In soccer terms, I am what is known as a "neutral," someone who loves the sport but doesn't follow any particular club or team. This comes with certain drawbacks—requiring me, for instance, to devote energy and interest to all twenty participants in the English Premier League, the most competitive and popular in the world, as well as to the élite clubs from the other European soccer countries. Now and again, some turn of events—a wonder goal, or horror tackle, or unexpected trade—will force me to dig a little into the Superliga Argentina or the Brasileirão, where many of the best players start out but never stay. And when I'm feeling curious or apprehensive about the future of the game, and about the sheer range of soccer I might one day feel obliged to obsess over, I'll read up on Major League Soccer or the Chinese Super League—generally agreed to be rising forces, though still currently a place for second-rank talent and the occasional fading, pampered megastar.
Yet I am considered one of the lucky ones. Not long ago, in central London, I bumped into a male acquaintance and we started talking soccer. I mentioned in passing that I don't support a team, and he groaned, envying my freedom to "simply drift with the action," when he had spent his life "chained by the ankle to Tottenham Hotspur." When Immanuel Kant defined the true judgment of beauty as existing "apart from any interest," he was also describing the charmed position of the modern soccer neutral—able, say, to admire Lionel Messi's turbocharged yet feathery left foot, on display for Barcelona, without the mildest twinge of annoyance that he doesn't play for "us."
My neutralism has its limits: I will doggedly follow the progress of England's national team in the World Cup, which is now under way in Russia. But when England is, inevitably, knocked out—by the quarter-finals, in all likelihood—I will soon put it out of my mind and turn to the truly meaningful business of watching teams like Germany, Spain, and Brazil. It remains to be seen whether American enthusiasm will survive the U.S. team's failure even to qualify, but there's every reason to hope that it will. A recent Gallup poll found that soccer was the favorite sport to watch for seven per cent of Americans—higher than hockey, and only slightly lower than baseball. Then, there's the matter of the World Cup's peculiar pull. The sixty-four matches at the last tournament attracted a cumulative audience of more than three billion. With the possible exceptions of the Olympic Games and the verdict of a papal conclave, no other recurring event is capable of inspiring so much global fervor.
A school football team practices in the playground, in Islington, London, in February, 1938.
Photograph from Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty
But, unlike the Olympics—the only occasion when most people have any time for figure skating or race walking—the World Cup serves as a quadrennial testament to soccer's year-round appeal. By any number of metrics, it is the most popular sport on earth, and the current tournament arrives at a moment of new highs. The leading European leagues—England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy—generated almost eighteen billion dollars during the 2016-17 season, a nine-per-cent increase, and Manchester United recently posted record annual revenues for a single club (around eight hundred million dollars). Television broadcast rights continue to fetch eye-watering sums, and, earlier this month, Amazon entered the soccer market for the first time. The Portuguese player Cristiano Ronaldo has a larger Instagram following—a hundred and twenty-eight million—than anyone except Selena Gomez, and is the most highly paid sports star in the world, outpacing LeBron James and Roger Federer. And the World Cup has brought a shelf of new and updated books treating the subject from every conceivable angle: from social history to tactical minutiae, and from soccer's future as an outpost of Big Data to its ever-growing status as an object of aesthetic wonder.
For most of soccer's history, the idea of nonpartisan connoisseurship would have been unthinkable. From its earliest days as a traditional English pastime, the game was a tribal affair—defined by one historian as "more or less institutionalized violence between villages or different parts of villages." By 1600, it had been banned by Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VII, Henry VIII, James I of Scotland, James IV of Scotland, and Elizabeth I. Yet these edicts had little effect on the game's appeal or on its unruliness. In the sixteen-sixties, Samuel Pepys noted that London, one frosty morning, was full of footballs. In 1817, Walter Scott informed his friend Washington Irving, who was visiting Scotland, that it wasn't safe for local teams to play against each other: "the old clannish spirit was too apt to break out."
