What’s the big deal? Why does the world go crazy every four years for this tournament called the World Cup? I mean, Mexico just TIED Brazil zero to zero and people were cheering like that goalkeeper was the second coming or something. Nobody scored a freakin’ goal! W…T…F???
I know. I get it. You don’t understand. And that’s fine. It used to frustrate me when people didn’t ‘get it’. But it has been my fault all along. I’ve never explained it well. I think that I was using the wrong language all this time because soccer is not just sport. Soccer is art.
In fact, soccer is probably closer to improvisational jazz than it is to any other sport. The 11 players share the rhythm, they share the melody, and every once in a while one of them will jump out into a solo with a display of incredible technical skill and ability.
5 Ways Soccer Is Like Jazz
#1 The Skill – Like great jazz, soccer is an endeavor that requires almost unbelievable skill.
We can all marvel at Colin Kaepernick, being rushed by defensive linemen, throwing a 60 yard pass to Crabtree who is sprinting downfield at full speed to make a marvelous over the shoulder catch. It is an incredible thing to watch, no doubt.
Now, try this ENTIRE scenario with your feet – the perfectly directed and weighted pass made under pressure, the 60 yard sprint AND the catch. And this is a single aspect of the skills required to play the game at the top level. The volleys, the imaginative dribbling, the no-look passes and the diving headers will thrill any spectator. The skill required to do all of this takes decades to learn.
#2 The Flow (or Rhythm) – If you’ve watched some of the World Cup matches you’ve probably heard some of the commentators discuss ‘dictating the rhythm of the game’. They say this because, like every jazz song, every soccer match has a definite rhythm and flow to it. When you see fans at the games with drums, this is why. Sometimes they will drum along with the rhythm of their team and sometimes they will drum in hopes of increasing or even slowing the tempo that their team is playing at.
Likewise, when you hear cheers of “OLE!” coming from the stands as a team links several consecutive passes together the people are cheering that their team is maintaining possession but you will also note that all of those “OLEs” are coming in a very rhythmic chant. The rhythm of the chant, equals the rhythm of the passing, equals the rhythm of the team, equals the rhythm of the game.
This rhythm can never be underestimated as an integral (and quite possibly the most important) part of the game. This is because the rules of soccer are designed to keep the game moving. Play never stops (not even for an injury*) unless there is a foul or the ball goes out of bounds. So, if your team can control the pace at which the game is played your team can control how quickly or slowly everybody tires. Some teams are so good at dictating the rhythm that they have the ability to quickly change the tempo all at once and together, catching their opponent on their heels.
However you might control the tempo there is always one inexorable fact of the game: The flow of the game is relentless. There are few opportunities to regroup or reorganize. When a player goes down, after what was obviously a weak tackle, grabbing his shin in apparent agony, is he playing it up to the referee? Sure. Is he trying to earn his team a free kick? Sure. But there is often so much more to it than that. More often than not, he’s grabbing his shin because he can’t grab his soul. He can’t grab his spirit and lift it from the despair he is feeling at the moment. He needs a break. His team needs a break and sometimes, lying on the field, faking an injury is the ONLY way they might regroup, reshape and, again, meet the relentless flow of the game on its terms.
#3 The Discipline – In soccer, like in jazz, there is no maestro. There is nobody waving wands, keeping pace and indicating what comes next. The players are in almost complete control of what happens as soon as the first whistle blows. The coach is actually restricted to a box on the side of the field from which he cannot leave without permission of the referee. He has half-time, he has the opportunity to make three substitutions and he has the odd opportunity to yell at one of his players who might be close enough to hear him. That is it. What happens on the field is almost entirely dictated by the players.
This means that all eleven players must exhibit extreme discipline to play all 90 minutes in exactly the way they have been coached.
#4 The Coordination – Because the sport is very fluid, and play is meant to continue, players must somehow coordinate movement with very few opportunities to communicate. There’s no catcher, calling time and walking to the mound. There is no huddle and there is most certainly not a “commercial time-out”. Everything that happens on the field is coordinated by the players within the flow of the game – it is improv at its finest. And that brings us to our last item.
#5 The Improvisation – Every team goes into a game with a set game plan. That game plan might be ‘dominate possession’ or ‘defend and counter-attack’ or ‘possession in the back and long balls into space’. Whatever that game plan is, however, not much of what happens on the field is scripted. It’s like being an actor and told what your character is supposed to be like but given no script of what to say or do. You gotta figure it out as you go.
It is this improvisation that makes the game beautiful and it can manifest itself in so many ways.
You might see it as a methodically woven tapestry of impeccable passes – shifting, changing, always moving, while every player constantly seeks that opening. Then, finally, a darting run and a simultaneous three yard pass gives a teammate just enough space to get a shot off that curls into the side netting from 15 yards out.
Or you might see the improvisation as a lightning quick counter attack – All eleven players noticing, together, that the defending team is out of position. The goalkeeper throws the ball 40 yards to out to the side. And the rest of the team streaks up the field at a dead sprint. Another 40 yard pass finds the center midfielder who is running at full speed. He sees his striker about to rip past the center back and plays another 40 yard pass… perfectly… in… to… his… path. And the striker is one on one with the keeper.
Three coordinated runs. Three coordinated passes – not because it was ever planned but because all three players know that THIS is how the music is made.
If you’ve never played, it’s difficult to explain how wonderful it feels when this all comes together. When you watch the best players in the world do it, it can be sublime. When the skill, the rhythm, the discipline, the coordination and improvisation culminate in a shot on goal it is like watching Preservation Hall Jazz band live at Preservation Hall.
This is why it’s called the beautiful game and this is why soccer fans can be happy with a low scoring game, or even a tie. They can be happy because, watching the game is like watching a fantastic jazz band for 90 minutes. The goals are merely the crescendo of what has already been a magnificent performance.
*Head injuries are now call for immediate stoppage of the game.