I don’t know the subtleties of the game, but I have learned quite a bit by watching it over the past couple of weeks while I’ve been in Mexico City.
Soccer is a game about struggle, not scoring. In fact, everything about the game is designed to prevent the ball from actually reaching the goal.
There’s the playing field, which is huge, roughly 1/3 larger than an American football field. Like baseball, a soccer field can vary in size from location to location, creating a home field advantage.
The goals, by comparison, are miniscule and are furiously guarded by a player who is given an advantage no one else on the field enjoys: he can use his hands.
The other players might as well be put in handcuffs. They can only kick the ball with their feet or smash it with their heads. Kicking the ball, of course, is all the more difficult because a player has to accomplish this while running full tilt, a fact that hinders accuracy. Heading the ball is even more problematic — as any pool player knows, when two spherical objects collide at an imprecise angle, chaos ensues.
Watching the game, you soon realize that the soccer ball continually crosses back and forth over the middle of the field, as though anchored by an invisible cord. It seems never to make any progress, but it is always on the move.
That’s because every player is on the offense all the time. Players run full out, sweating, panting, muscles straining, desperate for a chance to send the ball soaring down field. No sooner is it advanced towards one goal when an opposing player intercepts it and sends it flying back in the other direction.
This titanic struggle seems to go on forever until, by some miracle, a lone player manages to move the ball dangerously close to the opposing goal. The crowd roars in anticipation as the hero advances. He flicks the ball cross field to a waiting comrade, who makes a wild lunge and a desperate kick towards the goal. The crowd is delirious — but the ball goes wide.
Chastened, the players regroup, the ball is kicked back towards the center, and the struggle begins again.
It should be obvious now why soccer is so adored in Latin America: the game is a metaphor for the political history of Latin America.
Strong men gain and hold the goals, awarding themselves advantages guaranteed to frustrate the efforts of the players on the field. Great political movements rise and fall, sweeping the ball up and down the field of play in a heroic effort that changes little. Only with great luck, skill, deception and blinding speed can the opposition score. And once they have seized the advantage, the score will not likely change again for a very long time.
American football, on the other hand, is a metaphor for American politics. Two colossal squads of samurai warriors face off across the line of scrimmage, each determined to push the other in a direction it does not want to go.
American football, like its politics, is all about deception — hiding the ball, faking long, sleight of hand moves meant to create enough confusion in the defense to create an opening for a gain. In American politics, hiding the ball from the voters is as important as faking out the opposition.
American football is all about crowd-pleasing razzle-dazzle, mixing a run here, a pass there, a screen, a handoff — and when all else fails, you boot the ball long over the heads of your opponent and pray for a fumble.
In American football / politics, every play is carefully choreographed and every player’s moves are painstakingly charted and critiqued by the commentators in their boxes high above the stadium. The talking head factories are nearly as big a business as the game itself.
What drives both politics and football is putting points on the board, because American’s crave action. It’s also about putting on a really impressive show, with electronic scoreboards, beautiful cheerleaders, color commentators, half-time performances and billion-dollar television contracts. Oh, and let’s not forget the stars themselves, those highly-paid athletes who live like kings.
Like American politics, American football seems to have access to a bottomless well of money. Money rules the field of play, and both politics and football have unquestioningly accepted the principle that the game will always be better if you can drown it in more cash.
Perhaps I’m overstating things. Sometimes, I have to let the cynic have his say. Despite its flaws, I confess that I like both American football and politics. But I liked them both more when the games were simpler, purer, and more about the ideals of athletic competition than entertainment.
(To read my post on one of American football’s greatest athletes, see Johnny U.)
Photo credit: The 700 Level