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As Long as We Remember...

July 8, 2010

Football, Futbol, and Soccer

Adam Avery

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has stirred debate as to whether or not futbol – soccer if you prefer – is a worthwhile televised spectacle. Those bored by soccer – typically Americans – prefer to watch their neighbor's paint dry. The rest of the world considers it the most celebrated sport on Earth.


Having played both in organized fashion for some 15 years, I believe a case can be made that soccer is the world's most exciting spectator sport because it embodies much of the on-field play found in other popular sports, American football and basketball. Soccer also benefits from its differences with football’s pace of play.


The grace of soccer is in its fluidity. Unlike football, there are no commercial timeouts, no injury timeouts, and no mass substitutions after each play, no two-minute warning, no instant replay delay, no celebratory shuck and jive gyrations after routine plays. Instead, it is a constant flow of offense and defense; set plays, retreat, and counter attacks.


Soccer uses the entire field. If the ball goes out of bounds, it is quickly put back in play, whether on a sideline or end line. All football plays start from one of two “hashes” in the middle of the field and from a line of scrimmage; more delays as we wait for referees and players to reset the ball from out of bounds or from downfield to establish the line of scrimmage.


Much like the forward pass in football, or a crisp bounce pass to a basketball player cutting to the hoop, a well timed and perfectly placed cross, lead, or ball placed "in space" to a soccer player running at full speed is – athletically speaking – a thing of beauty.


If you have ever thrown a touchdown pass to a streaking wide receiver or made a no-look chest pass during a fast break to a small forward cutting to the hoop, it is impossible not to appreciate the artistry involved in accurately placing a soccer ball at the feet of a striker moving in full stride from as far as 40 yards away.


I suppose much of the disinterest in soccer stems from the lack of scoring opportunities during a match.


Unlike football's touchdowns, field goals, safeties, and extra points, which occur frequently, soccer offers but a handful of shots on goal during an entire match.


The American spectator has an appetite for scoring and little patience for the subtleties of sound defense. Proof lies in the existence of arena football. Why else would anyone sit through that farce of a sub-sport other than for the chance to watch quarterbacks throw bombs every other play en route to final scores that resemble outcomes of basketball games?


This insatiable appetite is what feeds the National Football League rules committee's offense-friendly changes to the game, particularly adjustments that hinder a defensive back's ability to impede the progress of wide receivers.


The proof is in the numbers. The 4,000-yard passing quarterback used to be a rare occurrence. In 2009, 10 quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards.


Soccer does have its faults. The off-sides penalty is damn near impossible to call accurately and leads to the abolition of half of would-be scores. Soccer doesn't have instant replay to correct poor officiating.


One referee and two linesmen are charged with covering a soccer pitch that is as much as a third larger in area than a football field. Contrarily, football games are officiated by seven referees, leading to much of the stop and go nature of football as more eyes see more infractions and more whistles blow.


My only other criticism of soccer is the incessant "flops" by players attempting to gain the attention and sympathy of the referee in hopes of earning possession of the ball or a scoring opportunity via a free kick.


Basketball players use a similar tactic when trying to draw a "charge" from an opposing player who is trying to make an offensive move toward the basket. On the college level, Duke players are arguably the best at this form of acting. At least, Terps fans think so.


Despite these minor grievances, soccer allows the viewer the benefit of an uninterrupted game and the grace and beauty of athletic plays to rival the best that football or basketball has to offer.


Now if they could just find a way to make the vuvuzela less obnoxious.

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