As Tony Collins recounts in a brisk forthcoming survey, "How Football Began" (Routledge), the game's transformation from folk pursuit to global industry began in the élite British schools of the nineteenth century, where Anglican educators such as Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School, promoted sports as a way of harnessing youthful energies that had previously found rebellious outlets. Arnold's tenure was memorialized in Thomas Hughes's autobiographical novel, "Tom Brown's Schooldays" (1857), and, with cooler retrospect, by Lytton Strachey, in "Eminent Victorians" (1918). Strachey presented Arnold as an "earnest enthusiast" who, in his efforts to make his pupils Christian gentlemen, merely insured that the English schoolboy with no interest in soccer became "a contradiction in terms."
The game's growth beyond these enclaves was hampered by a lack of central planning. "Football," in the mid-nineteenth century, was played with sufficient variation to serve as a forerunner not only of soccer but of rugby football, Australian-rules football, and gridiron football. (When "Tom Brown's Schooldays" was published in the U.S., it sold two hundred and twenty-five thousand copies in a year.) Attempts to introduce the game at Cambridge University during the eighteen-forties foundered, because, as one student wrote, "every man played the rules he had been accustomed to at his public school. I remember how the Eton men howled at the Rugby men for handling the ball." A compromise, the Cambridge Rules, was drawn up and a campaign for universal standards spread. In 1863, representatives from eleven clubs formed the Football Association—the term "soccer" is a contraction of "association football"—and set about devising the Laws of the Game, which included the maximum length of the pitch (two hundred yards) and a prohibition on throwing the ball. Later additions mandated the number of players (eleven a side) and introduced the referee, the goal net, the crossbar, the free kick, and the dreaded penalty spot.
A record crowd of more than forty-five thousand on the terraces at the Den, the stadium of the East London team Millwall F.C., watches the team's underdog victory against Newcastle United, in an F.A. Cup game in January, 1957. Millwall fans were so fiercely partisan that other teams feared playing at the Den, and in later years hooliganism became a problem.
Photograph from Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty
George Best playing for Manchester United in the mid-nineteen-sixties, at the team's field, Old Trafford. Best, a Northern Irishman known for his transcendent talent, charisma, and hard-living ways, brought a new level of celebrity to British soccer.
Photograph by Bob Thomas / Getty
At first, soccer was a genteel sport—among the F.A.'s founding members was a team fielded by the civil service—but it gradually caught on in the industrial North. Legislation had shortened the Saturday workday, introducing the distinctive leisure period known as the "week-end," and employers, like headmasters a few decades earlier, began promoting the game as a wholesome pastime for their workers. In the eighteen-seventies, the arrival of cup competitions, both national and regional, "rapidly and unexpectedly became a focus for local pride and civic rivalries," Collins writes. Teams from mill towns like Darwen and Blackburn could play against each other as well as against the Old Etonians.
Before long, merchants, engineers, travel agents, and seamen took the new pastime abroad, founding the first soccer clubs in Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, and Russia. In Brazil, the game was introduced by Charles William Miller, the São Paulo-born son of a Scottish railway engineer, who went to school in England and returned in the eighteen-nineties with a pair of leather balls and a copy of the rules from the Hampshire branch of the F.A. (His legacy as the man who brought soccer to perhaps the most besotted of all soccer nations endures in a cross-legged maneuver known as the chaleira.) Even countries with their own footballing traditions embraced the new, codified sport. In Italy, although soccer is still known as calcio—after a Florentine game that originated in the sixteenth century—the British influence is enshrined in such Anglicized names as A.C. Milan, one of the country's most distinguished club sides.
Collins credits soccer's global success to its early embrace of meritocracy. In 1888, the F.A., three years after permitting players to go professional, established the Football League, with a season-long calendar of home-and-away fixtures—developments rightly perceived as threatening to the Victorian cult of the gentleman amateur, which continued to rule cricket and rugby. The model of organized competition, financed by a paying audience, could be emulated elsewhere, thereby liberating soccer from English oversight. As far afield as Buenos Aires, rugby matches were controlled by the Rugby Football Union, but every soccer country was free to start its own association; in 1904, a world governing body, FIFA, was founded, with seven members.
