Ever find yourself frustrated by the lack of scoring in a game? Ever struggle to share your joy of the game with American cohorts? Maybe this will help.
Prior to the Germans casting off their tradition of dourly efficient footy and gallivanting about like a coked-up Barcelona, none of the results from the first 3 days of World Cup soccer were particularly inspiring. I’m sure hordes of Americans tuning in to see what the fuss was about were turned off by scores like 1-1, 0-0, 1-0, and the uneven, nervy draw against England.
Major American sports are defined by a never-ending stream of recordable micro-events: balls and strikes, first downs, rebounds, completed passes, double plays, blocked shots, and so forth. Box scores for every sport regularly spawn additional columns to satisfy our stats- and fantasy-obsessed fans. From this perspective, watching soccer can seem boring or frustrating – without a bunch of tangible events to track in-game, how can we even be sure something is happening?
I used to think about the sport this way, too. Scoreless soccer felt like watching a chef chop vegetables but failing to prepare a dish. Then, one day, a British announcer tossed off a phrase commonly used across the pond but totally unknown to me over here and everything changed. I was watching Liverpool dominate possession of the ball against Sunderland, but every time Liverpool advanced into or near the penalty area, they were turned away by the defense. I felt frustrated at the inability of the attackers to deliver a finishing blow (or even get off a good shot) until the commentator said something to the effect of, “Liverpool continue to ask questions of the defense, and each time Sunderland produces an answer.”
Maybe that doesn’t seem like much of a “wow” moment, but my brain started doing that thing where it goes tingly and spacey. All this time I’d been thinking of soccer like an American sport, awaiting numeric events to be recorded and using that to judge what made a good or bad game. But that’s exactly the wrong way to watch it. Soccer’s about attackers asking questions and defenses providing answers (and occasionally failing to answer). Instead of basketball or American football, soccer has more in common with:
1) An epic martial arts battle. Who doesn’t enjoy watching two opponents poking and prodding each other’s defenses, seeking an opening to deliver a strike? Watching a good soccer defense frustrate and foil attackers is like watching a young Jackie Chan deflecting blow after blow from an increasingly angry foe.
Each attempted punch or kick asks a question of Chan’s defense, and whenever he fails to answer correctly, he takes one in the grill. It’s fun to watch (fake) punches connect, but it’s just as exhilarating to watch him repeatedly repel the advances of his opponents. The same can be said of well-constructed soccer defenses that consistently have answers for questions posed by the attack.
2) A cinematic cross-examination. Come on, everybody loves a good legal showdown onscreen, especially a cross-examination. A Few Good Men is corny as hell, but the final courtroom climax is juicy and satisfying melodrama.
Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee jabs at Nicholsen’s Col. Jessup futilely, unable to find a crack in his armor until he senses the weak spot – Jessup’s god complex. Each failure by Kaffee is as compelling as his ultimate success because it’s just as fun to watch Jessup swat him away. That’s great defense.
When you think about soccer as questions and answers, every move forward becomes a clause, adding to an increasingly threatening query. Will the defense cut off the line of questioning or be stunned by the wordplay? Is the defense happy to allow the offense to talk and talk and talk, letting the blowhards waste energy and then pouncing when they’re out of breath? Or do defenders try to deny their enemies the floor, preferring to control an interrogation of their own?
The ‘Asking Questions’ frame makes the game about process rather than results. The outcome matters, but how you get there, the way you asked and responded, is equally critical. If you’re lucky, you find yourself surfing the transfer of energy, of confidence, of control, between the two sides. You’re completely in the moment.
This means a 0-0 game can be a blast, but it doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as bad soccer. When both teams are afraid to ask questions, it gets boring fast. Law and Order becomes Small Claims Court, and even the people in the room start dozing off. Cowardly play drives viewers mad, which is why soccer fans spend as much time debating the style their team ought to play as much as what the results of their season mean. When a team like Spain plays The Beautiful Game, it’s like writing brilliant prose with the ball, daring to put themselves out there with every turn of phrase as they ask big questions about life, the universe, and everything. Sometimes they might ask stupid questions, and sometimes opponents have plenty of answers. But at least they’re asking. And sometimes they raise a question so profound the whole world hears it.
I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to look at soccer that help people detach from the tyranny of recordable events, but the Q&A was the one that did it for me. Once I started looking at the game this way, the viewing experience immediately and radically improved.
Can watching the game through a slightly different lens really transform the soccer experience that much? You bet. And as always, we have only to turn to Luke Skywalker for proof. From the time he started whining to Obi-Wan on Tatooine, all he wanted to do was hook up with Princess Leia. Even after he blew up the Death Star, he never took his eyes off the prize. And when he finally got a smooch on Hoth, Luke gloated like the cockiest anus in the galaxy.
Then he found out she was his sister.
Everything depends on how you look at it. Right, Luke?
I know what questions I’d like her to answer. ..Wait, she’s what now?