Explaining Football to America
If a common language divides the English and the Americans then they’re also divided by a common sport, football. Prior to the World Cup, my American buddy John Klingler got in touch with me to start a little football-related dialogue. We’d lived together in Argentina, which is pretty keen on football (Maradona comes from there you know?), so John was a little more clued up than most of his fellow countrymen. Nevertheless, I still had to school him a little.
From: John Klingler
To: Oscar Rickett
Date: 9 June 2010 18:16
Subject: dumb American
So, I've been getting ready for the World Cup, trying to do my homework and be prepared enough to hold my own in a bar conversation (not hard), as the nation readies to cheer on our boys and their relentlessly hard-fought / numbingly dull brand of, um, football (soccer?).
But, I got questions. You, Bristisher, help. You know the drill--I ask dumb questions, you answer them.
1. Tactics. I do not understand formations AT ALL, and no one ever endeavors to explain it. Is there any real difference between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-2-1? Doesn't everyone just basically run to open space anyway? (To repeat, I am dumb.)
2. Strikers. Seems like, and correct me if I am wrong, which I probably am, but ideally you have two strikers, right? One super fast guy and one kinda burly guy. This would be similar to American football, where you want two wide receivers (the dudes who catch the ball)--one fast guy to run up the field and "stretch" the defense and one sure-handed guy to run across the middle of the field, underneath the space just opened up by the fast guy. Following, Rooney would be the kinda burly guy that you would want to pair with a speed guy?
3. Defense. Continuing the tactical discussion...football defenders play zone, correct? You get an area to defend (left back, for instance) and it's your responsibility to defend it. My question is does anyone ever play "man" defense, like basketball. Where instead of a space to cover you get a man to cover, and you basically just follow him around all game. Perhaps this is a dumb idea, since the formations seem to be bottom-heavy. But, maybe a box-and-one? Take the best defender and put him on Messi--Think of him as chewing gum. By the end of the game, I want you to know what flavor he is.
4. Macro-economics. One of the things that has been most surprising to me about the European football leagues is the almost obscene capitalism of it all--the open talk of "buying" and "selling" players. Surely, this happens in US sports, but the leagues are structured differently, with more of an emphasis on "parity" -- trying to get all the clubs to be competitive. (Basketball, hockey, and U.S. football all make it so there is a limit to what one team can spend.) Somehow, our sports seem socialist in nature, and you guys are all free market, and you're supposed to be the welfare state and not us, so what gives, man?
5. Micro-economics. Continuing...since you can just buy a player, does that mean you ever trade players? I'm not sure I can remember hearing of a soccer trade. It’s always about transfer fees and such. Which is unfortunate, because trades are exciting. They vastly improve the sports page and general sports discourse, as figuring out the merits of hypothetical trades and reacting to the actual ones are enjoyable diversions. And I'm guessing you don't have a draft either. You're missing out.
6. Italians. Does anyone actually enjoy watching Italian football?
7. Importance. So, I had been under the impression that the World Cup was the end-all, be-all / most important thing ever. But, I've heard it a couple places that the Champions League title (crown? whatever) is equally important, if not more-prized -- the argument being that the football itself is better, the stakes higher, competition fiercer, etc. Perhaps I've over estimated the importance of the World Cup because that's the only the time soccer gets any attention in the US. Anyway, please rank the following in level of importance: World Cup statue thing, EPL title, La Liga title, Champions League title. (Also, while on the subject, what is considered the "European Championship"? Is this the Champions League or that Europa thing, or that other thing they play in the two years between World Cups? It gets confusing.)
