In order for a spectator to really love a sport, the sport has to be enjoyable to watch. TV networks work hard at this, and succeed mostly by using a large number of cameras — sometimes as many as 30 — to broadcast a game, whether it’s a football game, or a soccer or tennis match. (The number of cameras increases, roughly, as the size of the field increases.) The essence of my love of soccer is best summed up in how it is played, of course, but also in how the game is communicated to us on the TV screen.
The players are mostly shown from a great distance, because in a matter of seconds they can move from one end of the 100-yard field to another. The majority of the field must be shown at all times. The many other cameras used in a typical broadcast can be used to zoom in on a skirmish, if necessary, but for the most part they aren’t. They’re used to capture moments that can be replayed in slow motion later: a goal, or an attempted goal; a tense cluster of five players jumping in the air to headbutt the ball toward or away from a goal; a forward screaming “Fuck!” at a missed shot; a miffed midfielder gesticulating at a referee. Perhaps there should be more action shown from these second-tier cameras: soccer footwork is an art unto itself. But the bird’s-eye view that broadcasters have always leaned on creates just enough mystery and drama to keep us intrigued. This camera in the sky shows us that the field is so vast, the distances covered so great, that we just kind of have to give ourselves over to these superhuman creatures.
It’s tempting to compare soccer to American football, based on the levels of the sports’ popularity and the fact that the fields are approximately the same size (soccer: as much as 120 yards long by 80 yards wide, with some variations from one pitch to another, football: 120 yards, including the end zones, by 53 1/3 yards). But they are so utterly different to experience from a sofa. Football players are encased in protective gear (arguably not even enough of it). We’re not able to properly read their facial expressions or appreciate all the eye contact and subtle communication that goes on between players. This is frustrating.
Football is technical — mentally technical — in a way that soccer isn’t. Sure, watch the strongest soccer teams in the world, like Germany’s current team, and you will see communication and strategizing so precise that it almost seems like the NFL: logical, cerebral, nearly choreographed. But there is a fluidity to soccer. Soccer players, so often, seem isolated out there, part of some loose system of trust, united by the same objective, but spaced dozens of yards apart from each other, constantly taking chances, constantly battling an opponent, much of the time alone. The runner in me appreciates the solitude in soccer.
Blessedly, the clock never stops and usually there is only one commercial break, during halftime. I am in complete agreement that when things do happen in football, it’s as exhilarating as any other sport, but — call it the modern ADD that we all seem to have to some degree — I would rather watch a sport that is continuously in motion: soccer, tennis, hockey, swimming — and what a luxury to also not be sensorily violated by commercials every six minutes. In soccer, tension builds from the first second and is not broken for three quarters of an hour. Then, it often seems like a gift that there are another 45 more minutes of play after that.
There is so much chance in every sport: gravitational fields, weather, and human strength and skill conspire, usually independently of one another, to create some moment of magic that will make us miserable or proud of our team or state or nation. But nothing is as thrilling as a goal in soccer. Sometimes you can feel a goal coming from a minute away: there is a swell, and the offense surges, and the players involved all seem to all understand that they have to make this one happen, that they will make this one happen. Other times it’s sheer desperation, as on Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012: two lone Greek forwards, one dashing down a sopping wet field and sending the ball improbably along an almost perfectly straight line toward the center of the muddy German goal, just in front of it, the second forward not so much receiving the ball as hurtling his body at it, as if all the ball needed to get into the goal was for him to be there, to be hit by it. It wasn’t enough for them to beat Germany — not even close. But it didn’t matter.