), especially when compared to a football lineman, who might be optimized for his sport, but is not necessarily healthy. A professional American football offensive lineman weighs 300 lbs. and can run a 40 yard dash in 4.8 seconds – an impressive feat, but chances are that lineman’s natural weight is closer to 250lbs and chances are also that later in life, but still at a relatively young age, he will have health problems.

Sports have often been practiced as a preparation for military service and war. The ancient Olympic pentathlon (long jump, javelin, discus, wrestling, and running) was the basis for the modern pentathlon (swimming, running, fencing, shooting, and horse back riding) – skills needed for warfare during those respective times. As West Point Superintendent (1919 – 1922) Douglas MacArthur, a great fan of American football, had these words inscribed over the doors to the gymnasium:

Upon the fields of friendly strife
Are sown the seeds
That, upon other fields, on other days
Will bear the fruits of victory

Many years ago I read a book about squash, whose introduction stated that success in squash, like a battle, depended upon mobility and firepower. At the World Cup there were no javelins or horses, but there was certainly plenty of mobility, pincer movements, feints, and firepower.

Baseball is clearly a peacetime game. Still, not to be too hard on the game, as National Public Radio’s venerable Scott Simon recently related here, baseball pitchers are cut from a different bolt of cloth: they can throw the ball at high speeds one hundred times per game over something the size of a dinner plate, all from sixty feet away. And watching the athleticism of a shortstop is always enjoyable.

Of course soccer and the business around it are not perfect: when money and egos are involved, there will be ugliness just as American sports have strikes, wealthy team owners wanting taxpayers to build their stadiums, and other assorted pettiness. Moreover, always absurd are the dramatics of the soccer players, whether it’s ear biting or the academy award winning acting of a faked foul.

Soccer, like affordable health care, is something foreign and suspect in the United States.

Yet the game has attractions that the other sports lack.  The clock almost never stops and there are no interminable timeouts and commercial breaks. No team, at any time, in any sport, has had a name as fierce and funny as Arsenal – it has military overtones yet also contains the word ‘arse’. Finally, none have anything to compare to the neurotic, commanding, fast twitch, courageous, and last line of defense – the goalie. Preferred are foreign language words for this position, which capture better the essence of the player: the French call him le gardien and the Germans der Tormann.

Side bar: Rugby

A few months ago I went to a rugby game in Toulon. Rugby, which I always considered an Anglo, not Gaullic, sport, is very popular in this part of France, and the reason is the local team, the Rugby Club de Toulon (RCT), has won the French championship four times and in recent years been the runner-up for the European Cup. I did not see the RCT play, but instead some version of European club rugby: the French Navy Team against an English Merchant Marine Team. It was my first and last rugby game – I found it to be a bit of smear the queer meets the Rockettes, with some cheerleading gymnastics thrown in.

The most impressive aspect of the game is the running drop kick, but otherwise the game is simply a series of individual and group maulings, with the occasional chorus line-up of players across the field who, in a move reminiscent of a line of dancers performing the same move one after the other, lateral the ball to each other, which then ends on the far side of the field with yet another mauling. Even more peculiar is a throw in from out of bounds: as the ball thrower looks for an open teammate,  the players on both teams lift and throw one of their fellow players in the air, not unlike something a college cheerleading team would do, except these guys aren’t wearing skirts. It was a surprisingly dainty maneuver for such a bloody sport.

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  1. It’s been quite a while since I heard someone mention “smear the queer.” It may be the first time I’ve ever seen it in writing. As a kid, on the playing field near Toronto, we played our own version known as “British Bulldog.” I forget the actual objective of the game, but I do remember the maulings…

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