Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Beautiful Game

It is only with great arrogance that one argues the virtues of one poor analogy over an equally shortsighted example. It is with this same arrogance that I speak up in defense of my chosen sport – futball to the rest of the world – soccer here in the United States. I play soccer to gain both physical and mental fitness. Playing soccer correctly requires agility, stamina, and creativity. The Brazilians call it the beautiful game because when it is played with finesse and timing it can mesmerize the viewer, not unlike a well-choreographed ballet. Yet it is not the only sport that can captivate an audience. All sports can have beauty when the human body exhibits fluid motion – gymnastics, tennis, and figure skating fall into this category. Played as a team – ice hockey, basketball, and soccer are played fluidly and produce a range of human motion. Even American football, although played in a series of short intervals, contains human motion that can be defined as beautiful. Only team sports, as opposed to individual competitions, possess the necessary element of combat to warrant an analogy with warfare and how it is waged. It is here that my contribution to this discussion begins.

I grew up playing America football. My earliest memories playing football include wearing the Cleveland Browns uniform my parents purchased out of the Sears Christmas Catalog – not because I liked Cleveland, but rather because I liked the orange helmet. All of the NFL uniforms were available and they were neatly laid out in neatly in the pages of the catalog. I remember scanning those pages for hours before finally making my choice. Strangely my best friend also received a Cleveland Browns uniform for Christmas and coincidently our two friends up the street both got Los Angeles Rams uniforms. With my friend’s older brother – who played for the local high school team – acting as a quarterback for both sides, we played well through summer. We huddled, we planned, we ran, we blocked, we faked, we moved slowly up the field. We scored. I also remember attending the high school games – always with my eyes locked on the wide receiver – our special backyard quarterback.

Next up in my memory bank comes the punt, pass, and kick competition. I didn’t fare too well in these events. My friend has a shelf full of trophies. I wanted to win a trophy one day. When it became time to join a league team I had already moved away and was introduced to soccer – perhaps there was another way to win a trophy. I continued to play sand lot football with my new friends on my new street, but when it was time to play a team sport, soccer was already stealing my heart. Although everything still revolved around football, nobody seemed to notice I was playing soccer and nobody seemed to care – it wasn’t until I started receiving Sports Illustrated magazine that I noticed somebody did care. I’m quite certain that between 1970 and 1980 SI didn’t even know that soccer was a sport. Our culture revolved around football, and despite what Chevrolet may contend football had usurped the more prominent American pastime of baseball.

Holidays, of course, were not complete without football on TV. The entire family stuffed with turkey in the family room watching the games. Who didn’t participate in this cultural conditioner? Up until this point this conditioning was all subconscious – it happened without much choice. Consciously, I took an active interest in football as a spectator when I arrived in high school. Everything centered on the football team. The weight room, the private locker room, the best uniforms, the marching band, and, of course, the cheerleaders all seemed to exist for the support of the football team. I still didn’t much about money or consider the financial side of things. All I knew about money was that the football team didn’t have fundraisers. The track team went door-to-door collecting newspapers to recycle. The band just went door-to-door begging. But every Friday night you were expected to be at the football game. That’s where your friends were. That’s where the girls were – and if you were lucky – that’s where your first kiss occurred. The pep rallies, the bonfires, the homecoming (I still don’t understand homecoming) – but I do know selecting the homecoming queen is a popularity contest. Cliques were formed – the popular guys dated the popular girls. The geeks hung out with the band. The druggies smoked cigarettes under the bleachers. Everybody was present and accounted for at those Friday night games. The cultural brain washing was nearly complete by the time we graduated from high school. Those who chose to go to college would leave their high school teams behind in favor of the great college squads. Those who did not go to college began following their father’s favorite pro team or shifted to stockcar racing.

I went to college and again received a healthy dose of football Americana. I stood through every college game I attended. I spend the week before the game finding a date to bring. I went to the pep rallies and the bon fires. I lived for the weekends – and, as a bonus, we could now drink beer at the stadium. We drank before the games and after the games as well. We drank either to celebrate a victory or to drown out a defeat, it didn’t matter – although you might celebrate with a more expensive import choosing to drown your sorrows with a cheaper domestic. If you were really lucking you would have sex with your date back in the dorm. If you were really really lucking you would have sex with your date at midnight on the fifty-yard line. If you were not so lucking you would spend the night throwing up in the toilet. What’s not to love about football?

