SB Nation

John Carlin | November 16, 2012

The greatest game

Why the world loves soccer, and America doesn't

Where’s the fun in sports if you can’t let rip with some wild hyperbole every now and again? Lionel Messi, a 5'7 soccer player born in Argentina but playing for Barcelona, is the best sportsman alive. This is not wild hyperbole; this is mathematics. What’s more – applying the laws of probability – he may very well be the most admired human being on the planet.

The fact is that far more people play soccer than any other sport; more people play soccer than play basketball, baseball, American football, tennis, golf and – for that matter – chess, the piano and the violin combined. To get to the top in soccer, where Messi stands alone, you’ve beaten off competition from the hundreds upon hundreds of millions who have kicked a ball in anger and dreamed, in their childhoods, of being what the short, fey, not blindingly handsome, personally unexciting 25-year-old superstar – officially recognized as world player of the year the last three times in a row – has beyond a shadow of a doubt become. He is arguably the most admired of individuals for the simple reason that more people talk and think about soccer than they do about any other subject available to human discourse. In terms of global name recognition he is right up there with Barack Obama, the Queen of England and Nelson Mandela, and – yes – way ahead of Kobe Bryant.

Lionel Messi is the best sportsman alive.

Allow me to explain why. Call me pretentiously literary, if you will, but here goes. Soccer is the most Homeric of sports; also, the most democratic. And it is for these reasons, though few people in the U.S. may realize it, that soccer is the world’s favorite pastime, the phenomenon that, more than any other, brings people together of all nations, languages, races, religions, political creeds. Soccer will not deliver peace to the Middle East but it is probably the only subject of conversation that might conceivably yield some common ground and bring about a brief suspension of hostilities between the region’s enemies.

Here’s an anecdote from an article published 10 years ago in the London Sunday Times, reported from a subterranean hide-out of the Palestinian Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in Gaza. The reporter is listening to a group of young suicide bombers in-waiting invoke God and the fatherland in their longing to make Israeli mothers weep. Suddenly another aspirant terrorist bursts into the room. “Manchester United 5,” he declares, “West Ham United 3!” A cheer goes up up. But he has more news. “David Beckham scored twice!” “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” the martyrs cry. God is great.

Lionel Messi

A different God would be thanked but a similar cheer would ring out at similar news up the road in Haifa, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem at the places where the “Israeli Reds,” the official Manchester United Supporters’ Club in Israel, congregate to watch their heroes on TV.

So what does Homer, never mind democracy, have to do with all this? Homer first. The “Iliad” rings a universal bell for much the same reason that the game of soccer does. The Greek narrative is built on an evenly matched contest between two sides against the backdrop of the eternal clash between fortune – or fate – and human will. No sport dramatizes more infuriatingly the limited control we have over our lives, and the wanton whimsy of the gods, than soccer. There is no sport in which, after the game is over, more time and energy are expended in discussion of whether the result was fair, whether the right team won. Barring a clear-cut , 4-0, 5-0, 6-0 thrashing, it is a staple of soccer fans’ conversation after at least 50 percent of all games played at all levels, everywhere, to ponder the question, usually at great length and with no satisfactory conclusion, whether justice was done or a terrible injustice perpetrated. Justice might have been what your team’s 11 players deserved in terms of the human toil and talent on display; injustice was the role fortune played in cruelly denying them.

“Soccer is not about justice. It's a drama.”

As Pete Davies, a wonderful British soccer writer, has said, “Soccer is not about justice. It's a drama – and criminally wrong decisions against you are part and parcel of that.”

I do not believe there is any other sport whose fans find themselves debating these timeless philosophical questions (whether they are aware of it or not – and very probably not) with anything like the same persistence, passion or regularity. Why? Because, like life, it can be so unfair; because it is the only sport there is where, from start to finish of a game, Team A can have 70 percent of the possession of the ball, can practically set up camp in the opposition half of the field, can create 10 times more opportunities to score yet Team B, somehow, wins. A fairly recent example would be the semifinal last season of the European Champions League, the highest caliber soccer competition in the world, bar none. Messi’s Barcelona, the best team of recent times and, in the opinion of many of the game’s luminaries, all time, lost to Chelsea, of London, despite all the statistics and all the evidence before the hundreds of millions of spectators’ eyes showing that Barcelona’s domination had been overwhelming.

Lionel MessiMessi reacts during Barcelona's loss to Chelsea.

The only explanation anyone could come up with was that fate or one of the divinities or some other mysterious force of which the human mind is as yet unable to conceive had rolled the dice in the English team’s favor.

I don’t have all the answers as to why soccer should be so intrinsically enigmatic, but I’ll offer four to be getting on with. One would be that the game is played with the feet and not – as God would surely have intended – with the hands, meaning that, compared to American football, or rugby or basketball, players cannot exercise the same measure of control over the ball, tilting the balance a shade or two in favor of chance determining the result more than human will. A second factor, and it why soccer players react with such extravagant jubilation to a goal, is that it is so damn difficult to score. The target to aim at is not big. A team could, in theory, win by positioning ten players side by side on the line between the two goalposts, forming a human wall, and leaving one player upfield in the hope that by some lucky break he manages to score. This was pretty close to what Chelsea did against Barcelona, deploying a notoriously crude tactic employed by weak teams against strong ones that is known in the game as “parking the bus.”

