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February 9, 2016

The Beautiful Game

MCT

MCT

Soccer, or ‘International Football’ as some would have me call it, is a game played between two teams of 11 players with seven available substitutes. It doesn’t follow the rolling substitution procedure of other sports – once a player is brought off, he or she cannot take part in the game again. Oh, and it’s the world’s most popular sport.

The skills required to excel in soccer are creativity, vision, speed, individual talent and physical strength. Although American football is a highly tactical sport that is in no way solely reliant on physical prowess, one can still observe that a talented but diminutive player will never make the cut for a professional team. On the other hand, soccer has many players with medium builds who have reached unimaginable heights: Lionel Messi, Ryan Giggs, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, just to name a few.

Soccer is a game that entails creativity, awareness and talent. It is a game where pragmatism is valued over bullishness, where intricacy is valued over straightforwardness. Great teams like Manchester United and Barcelona excel because of their teamwork and each team selects players that fit into its system of passing to score goals. The awareness and creativity possessed by these players results in defense-splitting passes and outrageously complicated goals. I can’t imagine a soccer league where the tempo and result of a game is starkly dictated by straightforward brutishness; then each team would be like Stoke City.

My uncle has impressed upon me the overwhelming tactical nature of American football on multiple occasions. I’m unable to say anything other than that it’s terrific that the players and coaches remember all the plays. Soccer, however, is tactical in a more adaptive sense.

Unlike American football, teams do not consists of many ‘sub-teams’ that specialize in certain capacities. The onus to carry the team is on the first-team and they are required to adapt seamlessly to different situations. Usually, even offensive players are expected to track back and lend a hand defensively – imagine how much more work needs to be put in if the team desperately needs to hold on to a slender lead.

A magnificent example of a multifaceted soccer player is Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney. Now, I’m an Arsenal fan and it sickens me to praise him, but his work rate is phenomenal. He tracks back almost every time the ball is lost, he brings offensive plays from midfield and he covers more than six miles each complete game. That’s not really hardcore tactics, you say? There are numerous plays that players adopt and variants to stereotypical soccer positions.

The defenders on the right and left sides of the pitch – the right and left backs – can operate as secondary wingers by playing offensive when the ball isn’t in their half. The central defenders often move front and act as sentries on the halfway line when play is up field. Teams like Arsenal and Barcelona have a dynamic offense where the offensive players form a fluid system and switch their positions depending on the position of the ball. In recent Arsenal history one could find Thierry Henry running in from midfield, Robert Pires down the right and Freddie Ljungberg in the opponent’s box even though their original positions were lone striker, left winger and right winger, respectively. All this makes me think that American football is systematically and logistically more rigid than soccer.

As any intelligent person knows, there are aspects to sports other than its inner workings and two of the most important are business and tradition. Essentially, each team is a business.

The English Premier League is a hotbed of globalization and the lines between nationalities are becoming increasingly blurred. A massive number of foreigners are in the League alone.

Arsenal’s majority stakeholder is the American Stan Kroenke; Boston’s very own John Henry owns Liverpool. The Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea; the profligate Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nayhan owns Manchester City.

Clubs have a large percentage of international players. For example, 87 percent of Arsenal’s, 76 percent of Manchester United and 83 percent of Chelsea’s first teams are international whereas NFL teams comprise mostly of Americans. In addition to the above, soccer leagues do not succumb to broadcaster influence as much as the NFL does. Television channels can only influence the timing of matches but not much else in the English leagues.

Soccer has stayed a game of two halves, limiting the scope of commercials. The offside rule has not been obliterated to suit people who want a more ‘exciting’ game. Soccer is heavily influenced by tradition and resists essential changes to the game’s structure. The British Football Association has recently said that it will oppose any measure to ban relegation and promotion to the Premier League. While it would benefit owners of teams that play poorly, it would reduce the need for competition in the League. The Premier League also allows supporters to influence proceedings.

Maybe I’m such a strong proponent of soccer because I’ve been playing it for such a long time. I’ve obviously been imbued with great love for the sport, and I suppose that people who have watched American football day-in, day-out would feel the same about football. When I look at soccer, I look at its pros and cons and inadvertently play upon the pros. To me, it’s a sport that has never failed to captivate me or generate memorable experiences. It’s a sport that epitomizes teamwork and one in which pure talent can overcome all odds – it’s ‘The Beautiful Game.’

Nikhil Rao is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at nrao@student.umass.edu.

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