The F.A. wasn't among them. Foreigners' soccer was viewed with haughty indifference by the English soccer establishment. Charles Sutcliffe, the president of the Football League in the nineteen-twenties, boasted that he didn't know the name of a single club or individual on the Continent who was involved in soccer. But chauvinism came at a cost: an independent scene was developing, and isolation bred stasis. After the 1924 Olympics, Gabriel Hanot, a French player, said that comparing the Uruguay team, which won, to England's team, which had refused to take part, was "like comparing Arab thoroughbreds to farm horses." By 1930, the year of the first FIFA World Cup, in which the U.S. competed but England did not, Jimmy Hogan, an English former player who had spent his coaching career abroad, complained, "We are absolutely out of date." Soccer, as played in its mother country, remained primitive in technique and tactically complacent, with an emphasis on moral fibre that had begun to look increasingly quixotic.
The illusion of superiority survived into the postwar period, sustained by the fact that the national team had never lost on its home turf. But in 1953 Hungary, fielding a strong side known ever after as the Mighty Magyars, travelled to London and won 6-3. (In one match report, an overzealous English defender, having been wrong-footed by a Hungarian, was described as rushing past his opponent "like a fire engine going to the wrong fire.") Some pride was salvaged the next year when Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Budapest Honvéd; the Daily Mail called the Wolves team "champions of the world." But the renewed conviction that British was still best became untenable after the establishment, in the 1955-56 season, of the European Cup. The English Football League forbade its clubs to enter—the chairman declared that the Continental game had "too many wogs and dagos"—and, though Manchester United ignored the ban, the Cup's early years were dominated by Real Madrid and Benfica.
The emergence of an international soccer scene prompted the first stirrings of interest from a neutral perspective. A. J. Liebling, covering the 1952 Helsinki Olympics for this magazine, attended a game between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and admired the "speed and intricacy of the play,"and "the legerdepied of the dribbler who seems to offer the ball to his charging opponent and then takes it away, leaving the opponent prone." Reflecting on the 1954 World Cup, the first to be televised in Britain, the former Arsenal player Bernard Joy wrote that the viewers at home had been "impressed by the attractive, artistic way the leading foreign teams played. . . . We murmured, 'Good football,' about them as though it had nothing to do with the winning of matches." Soccer's cultural recognition was broadened by television—in the past, geography had more or less dictated access—and also by a series of dramatic events that made a claim on general attention. In the next decade and a half, England had its first soccer tragedy, the Munich air disaster, in which eight Manchester United players died; its first soccer superstar, George Best, the so-called fifth Beatle; its first and only World Cup victory; its first knighthoods for a soccer player and a manager. English soccer was at last becoming part of the global game.
Between the visit of the Mighty Magyars and England's World Cup victory, in 1966, British fans began to learn the names of foreign stars and even, as the journalist Brian Glanville noted, "managed to pronounce them correctly." Soon there was foreign vocabulary, too: the Italian defensive strategy, catenaccio; the wandering "sweeper" position, the libero; the Dutch tactical revolution, totaalvoetbal. Total Football, made famous by Johan Cruijff, a star player for the Amsterdam team Ajax and for Barcelona, promoted possession-based soccer—retaining the ball through short, precise passes, rather than risk losing it by booting up the field—with every player equipped, at least in theory, to occupy every role on the pitch.
Britain's soccer culture appeared to be growing more relaxed and receptive. The ranks of sports journalists were joined by the philosopher A. J. Ayer, the Viennese émigré musician Hans Keller, and John Sparrow, the warden of All Souls College, Oxford. In his chirpy "History of British Football" (1968), the musicologist Percy M. Young identified the arrival of a recognizable new type—the soccer connoisseur, who would watch only "attractive football." But even among connoisseurs tribalism often won out; the point of soccer was still to chant and cheer, not analyze and admire. The television presenter Michael Parkinson wrote that, despite having seen Real Madrid and A.C. Milan play, he had "never got over Barnsley," the Yorkshire team to which his father had introduced him as a boy. In 1980, the Labour M.P. Roy Hattersley estimated that although England might contain "a few thousand purists who see football as an art and watch it to enjoy the objective beauty of rhythm and form," it remained to a very large degree a pastime for partisans: "The rest of us want to see our team win."
