It took me the longest time to figure out what all the excitement was about when it came to football (soccer). What’s so thrilling about watching 22 guys stand around kicking a ball back and forth for no apparent reason? Most of the time it looked like someone would kick the ball and then the rest of them would take off after it. Who ever got there first would kick it again. Sometimes it would even be kicked in the same direction as the first guy had kicked it, but more often then not it would be sent back the other way, only to see it sent back, and so on.
No wonder they celebrate so much when a goal is scored, it’s a bloody miracle that the ball gets anywhere near the net, let alone in it. The only time anything deliberate happened was when they would line up for a free kick, and even that was a pretty dodgy looking enterprise. One guy trying to kick the ball around a “wall” of opposing players ten yards away, and either put it in the net or land it somewhere near enough to one of his own players so that he could try and kick or head it into the net. Corner kicks seemed to be just a more difficult variation on the same theme, except here you had to try and kick it in an arc and bounce it off your team mate’s head into the net. Fat chance.
Gradually, the more I watched, and the higher the quality of teams that I’d watch play, the more I began to understand what I was seeing. Sure, there were some times when a team would be forced to play the serve and volley approach, booting the ball up field and hoping one of their own team would retrieve it, but that was only when they ran the risk of being hemmed into their own zone. Most of the time it was a different story, and teams would try to retain control of the ball for as long as possible before committing to an attempt on goal.
A team starts with the ball deep in their own zone, then either the goalie or one of the defensive backs will start the ball up field. Then begins the gradual process of working the ball forward by passing it from side to side in order to try and create space between the other team’s players – lanes. On some occasions you’ll even see teams work it back down field if the approach forward looks blocked. Slowly the defensive backs will work the ball up to the midfielders, which is where the pace will begin to pick up and options develop.
If the attacking team has been able to “spread” the defenders across the field and open “lanes” for their forwards to run through, they might try a quick strike. A quick pass fired ahead for an attacker to run on to allows him to be at full stride when he gains possession of the ball and tries to break through the defence for a shot on goal or pass it off to another attacker. (The other reason the ball is always played so that an attacker has to run after it is the offside rule which states that a player can not proceed the ball behind the defenders)
Near their own goal defenders will sometimes fixate on the ball, and the ball carrier will attract two or three defenders, freeing up space for his team mates to get open for a pass. If the attacker is moving up the centre he might attempt a pass out to a wing and continue up the centre in the hopes of a return, crossing, pass that he can redirect behind the goalkeeper. Of course if the defenders don’t commit, and allow an attacking forward space to advance, he will continue to charge up the centre. The players on the wings will fall in behind him so he becomes the point in a very wide and thin obtuse triangle. He can then choose to pass back to either side, take a shot himself, or chip the ball forward to the side for his team mates to run after and attempt a shot of their own.
If on the other hand the quick strike option doesn’t present itself, the attacking team could elect to continue the process of working the ball towards the net using more players. Passing the ball back and around they will attempt to create space for someone to break free for a shot on goal. Of course the tighter in they get the less room there is, which is why you’ll often see attacking teams make passes that travel all the way across the field at times in an attempt to make space.
I was reminded of this all over again watching Germany take Poland apart 2-0 in yesterday’s Euro 2008 round robin match. (Croatia escaped with a 1-0 win over a surprisingly strong Austrian side who were let down by their inability to put the ball in the goal. Beside it, over it, and into the posts, everywhere but into the netting behind the keeper). While Poland periodically made long passes in an attempt at the quick strike, the Germans moved the ball around at will.
A quick forward pass into open space gobbled up by a speeding forward resulted in the ball being carried deep into the Polish zone before defenders could get back and all of a sudden the Polish keeper had two German forwards bearing down on him. With no choice but to commit to playing the player in possession of the ball, he hadn’t a hope in hell of saving the shot off the boot of the second player. The second goal saw the German’s work the ball nicely into the Polish end at speed again, stretching the defenders thin. So when the ball bounced off a player, the goal scorer was unmarked, and was able to deftly smash it out of the air at knee height past the helpless Polish keeper.
Watching a good football team, like the Germans, or even better the Brazilians, on the attack is like watching the sea come in with the rising tide. With each wave of the attack, they gradually erode the opposing teams defence until they are lapping at the net and the inevitable goal comes. The Brazilians, when they’re on, play at such a high level that you can feel the rhythm of their attack as surely as if it were set to the Samba beat their fans pound out on drums during matches.
When two exciting attacking teams like Brazil and Italy are locked into battle, it’s very easy to find yourself becoming mesmerized by the ebb and flow of the players. Almost imperceptibly the tension builds as each team’s forward motion seeks an outlet; a means to breakthrough and wash aside the opposition for that one moment needed to score. A ball kicked forward, a sudden burst of speed, and like lightning a player is through and a goal explodes, sending fans and team mates into paroxysms of joy.
To the uninitiated, especially for those used to North American football with its reliance on set plays with precise development, football appears chaotic and haphazard. However, spend a little time observing play on the football pitch and gradually you’ll begin to see method in the apparent madness. You might have wondered what there was to get so excited about in a game where the final result is often 1-0, but once you “see” football for what it truly is, and the magic gets under your skin, you’ll understand. Football really is a case of seeing is believing.