Friday, July 19, 2019

I Want To Like Soccer

I want to like soccer.

Like most of my generation, I played soccer as a kid (for far longer than Little League or any other sport). I like its international character, especially how even relatively obscure teams always seem to have a few players from some random nation halfway across the world. I like how every country has approximately twenty six leagues, and I like the promotion/relegation system where entire teams can move to more or less prestigious leagues based on their performance. Wikipedia tells me there is a Bethesda Athletic FC the plays in some fifth-level league in Wales, and I'd love a jersey from them (for those of you who don't know, I grew up in Bethesda -- Maryland, not Wales).

But my goodness is the sport boring to watch.

I don't know how people do it. Occasionally, I can get into a match when there's some serious big-game atmosphere. And I appreciate the World Cup as another opportunity to apply my Olympics-rooting-rules (in essence: always root for formerly colonized nations to crush their erstwhile colonial overlords). When Team USA performs well, or there's some other good narrative (I'm a sucker for underdog tales) I can enjoy the story.

Yet by and large, it's just not that interesting a sport to watch. Nothing happens -- nothing even really threatens to happen -- for 95% of the time. The most common "action" is players faking injuries. Fans are so starved for action that they roar in anticipation if the ball even arcs towards the net.

As a spectator sport, I just don't get it.

1 comment:

Harlequin said...

Nothing happens -- nothing even really threatens to happen -- for 95% of the time.

That's interesting to me, because it's not at all how I experience watching a soccer game.
At any moment, there are a number of choices that the player with the ball can make. Usually most of them are very difficult (a pass that has to fit a very narrow alley between two players; a shot that has maybe 6" between the post and the reach of the goalie) and most of them are limited-time because everyone is always moving in response to the play. So the fun part is seeing all those options, seeing which the players try, hoping they're gonna work, knowing that any really excellent play can be a goal just like that. There are definitely extended bits of nothing, too--when the goalie's just kicking a ball around in the box and everyone's in the other half, for example--but the amount of dead time compared to the amount of potentially interesting time is a way lower fraction in soccer than it is in American football or baseball, for me.

Like--okay, take this Megan Rapinoe goal against France. The video starts out with a couple of US players in traffic on the near side of the field. As they move, and the ball moves, every other player on the field moves--so I'm watching where the French defenders go and what choices they make, trying to predict what plays the Americans will make next. The French players outnumber the US players but one of them makes a mistake. If you watch the French player who is trailing the American player in the middle of the field (#3, Mewis, though it's hard to see that clearly until the end), she sees Morgan #13 start to dribble towards the center of the field, and she drifts towards the sideline to block her, even though there are like 5 French players over there already. And then Morgan actually passes it up the field to Heath #17, ahead of most of the defenders. So as a spectator I'm watching the defender who was on Rapinoe have to move to the center to cover Mewis, because her teammate did something stupid, and that leaves Rapinoe free on the far side. Now I'm watching Heath, who looks like she can maybe outrun the defender, and thinking: what choice will she make? She has a path to the goal, she's got Mewis running in the middle, and Rapinoe clear on the far side--but you wouldn't necessarily expect Rapinoe to be open, and it's hard to get a ball clear across the field, so you don't know if Heath will find her with a pass. And then Heath does try it--even though it's maybe the 3rd most obvious thing she could do--and Rapinoe comes charging in and scores. All of that was set up by the defender's mistake back when Morgan had the ball. And yeah, that was only like 8 seconds before the goal: but almost anything in the attacking half can turn into a goal in 8 seconds, so you watch all of it and try to see the options as the players do. There were probably 20 similar plays just in that half of the game that didn't turn into a goal, but they were all *potentially* just as dangerous as the one that did.

I think soccer's popular for a couple of reasons. While you obviously have to be ridiculously athletic, it's more forgiving of different body types than many sports are. And it's low-scoring enough that it's often difficult to predict who will win any individual match, more than in some higher-scoring games where there's less statistical noise. The fact that the players are creating strategy right on the field, rather than having a coach guide them through every play like football, is also a lot of fun. (The one thing you really miss watching soccer on TV is that the players are yelling to each other all the time, helping each other make decisions. You can hear it sometimes if the mics are sensitive enough.)

Anyway--what I really enjoy watching is the moment-by-moment decision making. But that does require a lot of watching or playing in order to figure out.