The Art of Sport

Soccer (or football) is the most popular sport in the world today; likewise, with over 700 million viewers, the 4-yearly FIFA World Cup is the most watched event in human history. Why is this so? Is it mere chance — a matter of circumstance — that soccer has so clearly and definitively wooed more devotees than any other sport? I think not. Team sports are an approximation of military battle. All such sports endeavour to foster the same strategies that can be used effectively in traditional warfare. Soccer, in my opinion, fosters those strategies better than any other sport; this is because, in tactical terms, it is the most pure sport in the modern world.

Now, if what I said above went right over your head, then I won't be offended if you call me a crazy ranting nutter, and you stop reading right now. But I was thinking about this a fair bit lately, and I feel compelled to pen my thoughts here.

It's pretty much a universal rule that simpler is better. If something is fettered with bells and whistles that do little to enhance it, and that unnecessarily add to its complexity, then that something has a problem. If, on the other hand, something has all the features that it needs in order to function, and no more, then that something is going places. Does a tree need a satellite dish in order to absorb sunlight? No (although a tall tree can be an excellent place to put your home satellite dish for maximum effectiveness … but I digress). Does it need leaves? Yes. This is what we call good design.

What is the purpose of team sports? Well, there are a few possible answers to that question (depending on who you talk to); but, if you ask me, the fundamental purpose of all team sports is to allow for a tactical competition. In the case of most sports, that competition is expressed physically. But it's not the physical aspect of the sport that really determines who will win it; we all know that neither athletic superiority, nor equipment superiority, directly translates into a winning team. At the end of the day, it's tactical superiority that determines the winning team, more than anything else.

As in war.

I must admit, I suck at soccer. Always have. And I always wondered why I sucked at it. Was I such a slow runner? Such a poor tackler? Lousy foot-eye co-ordination? I always believed it was these things. But now, I see that I was wrong. I don't suck for any of those reasons. I suck because I have a poor instinct for tactics on the battlefield. If I were thrown into a bloodthirsty life-or-death war, I'm pretty sure I'd suck there too, for the same reason.

Because I suck, and because I know why, I therefore believe myself perfectly qualified to define the two skills that are fundamental to being a good soccer player:

  1. Dexterity with one's feet
  2. Instinct for playing-field tactics

Soccer is an incredibly well-designed game, because it's so simple. You only have to use your feet, not your hands, in order to further your objective; and your feet are also used in order to move yourself around the field. This means that one part of the body is able to perform two different functions, both of which are essential for play. It also has the side-effect of making a player's height much less relevant than it is in games that involve using one's hands. For example, basketball is probably the hand ball-based game most similar to soccer; and yet, look at the critical factor that a person's height plays there.

Soccer has a really simple objective. Get the ball in the goal. One goal is one point. Get more points than the other team. That's it. No situations in which more than one point can be scored at a time. No exceptions to the basic rule that a goal equals a point.

Similarly, soccer has really simple equipment. All you really need, is a ball. Preferably an inflatable plastic and leather ball, as today's hi-tech manufactured soccer balls contain; but a traditional rubber or animal-bladder ball will suffice, too. You need something to mark the goalposts: this is ideally a proper wooden frame for each goal; but hey, we've all played soccer games where two hats are used to mark the goals at each end. Other than that, you need … a flat grassy area?

The only thing about soccer that's actually complicated, is the strategy. And strategy isn't an essential part of the game.

Unless, of course, you want to win. Which an awful lot of sportspeople tend to want to do. And, in which case, strategy is most definitely not optional.

It's precisely because the rules and the playing field / equipment are so simple, that so much room is left for complex strategy. Apart from the bare basics, everything is left up to the players to decide. Stronger offence or stronger defence? Run down the wing or try and duck through the middle? Try and run through with small passes, or risk a big kick over the main defence line?

Apart from that bigger picture stuff, most of the strategy in soccer is actually very small picture. Which way is my marked player about to go, left or right? Try a real tackle now, or bluff a tackle and do the real one later? Mark a player in an obvious way, or try and be more subtle about it? Which teammate to pass to — which one looks more ready, and which is in a better position?

The most popular games in the world, are those in which you can learn the basic rules in about ten minutes, but in which you couldn't learn every intricacy of strategy in ten lifetimes. Chess is one such game. Soccer is another. These games are so popular, because they succeed (where other games fail) in stimulating our most primal instincts. The rules are important, but they're few. You can't win just by knowing the rules. If you want to win, then you must know your environment; you must know your ability; and above all, you must know your enemy.

It's a game called survival.

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