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:
@johntdrake It's an interesting sport. I think we're just used to higher scoring games?
— Meggan Scavio (@megganpez) June 17, 2014
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.
I’m not going to try to connect this to American consumer culture, because that would be too easy: American television marketing marginalized and culturally denecessitated soccer because it’s hard to fit commercial breaks into a game with non-stop play. Baseball, meanwhile, is a game with tobacco-chew-breaks invisibly baked into its design document.
No, instead of being a jerk and trying to indicate with philosophy the phantom stink of greed for instant gratification that lurks over American opinions of soccer as “boring”, I’ll try to speak as a game designer on why low-scoring games are more interesting.
The short version: every time a goal happens in soccer, millions of people tweet about it. That sure doesn't happen with every point in basketball or every touchdown in football (just some of them).
The User Experience
Now imagine soccer from one player’s first-person perspective.
Soccer for an individual player is about what you can see and when you can see it—much like a good competitive first-person shooter. Moving your gaze from one portion of topography to another constitutes a risk. Unlike, say, tennis, it’s not always your business as an individual soccer player to have your eye on the ball. Your relationship with the ball is at times psychic. You can feel where the ball is as you perceive player formations shift. Your relationship with other players is equally psychic, even when it is directly physical: other players can be anywhere that you cannot see. Other players can be anywhere except where you are, and they probably aren’t where you’re going to be before you can notice them. In soccer you’re bluffing even when you’re being honest, even when you’re not trying. Everyone on the pitch owns a deep concern with the thoughts and perceptivenesses of every other player on the pitch, even when they don’t place that concern in the front of their brain.
In a modern competitive first-person shooter, you whip your mouse left, right, up, and down to move your player’s gaze. You play levels over and over to master their geometry. You move constantly, at a high speed, devising what you hope to be a better racetrack within the level’s topography than the majority of your opponents perceive. Fancy Military Graphics aside, this is actually a more abstract battlefield skirmish representation than soccer is. I’m not trying to disparage FPSes—they’re interesting, enthralling entertainments, though they’re more about fast-twitch psychology than endurance psychology.
Competitive real-time strategy gamers talk a lot about controlling space. I remember when “controlling space” was a buzzword. Now it’s essential vocabulary. If you’ve ever watched League of Legends and found the presentation befuddling, watch soccer for an instantly accessible lesson in space control.
Space control is easy to understand in soccer because the game has one ball. Both teams want that ball. Each team wants to possess that ball, keep it away from the possession of the other team, and put the ball into the other team’s goal. When one team has the ball, and the other team intercepts a pass, watch the way their entire team slides into a different formation to account for the opponents’ different formation. The offensive team is building a pathway for transporting the ball from one place to another. The defensive team is building a gauntlet for preventing the ball from getting to another place. Maybe the teams’ estimations of one another’s short-term goals or immediate-term goals don’t match up: and how could they? This is a game where players can be almost anywhere on the pitch at any given second, where a player with the ball can put that ball almost anywhere else on the pitch on an instant’s notice.
I’d been in London for not even a week in 2001. I’d sat in three pubs where a soccer game was on the television. Mostly I was talking to friends. The cheers of the pub crowd added flavor to my young, international travel experience. In a few weeks, I was alone in an Indian restaurant with a soccer game on the television. I finished reading a book (this is what we did before we had smartphones), and turned my attention to the television. I gave soccer an honest, squinting evaluation. In not 10 seconds I understood it as a beautiful game design, as much checkers as it was chess, as much Counter-Strike as it was Warcraft II. The secret ingredient was the specter of psychological sophistication: any 10-second snippet of play is what a triple-A game-industry producer would call a “vertical slice:" the whole game is happening and permuting inside every sliver of action, whether someone scored a goal in the last twenty minutes or not. If basketball is a blog or a Twitter feed, soccer is classical literature.
The televised presentation of the sport may help you understand this. My first experience with the game as an object of beauty had been with a broadcast that had no commentary. I could only hear the sounds of the crowd and the field. I was left to understand the rules of the game for myself. Its ancient roots imprinted themselves on my brain. Here was a game that was every culture and no culture.
I was watching one team—I’m sorry if I can’t remember what the teams were—maintain control of the ball on their opponents’ side of the field. I knew nothing of the formal rules of the game. At first it confused me that the keepers’ shirts didn’t perfectly match the colors of either team’s shirts. I knew that the keepers had to belong to either team. In three seconds it was abundantly clear which particular team was trying to put the ball into the goal, and which particular team was trying to stop them. The defensive team obtained the ball for a few seconds every minute, only to have the other team thwart them, and maintain possession of the ball. If you’re a soccer fan, please don’t hate me for my lack of jargon. I honestly knew none of the deeper concepts of the game. The beautiful part is that I didn’t have to. I was able to look at the game in its natural state of professional play and understand that one team was doing well, and that the other team was struggling.