But what does any of this have to do with warfare and the way the United States military conducts operations? If you haven’t been paying attention it is the arrogance of a winner that has drawn the ire of our adversaries. It is precisely our belief in the complete and total dominance of our adversary that makes us a winner – but we can only win doing what we know we can do best – we are the best at playing football. And, in case you haven’t noticed, it is football that has emerged as the champion of our capitalist society. Football wins the race for the money with advertising space during the Superbowl still the most valuable airtime in the history of television.

It is precisely this strategy of total dominance that leads to the criticism of football’s focus on centralized command and centralized control as the wrong way to do business during a conflict. But as we know, total domination, is the only way to do business when American lives are at stake. You go tell the mom or dad that their son or daughter died in combat because it was necessary to go easy on the enemy – they were getting their feelings hurt so we backed off a little. We didn’t want to run up the score, it might upset them and make the rivalry game next year just that much more difficult. It would be poor form like to run up the score. That’s a load of crap! Of course we run up the score in combat. We hit them with everything we’ve got, and then some. The point is that we’ve got more than football in our bag of tricks – we’ve got soccer too, as well as hockey, and basketball – we just haven’t learned about flexibility, about other ways to do things, that sometimes you can get more done with a carrot than a hammer. That’s the entire first article by Li and was attempting to point out. Not to attack the sacrosanct sport of our culture. American men have not learned the lesson. American women – perhaps filling the void caused by not being allowed to play football – have learned the lesson. Have you ever heard of Mia Hamm or Christine Lilly. This year, Pele (Does he need an introduction?) recently named the greatest 100 soccer players of all time. His list included 98 men from all over the world; none are from the United States. The list also includes 2 women – you guessed it – Mia Hamm and Christine Lilly who were both born and bred in the USA.

The men’s World Cup was held in Korea and Japan in 2002. The US men’s team produced their best showing ever. It was a competition to behold – with one of the greatest finals of all time pitting the mighty game played by the German’s against the beautiful game play by Brazil. An estimated 1 billion soccer fans worldwide witnessed this spectacle. Never was a venue more ripe for the political picking – soccer was absent from the US political agenda. No picking occurred. Although our political machine did not show up for the photo op, American corporations did show up to display their wares on this global billboard.

The Women’s World Cup was held last summer in the United States. It was supposed to be held in China – but with the outbreak SARS – world travel plans were changed. I still wonder if anyone in our government knows or cares that during the competition the North Korean’s were playing for honor and glory in our heartland – Columbus, Ohio to be exact. China also brought their team. Another great venue ripe for the political picking was ignored. Not stupidity – mostly out of ignorance with a smattering of arrogance.

So there is much more this Country and our military can learn from the sport of soccer. I will not belabor the commentaries that have come before this – except to say soccer is closer aligned with a revolution in military affairs in that the transformational war fighting construct that it and other sports of a continuous and free flowing nature (basketball, hockey, etc.) demonstrate is one of shared awareness and the ability to self synchronize. On the gridiron, awareness is far from shared. Viewing each facemask can assess the necessary level of awareness for each player. The more bars on the cage the less awareness necessary. And on each set play, everyone has very specific instructions. Contrast that with the requirement for everyone on the field, court, or ice to know the position of the ball or puck and the relative position and capability of player engaged in the battle. No additional coordination is necessary. If an attacker is moving down the wing his job is to cross the ball into the penalty box. It is the requirement for the striker to be aware that the run is taking place and to synchronize their own run to have their head or stick on the end of the ball or puck when the cross comes.
It is of course sheer folly to make these black and white comparisons. War is the most complex of all human endeavors. What we do know for certain about the nature of warfare is that it is an uncertain business. The fog of war permeates everything. Preparing for all strategic contingencies is resource prohibitive. Preparing for the Superbowl is a noble calling if the game is actually played. Having the flexibility to adapt to a different strategy is more important if the competition fails to enter the stadium on Superbowl Sunday – or moves the ball off the soccer field as been suggested. When that day comes let’s not get caught in the stadium alone or stacked at the line of scrimmage. A pick-up game of soccer in the parking lot may be all that we have left or a lone goalkeeper standing in the net when the ball comes back on the field. Let’s make sure we have some good all-purpose athletic shoes in the trunk of the car and the knowledge of many games – we might even have to play basketball.

No comments: