Why Soccer? -And How Soccer is Like Boxing- A Letter to American Sports Fans

[ This article is meant to balance my other recent soccer article: “Why Americans Don’t Embrace Soccer” ]

Soccer is called “the beautiful game” and “the simplest game” and reminds me of what boxing, my other favorite sport, has been callled: “the sweet science of bruising”. In fact, soccer and boxing have a lot in common and are both starkly different from what are often considered the major professional sports in the United States: (American) football, basketball, baseball, hockey, golf, and tennis, in that order. Boxing was for much of the 20th Century the most popular spectator sport in America. Soccer has never been, but is by far and away the most popular spectator sport in the world, and its profile in the United States is finally growing. As it should.

What soccer and boxing have in common for spectators is that they are tension sports. The other sports that are popular in America are sports with a constant ebb and flow, back and forth, with goals or scores or points occurring on a frequent or at least fairly regular basis. In soccer and boxing the “play” is more abstract, more art — more in the build-up than the punctuation, but with the potential for a sudden goal (or a knockout blow) at any moment. These sports are like comedy in that way, but more intense — a build up of expectant tension followed by abrupt emotional release. Soccer and boxing often kindle frenzied extremes of spectator emotion that other sports rarely approach.

I use boxing as an example of similarity because it is a quintessentially American sport, although a declining one, and because soccer is said to be too different from traditionally American sports to appeal to American sports fans. How can that be? Goals in soccer are very much equivalent to knockdown blows in boxing — most fights will only have one or two, many fights won’t even have any, but they could potentially come at any time, and when they come they are like bolts of lightning that open everything in the contest up. When a man fights with all his heart for thirty minutes and then suddenly gets smashed to the ground by a fist, it reveals something inside of him, something of his character or even his soul. Whether he is crushed, whether he stands up unconscious but still swinging, whether he finds inner reservoirs of strength that allow him to rise stronger and more determined than before. Something about the puncher is also revealed. So it is in soccer too, with goals. A team fights with everything they have for 90 minutes, and suddenly their opponents break them down and score a goal. What happens next is a human play, and if the emotions in these sports function along the lines of comedy, the stories are purely drama. Drama, in the best sense of the word. Drama exists in soccer, as in boxing, in a deeper way than is found in most other sports.

How the audience reacts to the emotional intensity of the sport is also a big part of the drama. Somehow soccer incites audience emotions even more than boxing, perhaps because it is easier to deeply identify yourself with a team or organization than a particular man. The stakes are raised to a higher level when your ego becomes invested in what is happening on the field.

Boxing was always among the premier American sports during the 20th Century, but has now long been in decline. Perhaps it has become a sport, too, as soccer supposedly is, that does not appeal to American audiences? But I think not. Rather, boxing’s gradual and ongoing decline can be attributed to the fact that contemporary broadcasters do not understand how to portray it on television. This is also one of the reasons why soccer has failed to really blossom in the United States as a spectator sport.  The way one should broadcast sports filled with emotional tension and anticipation, like soccer and boxing, is completely different than the way sports like baseball, (American) football, and basketball need to be broadcast. Yet for decades broadcasters in the United States have used those three team sports as the model for every other kind of sports broadcasting. I can only presume this is because broadcast professionals have been taught to do it that way when they are in sports broadcasting school.

Baseball, (American) football, and (to a lesser degree) basketball all have frequent periods where there is no real potential for anything dramatic to happen. They are not sports of constant tension. They are not sports where the game can suddenly be decided in an unexpected moment. In American football there are set plays with constant breaks in between them, teams shuffling on and off the field and reorganizing, etc. In baseball, the play is never continuous for more than 10 or 15 seconds, in between which is empty time. In basketball there is a constant back and forth between the two teams, scoring one, two, or three points at a time in a gradual accrual that will eventually add up to something in the neighborhood of 100 pts per team at the end of the game. In all of these sports the broadcaster can add value to the experience by “commentating” with interesting trivia and anecdotes. In a tension sport, by contrast, interrupting the ongoing drama of the event, the continuous build up of emotional pressure, the anticipation of what could happen at any moment — destroys the enjoyability of the event as a spectator sport.

If you watch broadcasts of boxing from the 1950s and 1960s, when it was the top spectator sport in the United States, you will observe that the announcers do one thing and one thing only: call the fight. They don’t constantly interrupt it, they don’t continually distract viewers from the drama and disrupt the build-up of tension, they describe the action that is happening in a simple and straightforward way, as if it is important (!), and allow the audience to enjoy the spectacle as if they were there. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, broadcasters in the United States began to attempt more and more to broadcast boxing in the same way they were having success broadcasting sports like baseball and (American) football, constantly interrupting the fight with mindless natter, and then acting surprised whenever their talking points were interrupted by something happening in the ring (like one of the fighters getting his head punched in), to the effect of: “Oh, oh, something happened! Something actually happened! He got hit with a big right hand and it looks like he’s hurt!”

