There are oceans of content written about soccer every year, and I’ll admit that I’m a casual fan at best, but I was inspired by the recent World Cup to try to learn more about the game, so I’ve been reading “The Numbers Game” by Chris Anderson and David Sally (basically ‘Moneyball’ for soccer), and I can’t pass up the opportunity to discuss the oppressive effect that modern economics has had on the beautiful game. It comes out of a discussion about that age-old sports question: which is more important, offense or defense?
Not surprisingly, everyone has opinions- consider the opinion of Menotti, “a lifelong Communist who took charge of his national soccer side when the country was ruled by a brutal, right-wing military junta”(The Numbers Game, p. 113):
“[Menotti’s] message was simple: soccer is about scoring one, two or three more goals than the opposition. He was not interested in securing a lead and then shutting up shop. We have seen that the game, the modern game, is about balance. But to Menotti, there were no shades of gray. There was attacking, dazzling and exciting, and there was defending, cynical and miserable. There was light and there was dark.
“Menotti treated this as a difference in ideology. He spoke of ‘left-wing’ soccer and ‘right-wing’ soccer; to Menotti the Communist, Menotti the purist, the former was positive, marked by creativity and joy, while the latter was negative, fearful, defined by an obsession with results. ‘Right-wing soccer wants to suggest that life is struggle,’ he said. ‘It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method… obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players. That’s how they create… useful idiots that go with the system.” (Id., 113-114)
The authors of the book go on to do like economists and study whether Menotti is ‘right’ - whether a focus on offense over defense helps a team win more games. This, almost comically, misses the point. Menotti’s point, at least from the quote given, is not that a focus on offense wins more games - it’s that a focus on offense creates a more joyful game, a better game. In general, offense is active, defense is reactive. There are psychological reasons why we prefer to see creative offense, but there are also philosophical reasons to prefer it.
Capitalism Takes Hold
Elsewhere in The Numbers Game, the authors propose an explanation for the decline in goals scored across modern soccer leagues in modern times: “Players have improved as the game has matured: they run faster, they shoot harder, they dribble quicker and they pass more accurately. And as they have improved, so structures have been built to contain them. Those structures - offside traps, pressing, zonal marking, triangular passing - are the reason that goal scoring has largely withered on the vine. Tactics and strategies have become more complex, cutting off the supply of goals.” (Id., 78)
This is, as far as I can tell, a good explanation. But it’s not a complete explanation. Nobody likes watching, and few people like playing, defensive, reactionary games. Soccer teams do play a defensive, reactionary game- why? Because it’s more likely to produce wins. Why do they care so much about winning? Because in the modern economy, wins produce money, and lots of it. There is so much pressure on teams to win that the cold logic of game theory requires them to play an uglier game that’s less fun to play and less fun to watch.
And they all play it that way. The authors elsewhere show how, despite superficial differences in style of play, and despite the reputations of certain countries to play more open, exciting soccer, everyone has really closed things down. The market won’t allow for anything less. As Eduardo Galeano, another soccer writer put it: “These are days of obligatory uniformity. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes: in this end-of-century world, whoever doesn’t die of hunger dies of boredom.” (Id.)
It’s the same logic that makes Hollywood churn out formulaic movies. The same logic that makes TV studios produce countless hours of trash. And, at a broader level, it’s the same logic that pushes corporations to minimize opportunities for creative, fulfilling jobs and maximize spots on the assembly line. We either serve the dollar, sacrificing joy and spontaneity in order to be a better cog, and end up dying of boredom, or we refuse, live life on our own terms, and, unless we luck out and become a rock star, die of starvation. Or at least we get pushed farther and farther in that direction until we eventually give in.
Ways to Play
The point isn’t that something is wrong with soccer. Soccer is a great sport, and is beautiful in ways that other sports aren’t. Talk to any soccer fan, and it’s immediately apparent - they still love soccer for the flashes of brilliant creativity that still occur in most matches. The distance between them only serves to make them stand out more in relief, diamonds in the muck. We can’t take it for granted, however, that that will always be the case. As the authors point out repeatedly, because offense is favored at a psychological level, it’s importance in contributing to victory is still overvalued. This is why strikers get the big money, just for one example. As advanced metrics and statistical sophistication take hold, therefor, it’s possible that defense will get even better. Soccer might turn even more towards being a game in which you play not to lose, where you just try not to make mistakes and take advantage of any mistake your opponent makes. Don’t take any chances, don’t try to create anything, just don’t screw up.
Soccer reflects the new world order more than other sports because it’s so well loved in its current form by purists who don’t want it to change. Whereas other sports would have altered their rules to make the game more exciting, soccer’s fans won’t allow that. What needs to happen in order for soccer to be even more beautiful? We would need a less capitalistic world. A world where people care less about winning and the bottom line and more about the way that the game is played. If fortunes weren’t won and lost from the outcome of every match, teams would feel more free to play openly. Consider the NBA’s regular season, in which the games don’t matter as much as the playoffs, the best teams often don’t play as hard on defense as they’re capable of. The reason? Playing defense is a grind, tough on body and mind alike. It takes more energy than playing offense, which is why we’re always hearing about ‘wearing down the defense’, especially in the NFL. And, moreover, defense isn’t fun.
The NBA is a good example here. What’s the best way to play defense in basketball, if the only rule was whoever scores most wins? It would be to have your tallest player stand in front of the rim for the entire game and block every shot the other team threw up. The NBA realized that that would be a boring, dispiriting game to watch, so they made rules about goaltending, and the defensive three second violation, and a number of other changes to encourage a beautiful game. Soccer hasn’t adapted - it’s allowed the equivalent of goaltending to be legal, thwarting almost every offensive opportunity that arises. Because the defenses work, teams all use them.
But there’s something broader here than just picking on defensiveness. Think back to your childhood. If you played any sports, then chances are at some point your coach told you that it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game. This should be true, but it’s not… at least, not in capitalism. How many athletes say ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to win’? Or ‘winning is everything’. Or the even more obnoxious, ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’? This is taken for granted now in professional sports, and applauded by the media and fans. We need to start noticing, and applauding, how the game is played. There are ways that sports can be played that are truly beautiful, and deserve our respect, whether they’re strategies that win or lose. And there are beautiful ways to play defense: the grit and determination it takes are particularly inspiring.
Sports can be played with dignity, humility, creativity and teamwork: values that can inspire their audiences. Or, they can be played with cold cynicism and concern for the bottom line. And what comes from that single-minded obsession? Trying to injure opponents. Flopping on the ground, trying to draw fouls. Icing the kicker before an important field goal. There can be kinds of beauty in many games. But not when they’re played like that.
Right Ways to Play
by Douglas Payn
August 26, 2014
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