What Makes Soccer Beautiful?
Whitehead and the World Cup
Now that the US has exited the World Cup and the tourney stands on the precipice of the final stage, we can pause to reflect for a moment on what lessons we’ve learned and what themes from process thought we can extract from the games. Soccer (the world’s football) is one of the global sports that all nations rally behind, but from the perspective of a nation predicated on high-scoring, fast-paced games like basketball and football, many Americans ask themselves what gives soccer such worldwide appeal?
As a western civilization classically steeped in materialism and substance metaphysics, the high-action, high-impact, hard-hitting elements of our staple sports can almost be considered an artifact of our cultural DNA. Let’s call this hard power.
By comparison, soccer encapsulates a more patient pace of play; the game is played for ninety minutes of running time and more-or-less continuous action. At the top level, players are expected to perform under dynamic circumstances for up to 120 minutes: progression of play is continuous and conditions are always changing on the field. Unlike in American football where there are discontinuities and resets of play every seven seconds or so, soccer is based on the collective regulation of a changing system trying to maintain multiparty composure: an integrated network of passing marked by individual acts of chivalry. Let’s characterize this as soft power.
Now, the usage of the terms soft and hard power certainly elicit a military connotation and this is not unintentional; indeed, only just recently in a blog post of his own, Andrew Bertoli— a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley researching nationalism and war—develops the positive correlation of how surges of nationalism from sporting events lead to conflict and examines whether the World Cup incites nationalism that encourages political leaders to behave more aggressively in the international arena.
Aside from the militaristic component, the basic thesis of this article is that the soft-power components of the game are more tailored towards a process mentality. Such a mindset is distinguished in soccer, lending itself to a more cooperative dynamic that unifies individual athleticism within the overarching choreography of an emergent network. This reinforces the notion of the team over the self. A team, after all, is an ecological organism. A fine example of this comes from the US v. Belgium game when Tim Howard’s stalwart goalkeeping broke a record but he still just spoke about the overall effort of the ten other players in front of him. Soccer, perhaps more than some other sports, emphasizes the mindset of a band of brothers, a solidarity of sisters. I would link hockey and rugby here as well. All of the most successful teams I’ve ever been a part of as a player or a coach have all shared the same basic elements: we were a cohesive unit both on and off the field, we all bought into the team, we had strong leadership with good integrity, and we played for each other.
On a practical level, process mentality teaches the importance of relational power and the virtue of embracing rather than hiding from enriching tensions. A great example of this was played out in the first round during the Germany v. Ghana game when in the middle of play a neo-nazi ran onto the field unrestrained and proceeded to parade around to the behest of exactly zero field officials. Instead, one of the Ghanese players calmly placed his arm around the man and eased him slowly off the field with the composure of a shepherd.
That said, like all human enterprises, soccer too has its fair share of corporate corruption by the governing body of FIFA as well as in the modern culture of the game itself. Both these issues need to be addressed. First off, the governing organization of soccer does little in the way of trying to help those countries who host the games. Instead FIFA profits a great deal off the games and keeps all moneys in private rainy day accounts even though they’re a not-for-profit organization. So much for the integrity of the administration.
The coaches, players, and referees also share in responsibility for allowing the culture of flopping to now permeate the game. The running joke has grown so ubiquitous that it has become a meme. Just yesterday NPR published a video about what it would be like if everyday people behaved like soccer floppers. This has led to many offshoot videos. If soccer wishes to regain its integrity it must deal with this culture of flopping and must make changes to discourage it. Without heavier sanctions the game loses honor in the eyes of all spectators and when you really admit it, even the coaches and players must lose a little part of themselves every time someone takes a dive.
We must at some point recognize that flopping for calls, even if it gains something in the short term, is nothing more than a pyrrhic victory and that ultimately the game doesn’t lie and justice plays out one way or another. We’ve seen this play out over this tournament and I’ve seen it play out in real life. The lesson is one whose theme is certainly overarching and speaks to an entire generation of people operating on principles of entitlement, be it in youth culture, capitalist culture, consumer culture, you name it…too many people feel the sense of entitlement to take something that isn’t theirs, be it a call, an insider stock, a higher profit in the name of economic principles, or what have you. The point is that as a society our playing field is no longer level and even on the soccer pitch we see this same reality play out every time a player takes a dive and steals from their fellow player what has not been earned. Even within competition we must have honor or else what are we competing for and what do we gain in the victory?
As we sit down to watch the grand finale tomorrow be sure to watch with a keen eye for the complex network of passes and layers of communication both on and off the ball that permeate the field. This is what makes soccer beautiful. In the same steed, also do not hesitate to admonish the dishonor of players who manipulate the principle of fair play as it occurs. That said, the teams that travel and travail all the way to the finals usually have gotten there because they pass the prior tests with sounding dignity in the first place. I trust we will see a hard fought battle and an honest match tomorrow and hope that we will celebrate the beautiful game together.