What professional soccer is and is not

Soccer ball in stadium
Soccer ball in stadium

Soccer, at the professional level, is a sport played by finely tuned athletes who perform at their peak of athletic ability and retire when their bodies can no longer produce the physical feats required of the most highly competitive athletes involved in trying to outdo one another in pursuit of a singular sporting objective.

The Sport

Soccer is a live sport, not an online streaming show, video game, or other medium of removed performance. It requires the participating person (you) to physically vie with another face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder for control of the ball and space on the field and then to execute the skills needed to manipulate the ball in such a way as to avoid the opposition’s attempt to stop you from reaching your objective. There are long-set rules determining how that action may take place, what constitutes breaking the rules, and what the penalties are for such infringement.

As opposed to hockey or rugby you do not sit out for a short break after a serious foul, you continue playing, but a second such offense and you are out of the game and cannot be substituted, thus for the duration of the game your team plays shorthanded.

This competition is held over a 45-minute span of continuous play, with a 15-minute break, followed by another 45-minute span of continuous play. In most games, the contest is stopped several times for certain actions to take place, such as a corner kick or free kick, for substitutions, or to treat an injury. Thus, at the end of each half the referee may add a few minutes of what is termed “stoppage time,” the time that was used up for those mentioned actions that are not continuous play. This timing mechanism puts a premium on athletic stamina as much as the sport’s action puts a premium on speed (the ability to move quickly over the field) and quickness (the ability to take up space quickly).

We watch soccer—there are, as with most sports, many multiples more watchers of professional soccer than there are players—for its entertainment value. That value can be defined as providing an audience of knowledgeable fans (usually fans who have played or play the sport) a chance to see how the best competitors make use of the greatest degree of individual player freedom of action of any field team sport.

Professional soccer is entertaining not only for its beautiful athleticism and the high degree of technical skill exhibited, but for that wonderful intrinsic duality that anyone can play soccer at its most basic level and with very little equipment, and that at its loftiest level, it poses nearly insurmountable demands for most. If you add the details of line-ups and formations, tactics and overall strategies, skill level and availability of a player, time and place of the match, weather and field conditions, referee skill level, and the teams’ history of prior encounters, and you have the ingredients of a truly compelling life drama played before your eyes in real-time.

The Business

Providing such entertainment, though, requires soccer clubs, nations, and sports organizers have the money needed to play—to obtain the services of the players, buy the equipment needed to play the sport and train the players and keep them in good health and athletic form, to hire the folks needed to support the players and to build and maintain stadia and to transport entourages to and from competitions (from coaches to trainers and from dieticians to bus drivers to grounds keepers).

These expenses are usually covered by a business (such as a club) earning the money to do business by selling tickets to their games, obtaining sponsors to defray costs (such as an apparel company providing free uniforms), and selling broadcast rights to their games. Over time those businesses have concentrated the right to negotiate broadcast rights (one of the three biggest revenue makers in the sports business together with advertising and sponsorships) into their respective domestic leagues and national federations.

When soccer players participate in representation of their clubs the domestic league structure takes over in broadcasting negotiations and if they play in representation of their nations, FIFA, the sports’ governing body, handles the revenue both negotiating the rights to broadcast, sponsor, and advertise, but also how the proceeds get distributed. Advertising and sponsorship, ownership, and ticket sales are still handled at a club level or national team level though organizers such as La Liga in Spain or the Dutch National Team in Holland, UEFA in Europe, or FIFA globally, also obtain collated revenue derived from the fact that the sports’ participating players belong to a club and the club to an organizing entity or belong to a national team and they, in turn, belong to an international organizing entity.

That is it, just about. The essence of our sport and its business in 800 words.

Today’s Status

Today, soccer is still the above-defined sport, but it has also become a much bigger business. Clubs are worth billions of dollars, players are paid millions of dollars, sponsors and broadcasters pay millions to billions to outfit a team or broadcast a league’s games, and advertisers pay billions to buy spots on broadcasters’ airings and/or on team jerseys, or stadium ads. To remain competitive for trophies clubs with means spend increasingly larger sums and those without the wherewithal fall further behind in their abilities to compete—thus Bayern Munich (32 titles) and Juventus (36 titles) can each win 10 Bundesliga or Serie A titles in a row while Wolfsburg and Sampdoria have only ever won one title.