Wanting to see that happen more than most were the diehard followers, the hooligans, both in Britain and in the rest of Europe, whose brawling tarnished the game. After an accidental fire at a stadium in Bradford, in 1985, the London Sunday Times called soccer "a slum sport played in slum stadiums and increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up." Later the same year, at the European Cup Final, in Brussels, a charge of Liverpool fans caused a stadium wall to collapse, killing thirty-nine people, most of them supporters of the Turin team Juventus. (English clubs were banned from European competitions for five years.) Clubs became preoccupied with crowd control, often herding groups of spectators into large metal pens, and in 1989, at Hillsborough, in Sheffield, ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death. The Economist ran a cover with the headline "The game that died."
Blackpool F.C.'s goalkeeper Gordon West makes a dramatic diving save against Arsenal, in April, 1961. Arsenal won 1-0, but West, who was seventeen at the time and had only recently begun playing in goal, went on to a major career as goalkeeper for Everton.
Photograph by Ron Bell / PA Images / Getty
But it hadn't. Barely a year later, soccer was the game that survived and prospered. The England team excelled in the 1990 World Cup, reaching the semifinals. The BBC gave the tournament a self-consciously upmarket presentation, with Pavarotti singing "Nessun Dorma," and England's young star, Paul Gascoigne, known universally as Gazza, emerged as a national figure when he broke down in tears during a match. A report commissioned by the British government recommended getting rid of the traditional, standing-room-only "terraces"—a measure widely resented as an attempt to gentrify the game. But the all-seater stadiums that replaced them, and the higher ticket prices they necessitated, were not the only factor in soccer's social shakeup. Chairmen and media executives had been conspiring to introduce the sport to modern capitalism. In 1992, the highest tier of the English Football League, the First Division, spun itself off into an autonomous corporate entity, the Premier League, enabling the big teams to negotiate their own lucrative television deal, with Rupert Murdoch's recently formed satellite service.
It was at this juncture that "Fever Pitch," Nick Hornby's memoir about his obsessive support for Arsenal, was published, just in time to attract a large, educated readership newly interested in the game. Hornby accepted the post-Hillsborough reforms, reasoning that "the end of terrace culture" would not mean "the end of noise and atmosphere and all the things that make football memorable." Yet his book also served as a rebuke to a new kind of soccer engagement. He identified himself as "an Arsenal fan first and a football fan second," and wrote with detachment verging on contempt about "the middle-class football fans" who admire the "cerebral attributes" of certain players. Some people might applaud the virtuosity of opposition players, or lose themselves in "the patterns and rhythms of football without caring about the score," but that wasn't fandom. Arsenal's particular style of play "is beside the point for most of us," he wrote. "I go to football for loads of reasons, but I don't go for entertainment." Nonetheless, football was becoming subsumed into the entertainment industry. "Fever Pitch" soon became a movie, with Colin Firth in the Hornby role.
When I first got into soccer, as a child, in the early nineties, it looked as if I were doomed to be one of those people who, in Roy Hattersley's phrase, inherit "their fathers' frustrations." Initially, it didn't seem as if the frustration would be too great: in 1992, my dad's team, Leeds United, won the First Division, just before it became the Premier League. But the next season Manchester United emerged as the dominant side, destroying the competition week after week. A reporter and Manchester United fan named Jim White sensed that history was being made, and decided to write a book about the team's progress. White was a family friend, so when the team played Leeds he took me along.
