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The explanations advanced for soccer's intense mysterious power, the trancelike quality of great matches, its worldwide domination over all other sports, have been many. There is the game's inherent theatricality—not the razzmatazz of an American halftime, but the inner dramas of sin and redemption, the testing of virtue, the pursuit of pattern and cohesion, the collision of paradoxical forces. Soccer has often been compared to Greek tragedy, or seen as a kind of open-ended morality play. Perhaps the difficulty in scoring (and thus the usual narrowness of margins of victory, even between teams of markedly unequal ability) intensifies this sense of theater, causing the denouement—or the collective catharsis—to be withheld almost always until the final whistle. Nor, until that whistle, is there relief from the tyranny of time's ceaseless flow: Once you've fallen into a game, there is no getting out. The player must stay with that flow, maintain the rhythm, press for advantage, preserving all his skills, his mind locked into the shifting patterns; and the spectator, though less arduously, shares this experience.

One is left at the end, not with data, but with impressionistic images of bodies in motion. Nothing of importance can be statistically recorded about a match except corners, shots, goals, and saves (the American effort to record assists is admirable but—since it's often a complete mystery, even with TV replays, who's scored the goal—a bit desperate), and these will tell you almost nothing about the game itself. The player who actually wins the game may be the one who moves into space at the opposite side of the field, drawing a defender, forcing a new configuration upon the defense and making virtually inevitable a goal that was before impossible, but no one—not even he—may be aware of this. It's all narrative, and thus subjective: Each game is a story, a sequence of ambivalent metaphors, a personal revelation couched in the idiom of the faith. No game I know of is so dependent upon such flowing intangibles as "pattern" and "rhythm" and "vision" and "understanding." Which may all be illusions. And at the same time it is a very simple game: like dreams, almost childlike.

Read Robert Coover's entire essay. He's a novelist and essayist, first became obsessed with soccer while living in Spain. He has since chased the game through several decades and continents. His most recent book is A Child Again.

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