Familiar to all who have watched more than fifteen minutes of any game – from youth level to professional –is the battle cry of all indignant football fans: “Ugh, that was such a dive!” That, and its equally popular counterpart “what a cheap foul!” are among the most common complaints logged by fans of all ages. But not all fouls are created equal, and no matter how frustrating they are when against your team of choice, soccer just would not be the same without them.
I understand the frustration because I know the feeling all too well: your team has the ball and are headed towards goal. You think they have a decent chance and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a player from the other team slides in and strips yours of the ball. Even if the perpetrator is handed a card, it doesn’t do much to assuage the indignant feeling you’re left with.
Or, maybe the roles are reversed; the opposing team is rushing towards your goalkeeper, your defender slides in just in time to block the shot, but it causes the attacker to crumble to the ground. You breathe a sigh of relief, until the referee runs over with a card in his hand. Once again you are left feeling disgruntled and annoyed. The whole ordeal is frustrating and exasperating – yet it is still one of my favorite parts of watching.
I am just as guilty as the next fan of yelling at the TV over a disputable call, but my actual pseudo-rage is really fueled by my love of dramatic games. I often watch games as a neutral party, so I find just as much joy in perfectly executed tackles during a tense game as I do when my favorite team thrashes their rival by a large margin. If I’m watching a scoreless game between two teams where I have little-to-no allegiance , I want to be entertained in other ways. It can be through fancy footwork or controversial calls, I’m not picky, as long as I don’t have to sit through an entire game devoid of action.
As an American, I am surrounded by many basketball and gridiron football favoring friends, who argue that their disdain towards soccer is because the low-scoring nature of the sport gives the illusion that games are dull and boring. If you are reading this right now, you most likely disagree wholeheartedly with that statement, but take a moment to think about your reasoning.
Sure, the majority of soccer games end with a score much lower than those in typical American sports (in soccer, a scoreline with a differential above three is considered an anomaly), but those goals require a lot of buildup. The other 80-odd minutes that are devoid of celebrations can often still thrill. The low scoreline hides the high intensity of a talented defense that is exciting to watch because of – not in spite of – their ability to prevent shots on goal.
There are blocked shots and goal-line saves that get fans of both teams out of their seats, but would produce a scoreline scorned by those not interested in the sport. They may have instantly dismissed the game when the USWNT tied Sweden 0-0 last year in the Women’s World Cup, but Meghan Klingenberg’s header from underneath the crossbar was just as exciting as any goal.
Why do I find what some label as what is wrong with soccer to be so entertaining? Maybe it’s an appreciation for defenders. Maybe it’s my lack of interest in the sports that are cited as “morally superior” by other Americans. Or maybe it’s a combination of both. Regardless the reason, I find strong defending and professional fouls more acts of gamesmanship rather than outright cheating. The creativity and freedom of the players is part of what makes soccer so much fun to watch and their attempts to skirt around some of the rules are what keeps the game feeling youthful and bold.
It’s a tactical decision to either push the envelope or play safe and it’s one that adds complexity to coaching, playing, and studying the sport.
In a perfect world, excellence in football would be defined solely by a combination of athleticism and skill; however, this world is far from perfect and a variety of factors contribute to the successes and failures of teams and players. As a player myself, I have been in situations where my only option in blocking a shot was to slide into an opponent and pray that the ball came with me. After failed attempts at trying to create that perfect block, I now have a greater appreciation for the professionals’ calculated tackles.
Those that are often on the receiving end of the indignant football fan’s battle cries are committing to tackles at much higher speeds and with a narrower margin of error than I have. What ends up looking careless or reckless to those watching requires serious deliberation within a split second. And those decisions become that much harder during long tournaments due to the risk of accumulating cards and potentially missing increasingly important matches.
The ability to make quick decisions on when to commit fouls is a valuable skill in itself, and, unlike fancy moves, it can only really be learned through experience. To lump these considered actions in with the malicious or aggravating fouls that often get more attention, such as those of Real Madrid’s Pepe, feels unfair to the defenders who spend 90+ minutes extinguishing fires and keeping their team in the game.
I can’t imagine watching a game where every single play follows every FIFA rule exactly and I don’t think I’d want to. The fouls show the humanity of the sport; it isn’t perfectly clean at all times, but the players will do everything they can to help their teams succeed. The rawness of soccer is part of its worldwide appeal to people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Fouls are part of what keeps the games so real and in-the-moment. Besides, where would we be if we didn’t push the boundaries a little?