In his book, "Are You Watching, Liverpool?" (1995), White wrote about my eight-year-old self, expressing surprise that I enjoyed the game even though Leeds lost: "I looked at him and saw the picture of awed excitement his face had become and said that I thought he wasn't really a Leeds fan." He'd noticed how much I loved a song the Manchester fans sang in praise of one of their players, and suggested that my avowed support of Leeds was just a way of sparing my father's feelings. It didn't occur to him that I was developing an appetite for the sport per se—that I'd have considered it ungrateful to dismiss the winning side's attacking flair simply because my father happened to have come from a different northern city. My dispassionate leanings were vindicated a couple of months later, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup. England had failed to qualify, but how much did that really matter, when you had Italy, Holland, Brazil? Like Liebling in Finland, I was free to admire the legerdepied.
The Heysel Stadium disaster, May, 1985. Before the start of the European Cup Final—between Liverpool and the Turin team Juventus, at the Heysel Stadium, in Brussels—a charge of Liverpool fans caused a wall to collapse, killing thirty-nine people, most of them Juventus supporters. In the aftermath, English clubs were banned from European competitions for five years.
Photograph by Gianni Foggia / AP / REX / Shutterstock
TV certainly played a role in forging my untribal attitude. Like most families, we didn't have Murdoch's satellite package, but we still caught highlights of Premiership games on the BBC's weekly roundup "Match of the Day," and, for the first time, it was easy to watch soccer being played outside the British Isles. After Gazza went to play for an Italian club, Channel 4, a terrestrial station, acquired the broadcast rights for matches from the Italian Serie A, which had many of the best players. The game itself was becoming more fluid and watchable—the safe but boring play of passing the ball back to the hands of one's own goalkeeper had been outlawed—and the presentation of the game on TV was growing in sophistication: more cameras, more pundits, more replays, and other studio gimmicks, all serving to heighten the drama of games and rivalries. The top clubs, flush with TV money, signed expensive foreign stars in ever greater numbers. (Today, almost seventy per cent of the players in England's Premier League come from abroad.)
In his book, Jim White deplored the ongoing process of "commercialization." But he seems not to have anticipated the long-term impact of consumerism on the traditional habits of fandom. The "importation" of players wasn't unprecedented, but television and the game's embrace of capitalism were always bound to erode its local foundations. Within a few years, White was lamenting the fact that his beloved Manchester United had become the team of choice for soccer moms in California.
Globalizing impulses helped bring about a flourishing of neutralism. In "Soccer in Sun and Shadow," an influential collection of reflections and vignettes which appeared in English in 1997, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano defined himself as "a beggar for good soccer." When it occurs, he wrote, "I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it." The game replaced the team as the subject of fandom, the source of pleasure and pain, the ethos to live by.
A number of recent books, timed for the World Cup, adopt a similar approach and add a playful pop-philosophical veneer. Laurent Dubois, a historian at Duke, where he teaches a course in "soccer politics," presents his book "The Language of the Game" (Basic) as a "love letter" or "offering" to football, which he defines as "probably the most universal language on the planet" and "the most tantric of sports." In "What We Think About When We Think About Soccer" (Penguin), the British philosopher Simon Critchley attempts to provide "a phenomenology of the beautiful game . . . a poetics of football experience," and advocates a position that he defines variously as "absolute distance," "aesthetic distance," and "a kind of self-forgetfulness."
Both books tend toward the gnomic. For Dubois, the face of the French player Lilian Thuram, after scoring, confronts us with a fundamental question: "What, exactly, is a goal?" Critchley, riffing on Thomas Nagel's famous thought experiment about the unknowability of a bat's perspective, asks, "What is it like to be a ball?" Dubois and Critchley share a favorite modern player, the scintillating French midfielder Zinedine Zidane. Graceful yet dynamic, combusting even in repose, Zidane is best known for acts of virtuosity and extremity: a move known as the roulette, in which he pulled the ball backward with the sole of his right foot, performed a swift pirouette, and dribbled off in the other direction; an explosive, out-of-nowhere volley that produced Real Madrid's winning goal, against Bayer Leverkusen, in the 2002 Champions League Final; and, most notorious, in the 2006 World Cup Final, a head-butt on the Italian defender Marco Materazzi, his final action as a player.
