By Jon Jordan
At the beginning of his excellent book about soccer, The Language of the Game, Laurent Dubois dedicates it “to all those who love soccer, and to those who don’t but love someone who does.”
That dedication works well for this short essay about the beautiful game, too, with one addition: I also write in hopes that some of you might become numbered among “those who love soccer.”
I write in this hope because I am convinced that learning to enjoy — or at least tolerate — the beautiful game is good for your soul.
Two caveats are in order before I sing two specific praises of the beautiful game in support of this premise.
Soccer is not immune to the very worst that professional and youth sports bring out in a society. There are overpaid divas in soccer, as in any professional sport. And the recent scandal within the U.S. Men’s National Team serves as a stark reminder that almost criminal snowplow parenting is alive and well in the world of youth sports.
Like all sports, soccer has its well-documented ills. The dives and flops — especially in professional men’s soccer — rival those of the NBA. Though it is being phased out, advertisements for sports betting companies are plastered on many teams’ kits across the world. (That’s right: soccer players wear kits, not jerseys.) And it is hard to find a more embarrassingly corrupt global sports organization than FIFA (the International Association Football Federation). Video Assisted Review, once touted as a solution to the human subjectivity of offsides and penalty calls, has proven to be just as troublesome.
But most of these ills are tied to soccer as a money machine, not soccer as a sport.
Soccer is — along with running — perhaps the most catholic of all sports. America may have its self-proclaimed World Series and NBA World Champions, but the World Cup truly is a world cup. Learning to love soccer is learning to love a sport that most people alive also love.
This is in large part due to soccer’s smooth entry ramp. Do you want to play some soccer? All you need is a ball — or something that will work in place of a ball, and a goal — or something that can be considered a goal. It helps if you have a handful of friends who also want to play.
These things first drew me to soccer roughly 15 years ago. But as my enjoyment of soccer — watching, following, playing, and coaching — increased, I have come to see two specific qualities of the game that, though subtle, are worth praising.
So here are two praises of the beautiful game that I hope you will consider: soccer is a compelling icon of virtue ethics, and soccer helps in the formation of patience.
An Icon of Virtue Ethics
Consider the gameplay of American Football, at the highest level. An offensive coordinator sitting in a booth high above the field calls a play down to another coach, who relays it to the quarterback, who relays it to the rest of his team in a huddle that occurs every 60 seconds or so.
As players hear the call, they break the huddle and run to their respective positions. The play call communicated something different to each of them. The receivers were told what route to run. The linemen were told which direction to turn and how to block once the play begins. The quarterback was told which receivers to consider passing to, and in what order.
American Football is a sport in which coaches micromanage athletes every single minute of the game. The athletes are only trained to think through their acute situation as it pertains to the current play at hand.
Even the audible, wherein the quarterback changes the play based on what he sees in the defensive formation, is simply the calling of another play; a different set of specific micro-instructions that each player has memorized or printed on a wristband.
American football certainly involves physical prowess and great skill at all positions, but it leaves little room for the formation of creative actors that can adapt on the fly. American Football is, in a sense, an icon of situational ethics.
Soccer, on the other hand, requires the development of individual skill and creativity on the practice field, and relies on the communal performance of that creativity for a sustained period of 90 minutes with shockingly little coaching along the way.
In practice, coaches focus on footwork, endurance, and training their players for situational awareness. They are taught to receive an incoming pass already knowing where their opponent is and where their teammates might be headed. There are no plays, strictly speaking. Multiple players separated by dozens of yards must creatively play together without verbal communication in order for there to even be a chance to score.
This only works when — through endless repetition on the practice field — the language of the game has become second nature. If players do not have the right instincts engrained into their collective bones, they cannot play the game the way it is meant to be played.
Soccer is an icon of virtue ethics, and as such it is a form of leisure that points us to what it means to be a moral creature.
Formation of Patience
The rules of soccer — or Association Football, as it is most officially known — are designed to make scoring a goal impossible. Foremost among these rules is the confusion-inducing offsides rule that prevents a team from passing the ball forward to a player unless there are at least two defenders between the offensive player receiving the pass and the goal at the time the pass was made. (If you join Ted Lasso in being confused about this rule in action, you are not alone!)
Confusion aside, this is as far as I am aware entirely unique to soccer. In other sports, an offensive player running beyond the defense in order to receive a forward pass is the entire point of offensive ball movement.
Not so in soccer. A forward player must time his run perfectly in order to be both behind the defensive line when the ball is passed forward and then beyond the defense by the time he receives the ball. Even then, he still has at least the goalie — the only player on the pitch allowed to use his hands — and the goal to reckon with.
In his excellent review of The Language of the Game, Alan Jacobs says it well:
The true fan delights in players who have not just the physical gifts but also the imagination to circumvent the rules that seem designed specifically to prevent scoring.
The goals are few and far between in the beautiful game, but this is a feature, not a bug. Watch more than a game or two in passing, and you will experience the patient joy of a game that ends in a score of 1-0.
Whether it is the popularity of shows like Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham, or the often-experienced “World Cup bump,” there is a noticeable increase in the attention given by Americans to soccer in the past year or so. Before becoming a season ticket member this year, I have attended one or two local FC Dallas soccer matches each of the past several years. This is the first season I can recall that nearly every match is sold out.
It could be that soccer is beginning to have its moment in the American sports mind. Consider this essay an attempt to sustain that moment.
Not all leisure activities are created equal. Especially when viewed with an eye towards these things, the leisurely enjoyment of soccer may just shape your soul for good.
I love people who love soccer. This is a nice try, but I fear I would still rather watch paint dry. But I’m a baseball fan, and there are people who can’t understand *that.*