Soccer vs American Sports, Part 1: Dissing defense

Posted on July 13, 2010


We’ll get back to the 3rd part of the series on the ethics of diving soon. In the meantime, while the World Cup is still fresh, I’m starting a new series of reflections on some of the ways fans of North American team sports (principally American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) might think about what is different — and ultimately better or worse — about soccer and about tournaments like the World Cup, the Champions’ League, and the European Championships.

One of the central themes of this blog is the question of how we can reasonably evaluate what makes a sport, or a (television) spectator’s experience of a sport, better or worse. And by “better or worse” I mean in the serious qualitative sense in which we talk about one work of art, art form, law, or political institution being superior to another.

Rather than working down from abstract principles to answer this question, I will look at some points of comparison between sports and between the ways we experience and talk about different sports. And in this series I’ll try to articulate what reflective fans of the big American sports might think about soccer, and also how it might make them think differently about their own favorite sports.

OK, I lied. I will start out with an abstract principle of sports connoisseurship; one I’ve blogged about before (e.g. here):

“The ultimate spectator experience in sport will always involve an equal appreciation for both offensive and defensive play/tactics.”

This means the best sports will be the ones in which defense is as sophisticated, mentally and physically challenging, and “beautiful” as offense. It also means that the best coverage of such sports should devote significant attention to enlightened and enlightening analysis of, and enthusiasm for, defensive plays and defensive tactics. Especially given that, in most sports, defense is harder to understand and appreciate.

The intuition behind this “principle” (or hypothesis) is that one of the “deepest” and most intriguing elements of great sports is the “chess game” between the opponents — the exercise of strategic rationality. Where decision-making on offense tries to take into account how the defense will try to counter; and where the defense decides how to counter knowing that the offense is trying to predict their decision. (Of course, in many great sports, especially soccer, there is not always a clear distinction between being on offense and being on defense, and that is a fascinating situation I’ll come back to in a future post in this series.)

So much for abstract principles. I mention this one to make a bald generalization that has been hammered home for me after a solid month of listening to soccer announcers and in-studio analysts, and of reading columnists and bloggers from around the world:

The vast majority of soccer fans, as well as the chattering and typing classes they learn from, do not appreciate defensive play and defensive tactics. They don’t like it. By and large, they don’t understand it very well. They aren’t thinking at all about defense when they gush about the so-called “beautiful game.” They are upset when a good defense beats a good offense. They almost never put successful defensive plays on highlight reels (apart from great saves by goal keepers, often after terrible defensive blunders). And they even more rarely break down an extended section of play (say, 30-seconds’ worth) to show a complex and successful defensive strategy at work.

Of course, this is a broad generalization that admits of many important exceptions. Great managers obviously appreciate defense. And my enjoyment of this year’s tournament has been significantly enhanced (as I’ve mentioned previously) by having recently read Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, along with his regular tactical previews and analyses for Sports Illustrated’s website, and those found on the Wilsonite blog Zonal Marking. These sources give more or less equal time and appreciation to defensive tactics. But they also reminded me daily of just how unfortunately true the bald generalization is of most of the rest of the soccer commentariat.

The generalization explains much (but not all) of the hostile reaction to the way the Netherlands approached the final against Spain. The contempt for tactical defense is dripping from Johan Cruyff’s denunciation of his country’s play:

“This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.”

Even if we leave out the “vulgar” part of that critique (which surely referred to the deliberately harsh challenges by several Dutch players) it is still the case that it was the perfectly clean strategy of pressing that accounted for most of what he found ugly, hermetic, and ultimately “anti-football.” My point is summed up by the use of the expression “anti-football” (not just here; not just by Cruyff) for a strategy designed to disrupt another team’s offense.

It is an aesthetic of football that feasts on successful and dazzling offensive plays — and most of all, goals — and scorns deliberate attempts to prevent the other team from enjoying such a feast. In this vision (which I will not attribute wholly to Cruyff), the only aesthetically acceptable defense is a strong offense that is willing to score at least one more goal than the several it is willing to concede. In fact, as Cruyff himself almost admits, the Dutch strategy came very close to working — it did unsettle the Spanish, and Holland had excellent chances to score the first goal. In this sense, they did much better than the Germans, who barely attempted to challenge a Spaniard with the ball most of the game (and certainly throughout the first half). It’s not clear the Dutch had many other options (I’m assuming here that their manager was not expecting his tactical plan to include flying kung-fu kicks to the chest).

Of course, nowhere is the “defensive soccer as anti-soccer” bias more obvious than in the persistent criticisms within Brazil of any manager of the seleção who sacrifices the mythical beautiful game for the sake of a solid defense — even when they win that way (as in 1994). Am I the only one who looks at the footage of those mythical Brazilian teams of the 50s and 60s and whose first reaction is not bedazzlement with the offensive play, but rather bewilderment over the amount of space they were given to work their magic? (Wilson also draws attention to this. But can any Brazilian?) There is simply no way the likes of Pele and Garrincha could pull off that today. And successful Brazilian managers know this full well.

One cannot help comparing the romantic appeals for the contemporary Brazilian and Dutch teams to celebrate their glorious historic offensive personalities, even in a losing cause, to the demands of aristocratic generals in the First World War ordering the troops to charge out of their trenches and face certain mass casualties across a battlefield that was now defended by machine guns.

Yet, it is hard not to sympathize with the bias in favor of offense in soccer. No neutral viewer enjoys the crude defensive strategies of outmatched teams in the group stage that play for nil-nil draws. And far fewer neutrals get excited about successful (and notoriously defensive) Italian teams than have embraced the delightful Spanish side this year. What does this tell us about soccer, soccer culture, and about other sports where defense is more obviously appealing? More thoughts in Part 2.