Lionel Messi

Thirdly, a pretty high percentage of goals are down more to luck than to skill. A player shoots, the goalkeeper has the ball covered but along the way it strikes a defender’s leg or chest or head and is deflected into the back of the net. Closely related to this cruel species of misfortune is the own-goal, when a defender endures the shame and horror of kicking or heading the ball into his own net. Are there any other sports where it is not unusual for players to score against their own teams? I doubt it.

The fourth reason why outcomes in soccer are so susceptible to fortune’s whims is perhaps the most compelling one, and certainly the easiest to identify – to wit, the referee, an individual with the power, in sporting terms, of life and death; a fallible human being called upon by the game’s rules and regulations to exercise the wisdom and omniscience of God himself. Assisted by two equally fallible linesmen, whose job it is to patrol the playing field’s outer margins, he (or she) is expected to make perfect judgements time and again, while running hard over the course of 90 minutes, on actions that often defeat the eye’s capacity to coordinate with the brain. Without the benefit of video replays or any other technological aids, the referee must make one snap decision after another as to whether a contact between two players rushing towards each other at murderous speed is within the rules of the game or not, fair or foul, deserving of a free kick, or a yellow card, or a straight red card expulsion or – most heart-stoppingly of all – whether a penalty should be awarded or not, which in most cases is tantamount to gifting one of the teams the precious commodity of a goal. Highlighting the supernaturally impossible nature of the referee’s job is the inability of panels of experts in TV studios to agree long after the fact whether the referee got his decisions right or wrong, despite the advantage of viewing a game’s more polemical plays time and again in slow motion, from all manner of angles.

Typically dressed in funereal black, the referee offers living proof of the contradiction between the world as we would like it to be and the world as it is; of our tragic inability to control our lives (or deaths), however gifted we might be or however hard we try; of our unavoidable vulnerability to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. All sports offer metaphors for the human condition; soccer does too, but on a richer, crueller and more epic level.

There is no other team sport where size matters less.

That’s Homer. What about democracy? Put simply, there is no other team sport where size matters less. And while you do need stamina, you don’t even need to be particularly quick. It is good in a team to have a mix, to have tall, strapping players as well as nimble, speedy ones. But everyone can get a look in, with the possible exception of fatties – though a few of those, notably the Brazilian Ronaldo in the later stages of his career, have had the talent to continue to make the grade at the highest level. Diego Maradona also played with a fair bit of spare blubber on him in his later years but the point about him is that, beefy or lean, he was decidedly short. Professional players average out at around 5’10 but Maradona was 5’5.

His compatriot and rival Messi is barely taller. The question that consumes the soccer world is whether he is also an inch better – whether, for that matter, Messi is also a greater player than the legendary Pelé, of Brazil. Until Messi came along no one doubted that the contest for best ever was between Maradona and Pelé. Last weekend, playing for Barcelona, Messi beat Pelé’s record, set in 1958, of 75 goals in one calendar year. Messi’s 76th was a shot that screamed into the roof of the net, a brutal variation on his endlessly varied goal-scoring repertoire. His foot’s a club, but also a rapier. He strokes the ball into the net, he curls it in, he stabs it, he does so applying side-spin through the air as well as an implausibly difficult variation on the Rafael Nadal top-spin, he scores with his head and – most memorably of all – picking up the ball 40, 50 yards out and leaving half a dozen hardened defenders sprawling in his wake before also rounding the goalkeeper and nudging the ball into an empty net.

Diego MaradonaCristiano Ronaldo

But there is more and this is why, finally, he is so far ahead of all his peers. He is also the king of assists; he not only scores goals by the bucketload, he makes them for others with passes of billiard ball finesse, often executed while running at full speed, while hounded by two or three or four opponents with murder in their hearts. In short, he has the assassin’s instinct in front of goal, he has tactical intelligence, he has vision and his technique and control are such that, as a former Argentine national coach put it, it seems as if “he has one more bone than the rest of us: the ball.”

As for comparisons with Maradona, who has been deified (no exaggeration at all) in Argentina, and who scored 34 goals for his country in the whole of his career; Messi has already scored 31. He’ll score double that number by the time he’s done and should he lead his country to a World Cup victory in 2014, or 2018, it will be debate over. He’ll lord it all alone over the pantheon of the greats.