Because of the younger broadcasters’ lack of insight into what made the sport of boxing interesting and exciting to watch, boxing broadcasts became more and more boring, up until the point where today, even for a huge boxing fan like myself who has watched many hundreds of hours of fights, television broadcasts of the sport are almost unwatchable. Not surprisingly, then, U.S. broadcasters draw no new fans to the sport and have been driving existing ones away for 30+ years.

The same thing applies with soccer, and it is why many veteran soccer fans try to avoid watching American broadcasts of their sport. Soccer matches don’t really have any downtime — for 45 minutes, on either side of the half-time break, there is continuous play. When broadcasters constantly interrupt the flow of the play with their trivia and anecdotes, as U.S. trained broadcasters invariably do, it is exactly that: an interruption. They distract from the drama of the event and send an implicit message that even they themselves don’t find it to be particularly interesting. This is why U.S. television companies have had to bring in foreign hosts and commentators in order to make their soccer broadcasts start to be successful. Broadcasters trained in a tradition of soccer broadcasting understand that the thing they are broadcasting — the play itself, as it is happening on the field — is intrinsically interesting and exciting. In fact, as mentioned above, if a soccer match is allowed to unfold as the drama that it is — if not constantly interrupted and distracted from — it has the capacity to build to an emotional crescendo among spectators that is unparalleled in sporting events.

We can argue with considerable justification that soccer is the most emotionally intense spectator sport in the world (judging from the riots, violence, and tears of pure joy that regularly accompany professional soccer matches around the world), but soccer is also, concretely, the sport in the world with the most depth. Soccer is the sport that draws and has drawn from the largest and most diverse pool of talent. In fact, no other sport in the world even approaches it. Many more brilliant minds and bodies have devoted themselves to developing and perfecting the sport of soccer than any other athletic competition in human history. Today, the best professional soccer leagues are filled with players not only from all of Europe and Latin America, but from every area of the world and with every imaginable background — from African players who kicked the ball barefoot as children in a dirt street and have made the one in a million (literally) rise to the top, to European players who grew up from the earliest age playing in elite clubs with world class trainers and facilities (such as Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, where some of their best players have been developed, and where, like most ‘football’ clubs outside of the United States, training is free for any child talented enough to be accepted onto the program). There are many dozens of professional soccer leagues in the world, hundreds of individual professional teams that have a history dating back 100 years or more, and a wide variety of large inter-league and international tournaments. All of them playing the same game to the same set of rules.

To compare soccer to any other sport often becomes like comparing New York City to Buffalo.

But leaving aside how popular soccer is, how huge of an enterprise it is, how much history it has, the depth of the pool of talent — leaving those things aside and considering only its intrinsic qualities as a sport, how does soccer compare?

As a sport, strictly considering the game in itself, soccer is the best team sport in the world. This, of course, is the reason why it is and has been so overwhelmingly popular around the world. In fact, it is such a great sport that even in the United States soccer has for many years been among the most played team sports among both children and adults.

[ There is actually a lot of love for soccer in the United States, which calls into question the need for this essay in the first place, but there is also a virulent strain of soccer hate among traditional American sports fans that demands responding to. ]

Soccer (like boxing, incidentally) is a sport in which a wide variety of physical body types can be successful. Being very tall, or being huge, or being small, doesn’t offer any particular advantages in soccer. Height tends to be an advantage, up to a point, so that the average height in a professional team is usually around 6′, yet many of the very best players in history have been short (e.g. Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi). The short players are not limited to any particular niche position, and neither are the tall players, in fact both can be found in every area of the soccer field at the top professional level. And it isn’t only with height, but with body type generally that soccer has no particular preference. Maradona was a short, stocky man. Johan Cruyff (another of history’s greatest players) was tall and thin. Pele was built like a natural born athlete and it was said that he could have excelled at any sport. Being naturally athletic, being quick and fast and strong, is a huge advantage in soccer, as it should be, but there is so much depth to the sport, so many different ways to succeed, that players do not have to be natural born athletes to rise to the game’s highest level.

There are two main reasons why soccer players of diverse physical type can find success even at the very highest levels: 1) soccer is a sport in which skill and intelligence play an ACTUALLY dominant role in success on the field, so that if you develop a very high level of skill and also play the game very smartly it is still possible to best opponents who have significant physical advantages over you (i.e. who are faster, quicker, stronger, etc). 2) soccer is such a finely balanced sport that most physical qualities have significant tradeoffs; being short, for example, gives you the advantage of having a lower center of gravity which allows you to make quicker feints and changes of direction, but also limits your potential in physical contests for the ball (such as headers in the box).