As more money is poured into soccer it has morphed toward becoming much more of an entertainment business than a sport concern. In that vein, those businesses pursue even-greater profits, and to serve that objective the sport is being manipulated toward becoming a different endeavor altogether. Rule changes, contemplated as a means of making the consumption of the sport’s product even more attractive, are continually contemplated or de facto implemented without reference to the Laws of the Game. Fouls are allowed, for example, simply because “there was not enough” of a foul to warrant a whistle, or because if called the player to be sanctioned—such as a superstar performer—might be shown a red card and thus forced to depart the contest, thereby depriving the paying public of his performance for the rest of the match.

Currently, that confluence has been so complete as to have media pundits refer to the sport as the business and vice versa, so that they refer to soccer in terms of broadcast rights, or advertising and sponsorship revenue, or in terms of making the “product” more interesting to the newest generation of fans. The morphing has become so universally expressed that when we are told soccer has to change,” what the phrase means is not updating the sport but modifying the product to maximize its profitability. It is from that perspective that modifying the sport is being contemplated.

Changes, but are they to the Sport or the Business?

Some (read FIFA) believe there are not enough games. They argue that more income and better marketing would be derived from more matches. How that benefits the fans, players, coaches, etc. is not clear although the owners, and FIFA types, would reap further financial rewards. The fact that the same players who played the 38 league and potentially 12 cup games, aside from the club champions league or lower-level equivalent, and the Nations League, national confederation championships, and confederation super cups, the club world cup, and the national friendlies and qualifiers followed by the actual World Cup, are the same players who would be burdened by the additional matches seems an afterthought. It isn’t.

Some believe the sport lasts too long. This has always sounded silly. First of all, because the match duration is part of the sport’s performance criteria—you must be able to run all out for 45 minutes with but a 15-minute break before repeating the feat—it doesn’t make sense to fundamentally change the sport. Second, because the sport is continuous with few action breaks, and action taking place field-wide regardless of where the ball is, soccer is in a class by itself, and reducing that activity again fundamentally modifies the sport’s performance criteria.

Third, if anything, soccer is a shorter spectacle than just about any other major team sport (American Football=3 hours plus, Baseball=3 hours plus, Rugby=about 3 hours, Ice Hockey 2.5-3 hours, Cricket=7 hours plus). The entertainment industry itself aims for a two-hour product-duration span in movies, novel reading time, or theater play duration (with intermissions). Our sport lasts the right amount of time and we don’t need to change it.

Fourth, the latest argument given is that with our current kids’ lack of an attention span 90 minutes is just too long. Of course, we all know those same kids remain on YouTube, Tik-Tok, or Instagram for many multiples of that two-hour span on a daily basis, but the “shorten-the-match” crowd still retains some traction. Who knows why.

Some believe that the sports’ status is not high enough. They argue that it is not enough that the sport has permeated the social consciousness of the entire globe, but that instead, it is time to aggressively capitalize on that phenomenon by producing ever more streaming shows about the sport, or having actors and other businessmen invest in small clubs as a means of gaining promotional broadcasting minutes to further advance whatever other endeavors they may otherwise participate in, or to have celebrities who have no involvement with the sport making appearances at locales where they are guaranteed to be caught on camera. Yeah, soccer is the global sport—period. And that should be enough—but if you need the addons remember they are just that, not the sport, your idiosyncratic addon, so pick your flavor and enjoy.

Some still argue against VAR. Video assistant referee technology may not yet have been perfected, but the technology has proven itself countless times. Perhaps the clearest showcase of its value came during the Qatar World Cup 2022 in a match between Portugal and Uruguay. Uruguay had a penalty called against them when defender Gimenez pretended to break his backward fall in the box by putting an arm down behind himself only to (oops, accidentally) cup the ball and move it away from the opponent who had just megged him and was about to get on the other side of him in the box. The ref, of course, missed the play, but VAR, clearly uncovered what transpired and showed the subterfuge in slow motion. Replays showed that when Gimenez put his arm behind his body, he had actually palmed the ball as if a basketball, and in his descent (golly-gee) that handled the ball just happened to change course and prevent the Portuguese player’s progress toward the Uruguayan goal. Oh well, if it works…