8. John. Yes, john. I need a club team. Help me decide. Here's what I'm looking for:
a. Good guys. Obviously, the team should have likable players. And by likable, I mean no known child molesters or rapists. A funny guy with a blog or a twitter account would also be a plus.
b. Not the Yankees. Or, whatever the equivalent of the Yankees is in Europe. The rich team that is always good that no one likes except people from that city and/or bandwagon fans.
c. Not the Clippers. Or, whatever the equivalent of the Clippers is in Europe. The cheap team that never wins that no one likes because they're horrible year in and year out.
d. "Pretty" football. Define this how you want, but ideally, something pleasurable to watch that does not end one-nil every week.
e. Good uniforms (kit? is that right?). Maybe I wear the jersey or a shirt or something to the bar during the game or around the house. Would be better to look cool.
Basically, the question is: if you could step away from yourself and choose to start with a new team, not the one you currently have which probably has something to do with where you're from or who your family liked, which one would you go with? What team would allow you to maximize the football-fan experience?
OK, this is quite long enough. I will end in the traditional way: USA! USA! USA!
From: Oscar Rickett
To: John Klingler
Date: 12 June 2010 19.13
That’s some keener-than-the-average-yank knowledge you’re showing there but obviously you’re still just a dumb colonial, feeling your way in the footballing dark, so here are some sub-standard responses to your questions:
Generally, formations are put in this format: Defence-Midfield-Attack OR Defence- Defensive midfield- Attacking midfield- Striker/s. Formations like 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1 are basically 4-5-1 formations. What often happens is that teams will play with one central striker and two wingers/attacking midfielders supporting him in a 4-3-3 formation which then, when the opposition gets the ball reverts to a 4-5-1 formation, with the two supporting attackers dropping into midfield. If I’ve confused you well, hell man, maybe you weren’t cut out for this football thing. On a side note, Maradona, as Argentina manager, ignores all these rules (because he’s paranoid and crazy/ maybe a genius).
Ah, the traditional big guy-little guy combo, an oldie but a goodie, particularly in English football where you’d hoof the ball up to the big guy who’d then heft it on into space for the little guy to scamper after. When I was a kid I played in a team whose game-plan involved having a big guy (i.e. someone who’d gone through puberty at an alarmingly young age) in defence who would kick it as far as possible (he was the only one who could kick it the length of the pitch) for a couple of speedy small guys to run after. The plan never worked that well.
For England, Rooney in fact plays the part of speedy player because he's quick as well as burly (and not very tall).
Yes, they play zone BUT when they are defending they will pick up men, mostly. Again, this depends on the coach, but a central defender will generally mark (follow about) a specific striker and will often stick to him. Left and right-sided defenders will generally have the job of marking their particular winger. So, this being the case, Messi, who plays right wing (attack) for Barcelona, will be marked by the left full back (defender) unless he goes too far over to the other side. Sometimes teams do use a sort of box and one defense, when a specific player will be asked to stick to someone like glue throughout the game. This is considered kind of dishonourable but definitely happens.
Yes, in sport, Europe is Donald Trump smoking a massive pile of cash and doing a load of coke off the tits of a Thai prostitute to the U.S.’ hard-working inner city school teacher who just wants all her kids to do well. In Europe, it's much more about money and there isn't a lot of parity.
No draft. That would be fun. Usually players just go for money like so many cattle at a market, but players are sometimes included in deals. So, if I want to buy Hot Young Brazilian Guy and he's valued at £15 million I might say ok, I'll give you £10 million and throw in my player Ageing Danish Guy who is worth £5 million on account of being a little portly and fond of lying about his age when hitting on girls in bars.
Yep, not any more they don't. It used to be the best (in the 90s). Here are some examples of why with hilarious musical bits
World cup football is not quite the highest standard- that is probably the Champions League, in which players come out to the kind of bombastic classical music (featuring the refrain “Champions!”) that any dude would be happy to have played at their wedding/funeral. But the World Cup is a massive event. And has more romance. In terms of domestic leagues, the English and Spanish are probably the two best, with Germany and Italy close behind, followed by France.
As for club football, there's only one team: Liverpool Football Club.
En-ger-land, En-ger-land, En-ger-land!
PS - If you want to know what the picture is about up top, you can watch the video here.
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