Football is our game. Unfortunately, it might stay that way.
The early days of September see an end to an exciting time in the soccer leagues of the world known as the “transfer window”. Ending on “Manic Monday”, which this year was September 2, the transfer window sees players in leagues across the globe transfer from team to team, league to league, and country to country as clubs pay millions of monetary notes to purchase the rights to the contracts of various players. This year, the transfer window was especially busy, particularly in the English Premier League. One of the most notable transfers was the move of German player Mesut Ozil from his club team, Real Madrid, in the top league in Spain to Arsenal, a team playing in the Barclays Premier League, England’s top soccer federation.
Stop and consider that for a moment. A German was playing soccer professionally in Spain and transferred to a different team in a different league in a different country. And this globalization of leagues confined to single countries is business as usual in the Beautiful Game. No matter where the games are played, the sport continuously seeks new ideas and innovations. Players, managers, tactics, and techniques are always evolving as different ideas come from different countries. Each team in each league in each country works to create the best soccer they can by utilizing what is constantly being discovered about the game.
Consider Everton, my favorite soccer team. Last season, the manager was David Moyes, a Scotsman. After he left for Manchester United, he was replaced by a Spaniard named Roberto Martinez. At the transfer window, Everton lost a Belgian named Fellaini and a Nigerian named Anichebe. The squad added two Englishmen and a different Belgian. The Belgian they added, Romelu Lukaku, was persuaded to join Everton largely because of the presence of his countryman Kevin Mirallas, whom Everton had added to the roster a year ago after acquiring him from a GREEK SOCCER TEAM. So, in other words, Everton may have never acquired a player that could be vital to their dreams of a top four finish if they hadn’t looked to the Greek soccer league and found a successful but little-known player for Olympiarkos.
Consider the play by play that Ian Darke could give: “Save by Howard (U.S.A.). He rolls the ball out to Baines (England) and he plays it forward to Pienaar (South Africa). Pienaar advances and sends the ball to Lukaku (Belgium). Pass into the center to Jelavic (Croatia) and he scores!”
That’s crazy. A stadium of 38,000 Merseysiders decked out in Everton blue are cheering on a team of players from England, Spain, Ireland, The Netherlands, Croatia, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Belgium, Scotland, France, Senegal, South Africa, The United States, Greece, and Paraguay.
Soccer, one of the most archaic games, looks beyond cultural, ethnic, and language barriers. Controversial goals can’t be reviewed, but a team can try adding a creative Latino to the midfield in order to generate more scoring chances even if that player does not speak English and has never played against any of his future opponents. Even the manager of a national team can be of a different nationality. Furthermore, soccer is theoretically one of the most simple games in the world. How much can you really innovate in a game with such simple rules and objectives? Well, when the world works together, apparently there’s a lot to discover.
So let us Americans now take a moment and consider whether or not this unbelievable use of world resources makes its way into our four major sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). It shouldn’t take long to see that three of those sports have done a tremendous job of incorporating what the rest of the world has to offer. The most important one has not.
Football is both America’s Game and an American Game. Surpassed by nothing in sporting popularity, football is the king of American sports culture. Fittingly, the game is uniquely and distinctly of American creation, innovation, distribution, and recreation. After moving on from its English roots in rugby, American football has forever been confined to America’s dominion. But now, with the rest of our sports using what the world has to offer, why hasn’t football ever taken on a global dimension?
Consider the irony of something American being fully American. Our food, cars, homes, government, art, music, movies, fabrics, and just about every other dimension of our everyday lives are at least partially foreign, and some things are even completely from outside the nation. For the vast majority of us, our ancestors were not Native American.
It’s this, to use a common cliche, “melting pot” that makes this country “America.” Using the best of this and that, America has made itself something special.