The score was 0 - 0. It stayed that way for the duration of my meal. I didn’t get bored. I started watching soccer.
Watching soccer on television is fantastic, for the most part. Common sense birthed the best possible camera angles for the majority of broadcast purposes: the camera sits above the field, so that you view it in a three-quarters perspective. You can watch a whole game from this angle. You can see things the players can’t. You can see them making psychic committee decisions in real time. You can see the ball even when some players aren’t looking at it. You can see movements coming, and feel smart when they come as you predicted. It’s a pseudo-interactive experience to watch. Also, the play never stops for more than five seconds, to allow someone to throw the ball in from out of bounds or to kick a penalty kick. You know that a referee is adding up the lost seconds, to tack them onto the clock at the end of the game. You can relax and enjoy an uninterrupted stream of a game being played. It’s the best kind of fishbowl: the kind you can stare at between pages of a book, or whenever you hear the crowd start to get excited. You look at the screen for ten seconds, you make a Football Coach Sound, and then maybe look away.
If you look at the television presentation of American football, for example, you’ll see that a large number of new presentation techniques have made their way into the game over the past decades. They have fancy cameras, and some beer company or another sponsors those cameras and gets their logo on the screen while you’re seeing what’s happening from that camera. They put a helicopter-drone camera over the shoulder of a quarterback while he throws a pass. They’ve allowed the bombastic presentation techniques of virtual football simulation games such as Madden to inform the way they present the game on television. Some of the results are wonderful. Many of those techniques wouldn’t translate to soccer: the field is too big, the players are in too many different places, and too many of the players are centrally important to the nebulous idea ("excitement") of whatever the heck is about to happen on the field (possibly, "the unexpected").
Electronic Arts’ FIFA games tried for many years to present a virtual soccer that was more exciting than televised soccer. Meanwhile, Konami’s Winning Eleven / Pro Evolution Soccer series stuck close to the plainest presentation formats of televised soccer. Eventually, EA’s FIFA evolved to resemble Pro Evolution Soccer, favoring a bland, television-faithful camera angle.
That camera angle is no secret; it’s no Big Idea. It is nature: it’s the best way to look at soccer. Since offense and defense change so freely, you can’t have an over-the-shoulder camera angle. That would be disorienting. The common angle allows some perspective distortion to the farther long side of the field, though since the height of a soccer ball’s flight is important information for a spectator, we can’t have a camera angle that looks down dead-on at the field. The game must communicate height and depth in three dimensions.
The camera moves to keep the ball in the center of the screen. If the players are near the goal, the goal is against one side of the screen. If the ball is in the midfield and players are moving it toward the goal to the right, and a majority of players of importance are in position to the right, the camera might allow the ball to rest closer to the left edge of the frame than the middle. If televised soccer were a video game, scripting its camera movements would be painless compared to, say, any 3D action video game.
The Act Of Watching It
As with any great sport, watching televised soccer imparts game-playing-like frictions onto the spectator's brain. It's like you're watching Jeopardy! by yourself, and not yelling out the answers: "Oh hey I knew they were going to get the ball back." Except unlike some slower sports, you're not even thinking in words. You're thinking in ideas and shapes. This is how a game attracts billions of fans: on the entry level, watching it is like playing a mobile puzzle game: "I bet that player is going to go over there—oh, maybe not. I bet that player is going to go right there—hey, yeah. Oh that player definitely isn't going to score."
You need only look at the action for thirty seconds at a time. Any thirty-second vertical slice of soccer will do—especially one during which no one scores a goal. During this time, maybe some players make a pathway to transport the ball, and others make a pathway to threaten the transportation of the ball. By observing a few flicks of the ball (some bigger than others) in one direction or another, and a few movements of players (some quicker than others) here and there, by attempting to predict who's going to pass to whom or who is going to interrupt what plan, your brain experiences approximately the same massage it gets from a minute of a game like Bejeweled.
I don’t want to dwell on this: soccer fans are sports fans. It is modern human nature that sports fans want to drink alcohol while watching sports. This has something to do with marketing.
Here’s a wild theory: many people who watch sports understand the rules of the sport they enjoy watching. Many people who watch sports have tried to play that sport in the past. I personally am no NBA player, though I can shoot a couple of three-pointers if I’m all by myself on a court. I know how hard of a thing it is to do with the sun in my eyes. It must be exponentially harder with thousands of screaming fans and a couple angry defenders.
