Soccer is a twenty-two-player competitive ball game (CBG). Soccer has been in development for two thousand years. Soccer has been an Olympic event since 1900.
Soccer is such an old game that it has a "highest governing body". That governing body is FIFA—the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, which, as you can see, is both a federation and an Association. (That's a joke: the sport is called "Association Football". FIFA means "International Federation of Association Football".) FIFA was founded in 1904.
FIFA, like any of the United States' "major" leagues for sports such as American football, basketball, or baseball, oversees competition between a multitude of teams. Unlike American "major" leagues, FIFA operates across international borders. This has something to do with why everyone outside of the United States calls soccer "The World's Game".
Wikipedia says that over 250 million people play soccer in over 200 countries. One of those 200 countries is, in the most technical terms, the United States of America.
I'm a person who was born in the United States of America, so it's difficult for me to talk about soccer without arousing doubt about my expertise. Therefore, I'll speak as frankly and naively about soccer, as I understand it, for the duration of this writing.
It's no conspiracy theory that soccer isn't part of my birth nation's culture. In fact, this country's culture has marginalized soccer as an athletic activity for as long as I am capable of remembering. When I was in elementary school, my dad made me and my brothers play baseball. One of our neighbor kids was from India, and he was on the school's soccer team. My dad was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, so his vocal opinions always carried trained authority: "Soccer isn't a real sport. Baseball is for Real Men." This was among the first succinct (albeit biased) Game Reviews I ever comprehended: one particular game wasn't a real sport, ((maybe) because) another particular game was for Real Men.
I grew up appreciating baseball, basketball, and American football. It wasn't until I was in college, in the presence of many international students, that I took a serious look at soccer. I found it fascinating. When I graduated from college, I left the United States for ten years. During that time, I watched enough soccer to feel capable of saying I appreciate it as a game which is purer and cleaner in its design than the sports my birth country prefers.
So that's my perspective: I first approached and respected soccer as a critical adult, and found it worthy of both my respect and the title "The Beautiful Game".
However, as a gesture toward my American Military Family Catholic Upbringing in a house of baseball and football, I must call the sport "Soccer" for the duration of this . . . writtenthing.
For any not-United-States-of-Americans in the audience that this may annoy: I am sorry. When I talk about soccer to a British person, the British person understands what I am talking about. When you talk about football to me, I have a hunch that you're talking about soccer, though also a doubt that you might be talking about American football (unless you're calling it Association Football, a qualification some of you only make to me against begrudgment).
When I say "soccer" to you, you have no reason for doubt. This is one reason why I like the word "soccer". Another reason is the sticky hard "K" sound. What a poetly word! It feels as though ancient history itself invented it. Here is a word that is every language and no language: SOCCER. Imagine it with two Ks: SOKKER. Imagine it in old Sumer, with two Qs: "SOQQER". Imagine it emerging from the bearded lips of fur-clad nomadic hordes of an Imaginary Scandinavia: "SOGGER". What a word! It's no banal, dull, two-syllable compound meeting between "foot" and "ball".
"Soccer" is clearly the best name for a Beautiful Game. To say that "football" is the better name is to say that touching one's foot to the ball is the most important of the many physical, psychological, psychic, and magical interactions popcorn-popping about the pitch at any given millisecond, and that underestimation purloins metric tonnes of beauty from the game's history.
This is a one-sentence paragraph in which I avoid talking about why "football" is anything close to a good name for American football.
With that out of the way, let's talk about the rules of the game.
A brief internet search tells us that a soccer pitch (or “field”) is between a hundred and a hundred and thirty meters in length, and between fifty to a hundred meters in width. I promise I haven’t made any typographical errors yet in this paragraph. A soccer pitch is as long or as wide as it needs to be for the purposes of the organization making it.
Down the center of the pitch is a line dividing the pitch into two halves. In the middle of each half of the field is a goal.
Soccer is a single-ball game. The players on each team compete for the possession and attention of a single ball.
Players in soccer score points by putting the one ball into the opposing team’s goal.
A keeper (or, “goalie”) protects each team’s goal.