Not so with our most favorite sport. Our great American unifier has taken in almost zero influence from the outside world. In fact, not only has football not let the world in, but it has also not gone out to the world. To truly understand the lack of globalization in football, consider the evolution of another true American game: basketball ((we could talk about baseball and hockey, but all I need to do is list off the last names of some of the best players in either sport for you to understand how those games have globalized) for example the two leading candidates for NL Rookie of the Year are both Cuban)).
Basketball is just as much a game of American invention, innovation, and dominance as football is. Yet, unlike football, basketball has reached out to the world. Basketball is played all over the globe as it continues to gain a foothold in more and more major centers of population. Some nations have made major advancements and have major leagues of their own, while some other countries are just starting to hoop with a desire for increased ballerness. Some countries have pretty pathetic national teams, but the important thing is that they have a national team in the first place. There are good reasons why football is not in the Olympics and there is no FIAFA.
Not only has American basketball given to the world, the world has given to American basketball. The most obvious contribution is the number of players in the NBA from foreign countries, including some top-level players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Yao Ming, Manu Ginobili, Vlade Divac, Tony Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Dikembe Mutombo, and Hakeem Olajuwon. There are players from the Caribbean to the Aegean and beyond.
Have foreign players made any impact on football? Other than the occasional foreign punter or the Samoan defender, the NFL is composed of Americans. Now a football apologist could argue that the size of America gives this deficiency a pass. While a soccer player’s move from Spain to Germany may be country to country, it is distance-wise as far as an NFL player may travel from game to game. That might be fair. The fact that a middle-class white quarterback can hand off to a poor inner-city black running back who runs with the protection of a blue-collar white farmboy and is tackled by a long-haired Samoan is remarkable on its own. But other than a variance in the number of times they say “ya’ll” they all speak the same language. They all grew up watching the same athletes, going to the same movies and eating the same food. Well the Samoan might be a little different, but there is a reason it’s called American Samoa.
The world of basketball has also given considerable returns to basketball in the United States in the ways of techniques. A number of different moves, strategies, and play-styles have come from non-American players and teams. Do you know why old highlights never show players euro-stepping? Do you know why it looks so strange when you’re playing NBA 2K13 and you euro-step with a classic legend? It’s because they didn’t know how. Not because they were unable to, but because they didn’t know it was possible. They had never thought to make that strange step that becomes second nature with practice. Then foreign players like Manu Ginobili started getting past defenders with it and Americans took note. Suddenly Dwyane Wade had the move mastered and started using it and it becomes one of the more commonly used moves in the game. In fact, players have found that there is an entire tree of variations that can be used after the initial step. An entire array of effective moves came from an innovation of foreign creation.
Or consider the stretch-4 and the center that can step outside and shoot. Before players like Dirk Nowitzki, the general consensus was that players 6’10 and over should stay in the paint to rebound, block shots, and score easy baskets. Then Europeans start using all of these really tall guys who can shoot 15-20 footers. Suddenly, Tyson Chandler, a prototypical center, is a detriment to Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony because of his complete inability to draw a defender away from the basket. It wasn’t that American centers were unable to learn how to shoot the basketball, it was just not considered a worthy venture. But when Vlade Divac is running the court throwing beautiful passes to his teammates, it’s sure to make the Association take note. Divac is actually a really good example, as it was only after he combined his beautiful Yugoslavian style with the necessary strength and toughness taught to him in Los Angeles that he became a premier player.
The list of examples goes on. Foreign players play basketball in a different way than those in the U.S. do. Some of their strategies, skill-sets, and techniques become crucial parts to the game in America.