Zidane has attracted an unusual amount of attention from writers, and the task of rendering his presence on the page elicits some strenuous effects. In an essay on the 2002 volley, "Fallen from the Sky," Javier Marías proclaimed that "the gift became flesh, and then verb." Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in his pamphlet "Zidane's Melancholy," invoked Zeno's paradox to question whether Zidane's head could actually have reached Materazzi's chest. More recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote that Zidane's "every move" at the 2006 World Cup was "a joy to behold"—even the head-butt was "entirely rational"—and Tom McCarthy mused that Zinedine Zidane's head was ineluctably drawn to the double "Z" in his antagonist's surname, calling the head-butt "perhaps the most decisive rite typography has been accorded in our era." Such poetic flights, for all their idiosyncrasy, constitute a more or less natural response to the way we watch soccer today. Feats that last a split second, once they are endlessly replayed in slow motion from a dozen camera angles, acquire an aestheticized, even mythic quality.
The Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics jumps to make a save in a game against England, in London, in November, 1953. Hungary, the leading side in the world at the time, won 6-3, the first time England lost to a non-British side on its home turf. The defeat punctured a long-standing British assumption of superiority, leading to a review of antiquated tactics and training methods, and to a new openness to innovations from abroad.
Photograph from Colorsport / REX / Shutterstock
But media saturation has also given rise to an opposite, if no less fetishistic, way of thinking about soccer—a focus on tactical analysis and data crunching, whereby the inherently fluid rhythm of the game is dissected into statistically surveyable chunks. On TV, the close reading of match data, such as the percentage of match time each team has the ball, or a player's number of "assists"—a term borrowed from American commentary—adds texture to a game in which the main event, a goal, is notably rare.
Pundits caught the Big Data bug from coaches. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski explain in the new edition of their rich, if rambling, book "Soccernomics" (Nation), the game's store of inherited anecdotes and ingrained habits is gradually being replaced by data collection and the study of things like a player's "expected goals"—moments that, based on the nature of the scoring opportunity, should have produced a goal but didn't. There's a strong North American presence in the data revolution. Clubs from Major League Soccer have been active in developing analytics departments—the 2017 league final, between Toronto F.C. and the Seattle Sounders, was billed as the "nerd derby." But the empirical turn is taking place in Europe, too, where smaller teams with minimal spending power are eager to find an advantage. Coventry City recently employed the political economist Chris Anderson, formerly of Cornell and the author of "The Numbers Game," a kind of soccer version of Michael Lewis's "Moneyball."
Perhaps inevitably, soccer aesthetes like Simon Critchley are hostile toward the statistical approach, just as traditionalists like Hornby were suspicious of the aesthetes. Critchley warns against "the error of objectivism, " insisting on the importance of such unquantifiable factors as "passion" and "grit." These laments aren't limited to the sidelines: Pablo Mastroeni, a former M.L.S. coach, said, "Stats will lose to the human spirit every day of the week."
But is attention to detail really antithetical to the game's "spirit" and theory the enemy of beauty? The astonishing underdog success of Leicester City, which won the Premier League in 2016—a story Critchley loves—owed much to analytics. And, in the past decade, the emergence of tiki-taka, a tactical descendant of Total Football perfected by Pep Guardiola when he managed Barcelona, showed that intricate systems—Guardiola divides the pitch into twenty zones—were not just a fussy distraction but could produce soccer that was both attractive and effective.
A different way of thinking about the drive to render soccer scientific may be as a kind of compliment to the game's inherent instability, its capacity for generating anomalies, springing surprises, outwitting plans—the very things that fascinate the neutrals and break the hearts of the tribalists. If the people watching at home are interested in the possession stats and "heat maps," that doesn't presage the reduction of soccer to figures and formulas. It is more like the scratching of an itch—the fulfillment of an inevitable curiosity about what was really going on while we were cheering and checking our phones and looking at the wrong part of the screen. Perhaps, too, it reflects a desire for something real and adult and sober that might justify watching twenty-two grown men in cleats and colored jerseys charge about a strip of painted grass, occasionally doing something beautiful. ♦