In addition to the keeper, a team has ten players. A team may have eleven players on the pitch at any given time — possibly swapping out a keeper for an additional player.
Players must avoid contact with players on the opposing team. Contact with another player can result in a penalty. For the sake of this impromptu rewriting of the soccer game design document, we’ll presume that all contact between players of opposing teams is illegal: imagine a soccer wherein players by some magical psychic force manage to never touch one another.
Only the keeper is allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Every other player on the field must use any part of their body other than their hands.
This is, as my friend and colleague Bennett Foddy puts it, "A clever inversion of human biology."
(You can see NYU's own Bennett Foddy and I have a friendly conversation in front of a live audience at Indiecade East in February of 2014, about which sports are the ten best-designed of all-time, right here. Spoiler: we put soccer first.)
We critics of games often say that less is more. We often say that sometimes restrictions birth innovation. Look at all the amazing things game developers did with simple sprites. Listen to the ingenuity of the early chiptunes. In much the same way, soccer is a game whose simple common-sense-inverting core mechanic has inspired countless emergent mechanical innovations: you can’t touch the ball with your hands. You can, however, touch it with your foot in about a billion and a half unique and important ways and your head in about six million important ways, and your chest in a couple hundred thousand interesting ways.
Wikipedia points out that, of FIFA soccer, “The Laws of the Game do not specify any player positions other than goalkeeper”, adding that “a number of specialised roles have evolved”. This point gives me free reign to exercise my naive impression of soccer team play. I’ll ignore the notion that “specialised roles have evolved”, because what I think is probably the most beautiful element of soccer is that these specialised roles emerged from what I can only deduce was common sense and genuine practical human athletic intelligence.
I said a little while ago that, in soccer, you can kick the ball in any of a billion and a half meaningful ways. My math might not be totally accurate. I hope my heart at least is in the right place.
You can kick the top or the bottom or the middle or the top-middle or the bottom-middle or the top-middle-right, with the ball of your foot or the tips of your toes or the outside of your foot or the inside of your foot. You can kick the ball along the ground or into the air. You can lob the ball or volley it or line-drive it. You can pass the ball to another player. You can shoot the ball toward the goal. You can shoot or pass or lob the ball to a location of your choosing, for retrieval either by a member of your team or a member of the opposing team.
For all its simplicity, tactical play of soccer is scarcely direct. Feinting and bluffing and roundabout dancing pass sequences are far more important than taking constant aggressive shots on the goal. Getting a ball past a keeper is difficult in itself. Getting a ball through, around, and past a fluid, improvised gauntlet of defensive opposing players and into a position from which it a shot on the goal is not a waste of time is a challenge of sometimes mind-blowing complexity.
I’ve said, previously, of American football, that the team on defense forms a “level design” for the offensive team to try to clear. That’s understating the importance of the offensive team’s own “level design” in putting forth an offensive maneuver that sufficiently befuddles the defense hard enough, long enough for the offense to accomplish a short-term goal.
Soccer, with its nonstop play (American football is a real-time / turn-based hybrid strategy game; soccer is a purely real-time action strategy game) and its lack of “specified positions”, is bigger and deeper in the ways its level design manifests itself. A defensive player must have a constant awareness of the locations of their fellow players. Each defensive player must have a clear up-to-the-millisecond judgment on the offensive team’s plan. Each offensive player must likewise know the positioning of all of their fellow players, and how this positioning will shift and adapt should the defense fluctuate in a less likely pattern (though never “unpredictable”, as soccer is a game about expecting the unexpected (soccer is a game where nothing is unexpected, and therefore many things are surprising)). Likewise, every player drawing breath on the pitch must have a laser-focused instinct of how to adapt to a sudden toggle between offense, defense, and the gray area in between. In each player’s mind at all points of a game is a plan for aiding their team in the scoring of a goal, a plan for aiding their team in the preventing of the other team from scoring, and the confidence to comprehend the priority levels, risks, and differences between those two tasks as they fluctuate from millisecond to millisecond. This is the broadest and purest view of the beautiful game.