Maybe most people watching soccer have engaged with the mechanical act of putting their foot to a soccer ball. They’re familiar with the thump of shoe against ball. They can see the mess of strategies that fractal-flower out of each newborn second of the game, and this relative high output of complexity from simplicity breaks mortal brains. It must be so tiring to be a die-hard fan of one particular soccer team! No wonder the stereotypes call them drunks: why wouldn’t you want to be drunk? I don’t drink, myself, though even I’m inclined to understand the appeal in the case of viewing a hot soccer rivalry.
Of some notoriety is the violence and anger or petty hatefulness of the unhappy or happy soccer fan. They are like internet trolls, only worse, because you can see them on the street and know exactly what is wrong with them: their team lost, so now they’re going to Be This Way.
The complexity-birthing simplicity of the game appeals to a broad spectrum of spectators, who catch the fever of upsetness upon a loss, and catch the fever of jerkish triumph upon a victory.
Are soccer trolls meaner or worse than trolls of any, say, American sport? I’m not saying that. I’m saying there are more soccer troll fans than there are fans, period, of any American sport. I mean this as a compliment: the game is beautiful enough, and each individual goal is such a big event, and scores are so close, that everyone knows what is at stake, and everyone feels responsible in some part for the outcome of every match. The better the game, the more it upsets its fans. A truly beautiful game has limitless potential for upsetting its fans in a multitude of directions upon any outcome.
The simplicity of soccer, of course, also means that fans have all the more reason to get upset about narrow victories resulting from penalty kicks resulting from officials conceding to a player's exaggerated "injury" (more on this later).
It’s obvious that not all soccer fans fit into the Loud, Drunk, or Violent category. Given the abundance of tens of millions of players and fans, if you want a quiet, serious, scholarly conversation about strategy, or about historical rivalries between teams, you won’t have to search too long.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the soccer community is something I touched on when discussing the rules of the game: the game is scalable down to a portable size. You can enjoy it in a park with a small group of friends, while sacrificing only the strategic depth you’d need to be a professional player to understand, anyway. You can play it on some meaningful level with anybody: the only equipment you need is a ball. This low barrier to entry is an advantage it has over all the well-designed team sports—basketball requires a fancy goal; football requires people unafraid of being hurt. You can play hockey in a field, though you’ll at least need sticks and a ball. Ice hockey is clearly the superior hockey variant, anyway, and it requires a wheelbarrow-train’s-worth of paraphernalia: skates, pads, an ice rink, a puck, helmets. If soccer is cocaine, hockey is heroin.
In summary: anyone can play soccer almost anywhere. It is the most portable and flexible sport.
And it’s because of this that soccer is the monarch of all sports: anyone can play it almost anywhere, and a majority of devout spectators have probably played it recently as an adult social activity.
In soccer, the spectators are players, both figuratively and literally.
The benchmark for sports graphics remains ice hockey—fast-moving players, detailed body armor, imaginative sticks, shiny Plexiglas walls, and textured ice whose blooming whiteness lends ethereality to the players.
Soccer is not immediately as graphically impressive a sport as football, with its creative camerawork, or baseball, with its unique field layout and architecturally interesting stadiums, or basketball, with its close camera angle, detailed players, and deliciously shiny, textured, wooden floorboards.
Soccer fields are plain and green. The camera is generally far from the field. The players sometimes appear tiny.
This is a sacrifice the developers make for usability purposes: it makes the game ultimately easy to watch. The developers of soccer place gameplay over graphics.
This, of course, does not mean that innovations don’t happen: you see, some players insist on removing their shirts and screaming whenever they score a goal, and television networks have close-up cameras ready to capture and display this.
What I’m saying is: soccer players generally have defined muscles. Muscles look good when they are shiny. Sweat makes muscles shiny. You can see sweaty muscles if a player scores a goal in soccer. Aficionados of instant gratification may not consider this a hardcore enough pornography, what with how infrequent goals are (an average of 2.48 per game between 2006 and 2007, for example). Anyone expecting more wet muscles is better off watching swimming—usually only on network television during the Summer Olympics every four years. By sheer persistence and bounty of games and teams, soccer wins in this regard.
Moreover, holy lord: look at a professional soccer player’s thighs and calves. Your typical soccer team has more definition than a dictionary.
Why, the muscle definition of soccer players is so legendary that this discussion pops up all over the American Internet every time there’s a World Cup. Right now there are so many lists of “hottest soccer players in the World Cup” that there are even lists of lists of the hottest soccer players in the World Cup. Soon we’ll have a list of best lists of lists of hottest soccer players in the World Cup.
As Jezebel’s list of lists subtly suggests (while cleverly being a list itself), all of the lists of hottest soccer players participating in the World Cup are wrong, because they don’t include Literally Every Player.
