These pieces and others made me think that I should probably make a little more effort to provide a moral analysis of soccer. In the spirit of the great philosopher John Rawls who once argued, though briefly in and good humor, that Baseball is the 'best of all games', I thought to dedicate just a little time and space to thoughts of the moral valued embedded in the practice of soccer. This endeavour is the one called 'value interpretation', which is the attempt to describe the set of values that are embedded in a particular practice. If I was right that a growing interest in soccer could reflect a cultural change, which is to say a change in values, then it seems fair to ask what are the values embedded in the practice of soccer? Of course it may be that the rising interest in soccer in the US doesn't reflect any deep change in values but something completely different such as lowered costs of watching foreign sports or greater conformism to world culture. It may still be the case that the growing presence of soccer will have some social influence. Then again, it may not: the values embedded in soccer may not be that different than the ones embedded in other sports already prevalent in the US. I make no strong claims about the actual influence of soccer on the cultural world of societies where it is popular (or is becoming more popular) - I just want to think about the rules and what they represent.
1. Soccer has room for individual excellence but is a team game - despite the shallowness of Ann Coulter slanderous provocation that I mentioned last time, there is definitely value to ask whether or not soccer is a game that encourages individual performance. Last time I said that anybody who has played, or coached, amateur (or children's) soccer knows that one good player, with above average skills, will dominate the pitch. In many ways, soccer encourages such individualistic efforts. The size of the pitch and effectivity of passing the ball means that double coverage is very costly. Set pieces and penalty kicks can be always be kicked by the same player. So there is lots of opportunities to build a team around just one player. Yet, as the recent world cup showed, the team where the best player in the world (by far) is now playing, Argentina, lost to Germany, the team that did the best job to leverage its diversity, which improves performance in soccer. Of course, victory in one game, even the world cup final, doesn't settle any questions, but it seems that soccer does maintain a balance between individual efforts and teamwork.
2. Soccer allows ties. Unlike basketball or baseball, a game of soccer can end in a time. This has far reaching implications on the way soccer strategies are devised, and therefore on the kind of moral outlook they encourage. First, think just of the idea that you can play a game, compete ferociously for 90 minutes, sweat all over and do your best - and then finish with the result of a tie. Some people would find it frustrating, but perhaps it's an appropriate response to the situation where both sides are equally matched. Games that do not allow for a time - and impose overtime and such - may be erroneously imposing a random victor. Whether or not we find this desirable is controversial, but the point remains: in soccer, a game can end in a tie. Second, that a game can end in a tie really changes the dynamics. Some teams - the underdogs - may see a tie as a victory of sorts. This diversifies the possible goals of the game, and the ethics of sportsmanship - is it sportsmanlike to play for a draw? It seems definitely justifiable in a tournament where a draw would advance your team, but some people think that not playing to win is not the right spirit in which you should play. It is part of the reason that a prevalent style of play in soccer is a very defensive one - when a team barely attacks, attempts to just shut down the game and deny the other team any chance of winning. Such strategy can help a less skillful team impose a tie or a penalty shootout, that is really worse than a coin flip.
3. Soccer is won by a relatively small number of goals. Many games end with the result 1-0 or even 0-0. This means that the game can be decided by one brilliant move or one miserably fatal mistake. Unlike basketball, the result is not the accumulation of the events of the entire game: it reflects just the peaks of it. A team can dominate most of the game but lose in the last minutes. Right, Mexico? This sends the message that one tiny moment can change your life or determine whether you succeed or fail. Working hard and running until the last minute is important and all, but what really determines the winner are those few inches between the post and the net.
4. Soccer has clear roles but they are not super rigid. In soccer, players have specific roles and positions - they are either defensive, offensive or midfielders. Very few players move around much during their career. The pitch is big enough so that you have to divide the labor and specialize. In contrast, in basketball all the players have to play both defense and offense, and they have to do so in a pretty involved way. There are only five players on the court and there is no luxury to leave one on the offensive side waiting for the ball. On the other extreme, American football has players who only play one role and not the other. Soccer is somewhere in the middle - where players have their own roles but are sometimes forced into playing others. This mixture of division of labor with flexibility is an interesting model of teamwork.
5. Time does not stop in soccer. If you commit a foul or send the ball out for a throw in, the time does not stop. True, the ref adds a few minutes at the end of the half, and can add more time if there were large delays. But the variation in times the ref can add are a joke compared to the time spent during the game on all sorts of delays. This creates an incentive for players to 'waste' time when their team is ahead (or, if they are the underdog, when the result is a draw). Refs can punish time wasting with a yellow card, but they rarely do (for good reason, see point 6). This is another instance where the rules encourage behaviors that some would consider against the spirit of sports. In any case, it is clear that it sends a very different message about time than in a game where every minute counts, and the rules make sure that it does.
6. Soccer has very loose regulation. In truth, the reffing in soccer is pretty much a joke. There is only one ref, running around a huge pitch, and his word is always final. There are two assistants, who run along the lines, helping mostly with offside. Instant replays are not used in soccer, which means that there are very many mistake that are not corrected. That the ruling is so often off in soccer really influence the way the game is played: most players know that influencing the ref is almost as important as playing. Refs know that they make mistakes, yet they cannot afford to listen to players and reverse decisions (or they will lose their authority). Players know that, and so they harp on the ref's guilt by continuously pressuring him - saying that he has been wrong mostly about their team, that he has been missing the fouls of the other team, etc. That soccer encourages such trash talk with the refs is, I think, unique. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the ref has only a few instruments of disciplining the players. Other than warning and chiding them, reasoning with them, ignoring them or just yelling at them - the ref has only two sanctions, yellow and red card, both of which are very severe. Refs are understandably reluctant to issue yellow cards for things like yelling at the ref, because they really restrict a player's game for the rest of his time. In an ironic reversal, a player with a yellow card is often more free to yell and complain because the ref is even less likely to punish him with a second yellow card (which amounts to a red card), because that would mean he would be kicked of the pitch and his team will be down to 10 players. This coarse and non-gradual structure of sanctions is another reason why there are so many fouls in soccer, and so many bad ones. It's pretty easy to get away with things in soccer - the worse would be that you get a yellow card, in which case you can just relax a bit for the rest of the game. The result is that there is great disrespect for the rules and the ref's authority in the game.
I think this is enough for this non-extensive exploration of the morality of soccer. I have not delved deep into any of these points and their implications. That would require more time and space than I have here; but I hope that these points would serve as a good starting point to think about these issues. What are the implication of a competitive game that can end in a draw? That is monitored very loosely? That encourages teamwork and collaboration but allows for great space of individual excellence? Though it may seem clear in some cases, I leave it somewhat open.