Since thought experiments are more fun than big weird paragraphs with a lot of words, however, let’s consider the narrowest view:
The Core Mechanic
I’ve traveled to plenty of non-United-States-y countries. I left on a long period of traveling at age twenty-two. I’d only been traveling for a month before I noticed that kids on the streets in Europe and South America and Africa are only ever doing one thing with any regularity: they’re kicking a soccer ball.
Where I’d grown up, you passed a baseball back and forth, or you threw a football. If you were particularly weird and you had access to a blacktop and a brick wall, you might hit a tennis ball against that wall.
Throwing a baseball back and forth isn’t "playing baseball"—it’s practicing just one of the many mechanical oddities which, when you gather them into a messy clump, become the excellent, strange game of "baseball." Likewise, passing a football back and forth may bring one great pleasure and even an appreciation for the mechanical dexterity a quarterback’s profession requires, though seeing as just one person on the very large squad of a football team ever throws the ball, we can hardly say that passing a football is "playing football."
To kick a soccer ball in a friend’s direction, however, is playing soccer.
Many basketball courts exist outdoors in the United States. One-on-one basketball play has its own particular and interesting quirks. However, one player is always on the attack and one player is always on the defense. Players often await the other player’s mistake.
One-on-one soccer-ball-kicking is more readily a sport in itself. All players need is a ball and some space. You agree to two goals. You put the ball in the center of the field. You each run at it to kick it. Try to get it past the other player without using your hands, or without touching their body. You can play this game in a living room, an alleyway, a park, or a hallway. You can play it in a basement or on a roof. You can play it at any time of the day with any other opponent. You don’t need to set up goal posts. You and your opponent each embody an entire team and its keeper. Imagine this game in a racquetball court: let the ball bounce off the walls. Imagine it wherever you want to imagine it: you can’t touch the ball with your hands, and you’re trying to get it past a line behind your opponent. Imagine it with a heavier ball; imagine it with a lighter ball. What changes? Not much changes. You’re looking at your opponent. You’re trying to think like them. You’re trying to think like yourself. Your desire to think like yourself and your desire to think like your opponent are chess-wrestling in the dead center of your brain. The contest is tiny and beautiful.
Now add a second player to each team in whatever space you are imagining. Does this player stay to protect the goal, or are you the one protecting the goal? How do you coordinate with this person, without talking to them? You coordinate through action — through seeing and understanding one another’s actions.
I’ll spare you a history lesson on the origin and evolution of soccer. What do I know, anyway? I wasn’t there when the first Chinese or Hebrew people played the first game that sort of resembled soccer, with a ball made of a stuffed pig’s bladder or a cow stomach, or whatever. This is a simple game encoded into the nuances of our oldest animal rituals. Our ancient ancestors understood as well as we do that restriction yields innovation: they were as serious about the no-hands and no-contact rules as we are today. Soccer is an old artistic example that humans, by instinct, want to challenge the mechanics of their own biology.
You can add a third player, a fourth player, a fifth player—you can scale soccer up to unimaginable sizes. You could scale soccer to the size of a city. You needn’t even keep the pitch rectangular. You could make the center line a trench for players to jump over and kick the ball over. Could you do this with basketball, where we possess so much historical evidence about the distance from which the average skilled player can shoot a three-point shot? The basketball court is perfectly designed to give us three zones of equal size — home, away, and neutral—though players merely pass through the neutral area. In soccer, many interesting moments happen in the center of the pitch, as one team threatens to put the ball on their side of the field and the other team thwarts them. Soccer settled on eleven players per team because that’s an exciting number of people for a spectator to be able to keep track of. Basketball settled on five players per team because the game designer wanted to play the game indoors in an existing gymnasium. Basketball has agreed-upon player positions. Soccer doesn’t have agreed-upon player positions. A soccer team can focus on offense or defense; a soccer team can play fast or play slow. Soccer is like basketball, if basketball were about creativity.
Every time the World Cup comes around, I see and hear American Conversations like this:
First, an American says that they’re trying to get into the World Cup, and it’s not grabbing them. Then, another American steps in and offers that, maybe, we Americans are used to games where players score more points.