Some argue that a handball is not an understandable call. Simple, if you touch the ball with your hand on purpose, or if the ball hits your hand and just happens to modify its trajectory in a manner that is favorable to you, it is a handball. The issue, many argue, is that calling a hand ball is still a matter of referee discretion in differentiating a ball hitting a player whose hand is in a “normal, expected position” and one that is not. But the prior criteria should obviate such a conundrum as the player always has the choice of not being in the play to begin with, or can choose whether or not to challenge in a manner that might bring about a hand ball, so that if he has chosen to be in the middle of the action and taking risks with his arms/hands and the ball strikes his arm/hand an infraction should be called, and the player held responsible. Not a tough call.

Some argue that what needs changing is the business model itself. Ah, there is the rub. Yes, let’s look at a more equitable distribution of league income and talent to overcome competitive imbalances and limits on the number of players a team can buy, and on the amount a team can charge for tickets or broadcasters can charge for viewing the games. And how about limits on non-soccer money bailing out poorly managed clubs? How about a ban on any money used to bribe officials into voting for a World Cup host nation or fixing a tournament or award result? Oh, of course not, those aren’t the changes that seem to be in vogue. But shouldn’t they be?

And what about things none seem interested in seeing changed

None argue for fan voting for domestic league or FIFA officials. But why not imagine a national election for one’s national federation leadership and the means of recalling the leaders should they not live up to fan expectations? How about the same for FIFA so that those alleged representatives who care not for their national constituencies and instead do whatever will be of self-benefit (read corrupt) cannot continually have single candidates to rubber stamp who in turn pay them off again?

None seem to think the manner of broadcasting should change. I have often wondered why not. The coverage should give the television-viewing audience the advantages of being at the stadium with none of the disadvantages. You can recall what was fun and what was bothersome to you on your last stadium visit, but for the majority of fans, those watching at home, how about:

  • coverage that includes routine pan-outs so that we can see what the players not immediately involved with the ball are doing—you know the two opposing players pushing each other on the opposite side of the pitch, or the ones repositioning themselves many yards away in anticipation of a potential change of the front of attack, or the one who runs to the sideline to get a coaching tip mid-game—or following Messi once he has joined his team on the last third of the pitch, or Modric as he navigates the entire field, or de Bruyne as he slaloms from midfielder into attacker on a dime
  • seeing the same replays as the VAR folks share with the ref, but see them in real-time so we can arrive at our own decision on the play at the same time as the VAR team
  • multi-angle replays of important plays (as possible without distracting from the live coverage) and not just goals
  • not turning the sport into a reality show where we need to hear what the players, refs, and coaches are saying on the pitch imagine yourself with a mike attached at your job—not a pretty picture, huh?
  • if we get a sense for the audience without having to feel like we are checking the state of anyone’s tonsils
  • not having ever larger electronic billboards along the perimeter of the pitch to the point that viewing the game becomes an act of willing one’s eyes away from the annoying non-game related movements surrounding the playing field
  • not having continuous ads on top of the ones in #6 which interrupt the game at annoyingly increasing intervals particularly when they replace the time and scoreboard until the ad has run
  • not having announcers and commentators pitching the networks other offerings during the match
  • not having the announcers and commentators telling us who tweeted them about the match or about the announcers’ birthday
  • not having the announcers and commentators explicitly or implicitly wearing their allegiances on their metaphorical sleeves, particularly to the point they cannot give a balanced report on the action on the turf.

None seem to think there should be penalties for poor behavior. Imagine if Blatter, Platini, and Warner, to pick three obvious characters, had actually been sent to jail. Would future behavior of the same kind diminish? Imagine if Infantino’s media tirade before the 2022 World Cup had been considered bad form. What could the rest of the football world have done about the duly elected president, particularly if those allowed to elect him profit from his tenure? Let’s change the manner of FIFA elections to be aligned with the manner of those for federation presidents—via the sports fans, those paying for the sport to progress as a sport and not the plaything of business and political elites.

 

Photo: Soccer ball in stadium, Shutterstock ID: 187762661, by wavebreakmedia.

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