What this physical diversity means for the sport is not abstract, not simply an idealistic quality that is ‘cool’. What it means is that soccer can draw from a much deeper pool of talent than sports like basketball and (American) football, where having a particular body type is an overwhelming advantage in the competition. Few professional basketball players are shorter than 6’3”, but 98% of the adult male population of the United States is. That means that the sport of basketball is, in fact, drawing from a very shallow pool of athletic talent. Similarly, in (American) football a man cannot be successful unless he is thickly and strongly built, like a tank. Very tall men and men who are built like tanks can and do find success in professional soccer, but so do men of virtually every other physical variety. That includes the people of “normal” build who make up the broad majority of the human population and where, therefore, the most raw athletic talent and ingenuity is to be found. And drawing from a deeper pool of talent ultimately results in a more interesting and more highly developed competition.

The deep pool of talent that soccer draws from then has every opportunity to flourish, because, as a sport, soccer combines all of the best qualities of athletic competition into one comprehensive game. Few, if any, other sports do this so well. Competing on the soccer field is a test of both speed and endurance. Sprinting fast makes you a better player, but so does being able to run for a long time — you have to do both. Sudden, explosive athletic effort can win you the game, but so can grueling, blood and guts displays of hard graft for 90 minutes. Soccer requires and rewards both strength and finesse. Challenging for the ball is an intense physical contest often while running at high speed and often resulting in physical injury, but controlling the ball requires deft touch and fine motor control. When shooting on goal, a thundering strike has a much better chance of beating the goalkeeper than a shot that is merely “hard”, but the harder you kick the ball the more you give up control over its accuracy and risk missing the target completely. A ball floated cleverly into the net where the goalkeeper cannot reach it can be just as brilliant as a ball smashed past the goalkeeper faster than he/she can react, so that power and control are equally important and an extreme display of either one can win you the game. Soccer rewards being able to leap like a high jumper, run like a track star, cut and juke like an (American) football player, jockey with your opponents physically for space like a basketball player, strike a ball accurately and with power like a baseball player — the graceful footwork of a dancer, the reflexes of a fighter, and the guts of a marathon runner. It’s a comprehensive athletic contest in which there are many possible paths to victory.

But even while soccer is a comprehensive athletic contest, it is also a competition that rewards skill and creativity most of all. This not only makes it a deeper and more interesting competition than many other sports, it also makes it less susceptible to doping. Doping is a plague that infects the whole body of professional sports, and whose solution seems to be a very long way off. While doping certainly occurs in professional soccer, there is considerable anecdotal evidence to indicate that (like with boxing again, actually) doping is less pervasive in professional soccer than in many other sports. The reason for this is that while soccer has the same prohibitions and tests against doping as most other professional sports, doping provides less relative benefit to soccer players. Undoubtedly doping provides an advantage, which is why it is banned, but in a sport where skill and creativity are of ultimate importance, the benefits to be gained from doping are more marginal than most. Being able to run 5% faster, or 10% farther, might have made Zinedine Zidane (another of soccer’s greatest legends) a slightly better player, but it would not have made him a dramatically better one. Being a soccer player is more like being an (American) football quarterback in that way: skill, technique, and game intelligence are the ultimate limits on how good you can be, much more so than simple physical prowess. Physical prowess plays its part in soccer players’ success, often a large part, but it is not a trump card.

A top sprinter or cyclist who doesn’t dope has no chance of victory at the highest levels. For a top baseball player or (American) football player this is also largely true. In soccer, it is not true — doping provides only a marginal benefit, such that athletes who are not doping still have a fighting chance at achieving the highest levels of success.

When the sport that we in the United States call soccer was first codified ~150 years ago, it was a synthesis of dozens of similar ball games that involved kicking, carrying, and otherwise manipulating a ball into some kind of goal area. The men who codified the rules tried to distill, out of everything else, the “simplest game” and a game in which skill, finesse, and creativity were more important than brute physical dominance. Those who disagreed at the time and wanted a more brutal, purely physical set of rules created rugby. And other men, drawing from the same traditions but having settled in different parts of the globe, created American football, Canadian football, and Australian rules football. Of all these forms of sport, which each grew up from the exact same roots, soccer (simply ‘football’ as it is known in most of the world) was the only one that had a viral, infectious quality, spreading quickly to virtually all peoples in every corner of the globe.

Why do people love soccer? Because it is the closest thing in the world to a combination of sprinting and dancing and chess. It is the only team sport that becomes a form of creative expression, with each individual player making their own unique contribution to the game, for better or worse, both acting on and reacting to the other players on the field. When played to a high level, soccer is both beautiful and sublime, and becomes a kind of art. The soccer player, never stopping, never taking a break, for 45 minutes at a time, enters an altered mental state in which all that exists is the ball, and the other players, and the field — the now, and action. The soccer player exists in this special world not alone, but with a band of brothers or sisters, his/her art and drama unfold within an intimate social landscape, against a band of rivals. A soccer match sits at the social crossroads of human ingenuity, grace, and physical power. It is sport most pure. It is the sport. It is the world’s sport, and America deserves to have it too.