Here’s the secret: if you play soccer professionally, you’re going to look like a professional soccer player. Soccer is a strenuous sport: the play is non-stop, the field is long, and you’re constantly running and changing direction in a state of mental exhaustion. This is why soccer players are richer in muscle definition than, say, basketball players: in basketball the court is small, the play stops every three or four seconds, and substitutions are plenty.
What I’m saying is: soccer is The Paleo Diet of sports: just commit to the thing and do it, and there are your results.
Lately you can’t throw a half-eaten sack lunch in San Francisco without hitting someone who’s in the middle of listing their top ten favorite fitness app start-ups. These apps “gamify” fitness. They let you track your diet and activity. They spit out numbers. You go to the gym with a robot’s advice of exactly how many minutes you need to run at what speed to earn the right to eat some piece of food containing more than a specific number of calories. Then you hear people talking about how this makes fitness “fun”. I don’t know: maybe if you play soccer (or basketball?) with some friends, you’ll end up having fun and getting fit without having to look at your phone an extra five minutes a day.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that soccer is a good, pure game worthy of both spectating and dabbling. Now I’d like to tell you about some elements of it which suck.
Remember that the basic rules of the game are that one must not touch the ball with one’s hands, and that one must not touch a player on another team. The latter rule is where things get messy: we are all only human, and as humans, we must jostle one another when by some accident of strategy we occupy similar physical spaces. Referees are understanding and allowing of a degree of physical contact; however, when bodily harm via maliciousness enters the idea, the referee with call a foul. The right sorts of fouls can land a team a penalty kick—a free kick on the goal.
Let’s not dwell on what “the right sort of foul” might be: if a player falls onto the ground in pain, the referee might call a foul, and the player might earn allowance to a free kick.
It is not uncommon for players to “flop”: to exaggerate an impact with another player via a melodramatic performance that obtains a referee’s attention and sympathy. This is a big issue; this is a huge issue. This is an issue thousands of blogs talk about every ten minutes; millions of blogs talk about it every three seconds during The World Cup: Lying has become an essential part of professional soccer, and the skill of succeeding at a penalty kick has inflated in a manner which has unsettled, if not unbalanced, the game.
Bluffing in soccer is, in my game-designy opinion, not as cute a mechanic as bluffing in poker. In poker, the outcome of a hand relies on what players believe about each other. See, that’s fascinating. In soccer, it sometimes relies on what a third party believes about either one of the teams. Think about this for thirty more seconds, and maybe you can empathize with the more irate, shouting, drunk-in-the-streets fans on a night after a team loses to a penalty kick.
How can soccer patch this problem? Well, they can developer and implement near-weightless GSR sensors onto players’ bodies, to measure if they are actually experiencing a spike of pain at the time of a flop.
This, however, sounds like too much technology to me. If you try to add a rule like this, you’re going to force players to learn a new set of people-reading, psychology-altering skills. You’d change the game too much. You'd take away some of its beauty.
Another problem with soccer is that, while its play is nearly seamless, couldn’t it be more seamless? Various indoor soccer leagues feature walls which players can kick the ball off of. However, these walls are short enough that the ball often flies over them. Why can’t we have taller walls, made of Plexiglas to allow spectating around them? Why not play the game in a plastic bubble, so that no kick is ever out of bounds?
Why not have some fun with the level design, while we’re at it? Why not put a wall down the center line, with breaks only in a few places? Why not make a field like a horse racetrack, with goals at the top and the bottom, and a massive twenty-foot-high wall in between the two goals, which players must get around one way or another? We’ve got this perfect simple rule set: why not have more fun with it?
And also, while we’re at it, why not have a multi-ball soccer league? I’d watch a multi-ball World Cup, where each goal either team scores adds another ball to the field. How nuts would this be? It would be nutser than cricket.
This is just a tiny sample of the things running through my head when I designed VIDEOBALL, an electronic sport in which contact benefits the attacker (by stunning the opponent) in addition to being a risk (it divides the attacker's attention away from the ball), in which the (sometimes multiple) balls bounce off of the walls of the many stages of differing size and shape. VIDEOBALL is coming in summer 2014, and we hope that by summer 2015 people are already calling it "The World's Game".
I've refrained from mentioning any soccer teams or players by name in this writing. What's more important is pointing out that the history of this sport is a collaborative, centuries-spanning work of community art involving intelligence, instinct, athleticism, and collective billions of hours of conversation about strategy, in that we (viewers, players, dabblers, analysts) project our individualities onto its basic rules.
So what I'm saying is that the developers of soccer took a simple concept ("Get this one ball into the goal against the other team's opposition . . . without using your hands!") and executed it with admirable efficiency and marketing muscle.
Photo credits: All stills by Getty Images. Flop GIF via Tumblr.
Related: Football: The Kotaku Review