Even if Argentina fails to win the ultimate prize, he has achieved more than enough to warrant immortality with his performances for Barcelona, scoring 281 goals in the last four seasons for them, the period when they have won all the trophies the professional game has to offer. Barcelona happens to be better than the current world champions, Spain. They are better because Barcelona is basically Spain plus Messi. Eight out of the 11 Spanish players that played in the World Cup final in 2010 also play for Barcelona. Two of them are Messi´s midfield lieutenants Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. I’ve stood next to this famed triumvirate and I’ve struggled to avoid calling to mind the unkind epithet by which they are known among the players of their old and bitter rivals, Real Madrid. “The dwarves” is what they call them in the Real locker room. The Real players are indeed giants, by comparison. The second-best player in the world, Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo, is a 6’1” Achilles, better-looking than Messi, more muscular, almost as prolific a goal-scorer, but more limited, less complete.

All of which is to say that in almost every other team sport in existence you’ll know just by looking at your child’s physique at the age of 14 whether he’s going to have any chance of making it as a professional; in soccer, big dreams fit all sizes.

Democracy, part two: it does not matter how poor you are, how meagre your circumstances, you’ll find the means to rustle up a game of soccer. Because you don’t need any means. You can play on a street, on an empty lot or, as I have seen in Africa, on a field splattered with cow-dung. For “goalposts” you can use a couple of small rocks, or old shirts. You don’t even need a ball, in the conventional sense of the word. You can play with rolled up plastic bags or, as I did as a child in Argentina, with rolled-up socks. It is in conditions such as these did Maradona and the likes of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, who played both for Real Madrid and Barcelona, have learned the beautiful game.

Finally, since I have been writing this article with an American reader in mind, endeavouring heroically to evangelize the pagans, allow me to get off my chest one reason why I believe that soccer struggles to take root as a mass spectator sport in the United States. I know, I know. More American kids play the game than any other. And it is also true that Major League Soccer is slowly strengthening its appeal and that the big European leagues have a following over there, across the ocean. But there is a reason why many of the major figures in the European leagues regard the U.S. as their summer vacation destination of choice. It’s the one country in the world where they can be sure of walking down a street with only a small chance of being pestered. Pep Guardiola, who quit in May as coach of Barcelona after achieving feats never seen or heard before in four years at one club, has chosen to spend a year’s sabbatical in New York. Why? In large part because he knows there is a significantly less chance of him being accosted by passers-by, and of being able to lead something approaching a normal family life, than in London, Paris or a village of mud huts in northern Madagascar.

In terms of the powerful tribal passions and religious sentiments that soccer elicits, the U.S. does remain, comparatively speaking, a heretic nation. I mean, the MLS playoffs are currently under way yet, I am reliably informed, few Americans are paying attention. Sure, it has a lot to do with the stranglehold the traditional American sports franchises have on the TV networks. Yet it’s not as if the game were entirely new to the U.S. The American national team beat England, in the soccer shock of the 20th century, at the World Cup held in Brazil in 1950. At the time England were considered to be the No. 1 soccer nation in the world. If ever there was a moment for the game to take off in the U.S. that was it. But it didn’t, and hasn’t remotely done so to the extent that it has since in countries like Iran or Japan or Jamaica or South Korea. Nothing like the same feverish passion.

Americans are less equipped to handle the concept of a tie than any other nation
on earth.

And the core reason, I‘d contend, is a philosophical one. It has to do with the fact that roughly 30 percent of soccer games end in ties and that Americans are less equipped to handle the concept of a tie than any other nation on earth. America is a country of winners and losers. It is the only country in the English-speaking world where “loser” is a term of routine abuse. There are no half ways. It is one or the other. Look at Tiger Woods’ decision to concede a far-from-makeable putt to his European rival at the last hole of this year’s Ryder Cup. If the European had missed it the great biennial golfing contest between the USA and the Old World would have ended in a tie. But a tie meant nothing to Woods, the quintessential American winner, and besides Europe had already held on to the Ryder Cup, having managed at least to avoid losing because they had lifted the trophy two years earlier. For a European, Woods’ decision was baffling; for Woods, for whom the notion of an “honorable tie” was even more impenetrable, it made perfect sense.

In America you win or you lose. Perhaps because Americans inhabit what has been a lucky country, they – you – are inclined to see life in more cut and dry, black and white terms than elsewhere. The rest of the word is more at peace with gray; the rest of the world, having suffered more, having seen empires rise and fall, being more resigned to life’s ups and downs, more keenly aware that things tend to even themselves out in the long run, can live with the idea of a tie as comfortably as with victory or defeat.

My guess, though: that as America’s exceptional – and exceptionalist – luck begins to run out (it will: ask Homer), as the country ceases to be the force it was in the 20th century, so will the democracy of soccer take more fertile root in U.S. soil. It’s just shame that this happy day won’t arrive in time for Americans to share with the rest of the species the unutterable thrill of watching Lionel Messi at play.

About the Author

John Carlin is an award-winning, globetrotting author and journalist who has covered genocide in Rwanda, the social revolution in South Africa, food, wine, and football (er, soccer). The film Invictus was based on his book Playing the Enemy. He lives near Barcelona, Spain, and writes a weekly soccer column for Spain's leading newspaper El Pais.