So what about football? Ironically, kicking, one of the most scoffed at parts of the game, is the only area of foreign innovation, where Hungarian-born Pete Gogolak popularized soccer-style placekicking. What if there are more ways outside of kicking to play football better that no one in the United States has ever thought of? English soccer teams hadn’t though of using small midfielders to dominate possession, but a look at the world’s national teams changed their minds and now guys like David Silva rule the middle third. NBA point guards hadn’t thought of shooting a layup off the wrong foot until guys like Tony Parker showed how it can throw the shot-blocker’s timing off. So how do we know it’s not an effective strategy to use an offensive line consisting of immovable sumo-wrestlers? Who says linebackers shouldn’t be 6’6 or taller in order to bat down passes and obscure the quarterback’s vision? Why shouldn’t teams line up a wide receiver in the backfield? What if, just as Gogolak changed a technique all those years ago, guys like Kickalicious are onto something now? What if there is a safe way to tackle that we have never thought of? What if we tell Dr. James Andrews to go take a hike and start seeing doctors in Germany, like Kobe did?
We might never know the answers to these questions because no one will ever try them. I’m not proposing that football never changes, because it clearly does. It’s just that it generally only changes after a discovery in the college ranks. And, ironically, the new schemes generally work. But, for the most part, change comes very slowly and without creativity in the NFL because teams are wary of being too creative and failing miserably. A big offensive lineman thinks to himself, I just need to be really big and strong. Actually, really bigger and stronger. That’s not the attitude the European bigs had. They didn’t settle for being taller and closer to the basket. The European big said, I’m tall, and that gives me an advantage. What if I could also shoot? Maybe I can also dribble, run, and pass too? This thinking could lead the big offensive lineman to say, Maybe I could lose some weight, improve my footwork, and work on catching passes so I can be declared an eligible receiver or shift into the backfield to lead block or run in a goal line situation. But instead he just does what he knows will work well enough, and the novelty of giving the ball to big guys is reserved for the the Fridge and the Freezer.
So now that I have rambled my way to an illustration of how little the world has to do with football, we can finally reach the real questions: Will football ever reach the world? Will the world ever reach football? And what happens if the two never do?
The first question, to me, is fairly easy and thus makes the second easy. The answer is no; football will not reach the world. Simply put I don’t think Americans outside of greedy owners and commissioners want football outside the states and I don’t think the world has any use for it. Answer this question: in the last ten years, has football made more progress in the world or has soccer made more progress in the U.S.? Soccer has made more progress in the last two years than football has made in the last ten. If foreigners find football to be even half as awesomely amazing as Americans believe it to be, it would have started to catch on. Instead, the world moves forward with their beautiful game while we fight about concussions and ACLs. So the second question’s answer becomes fairly obvious: If football does not reach the world, the world will not reach football. The only way for this to happen would be for college and NFL teams to intentionally go to foreign countries and find prospects to train. But just like American soccer prodigies so rarely make it because of the cultural disconnect, foreign football players will never be able to compete with a kid from Texas who has been running two-a-days since he was eight years old.
So does this matter? The world doesn’t want and certainly doesn’t need football, but does football need the world? After all, one could argue that hockey and baseball have lost a lot of popularity in the mother country because of their global diffusion, but the resources of the world have greatly benefited basketball and it’s second nature to erase borderlines in soccer. Maybe Americans will never get tired of football. Maybe throwing sixty times a game will be desirable, and big hits will eventually be all but totally removed. Maybe the gradual changes in play style and short-lived fads will be enough to keep interest and originality. Maybe a growing number of Hispanics will give sufficient diversity. Maybe the magic helmet will be invented that protects players from concussions.
But maybe not. Maybe football just hits a dead end. Maybe the desired barbarism and the necessary finesse of the changing game cannot ever reconcile. Maybe RG3 and Ndamukong Suh can’t play the same game. Maybe enough parents say enough is enough. Maybe the 24/7/52 coverage of the same thing just becomes mind-numbing. Then what? Where does football go if America has nothing left to give it? Baseball and hockey suffered internally as they grew externally, but football would just implode. It would have nowhere to go.
There is no doubt that the world could make football better. Even if it took 25 years for the best international team to beat the worst NFL team, the world could make great contributions with star players and changing techniques. The global version of the game could impact the NFL in ways we never thought possible. Does football need the world? Maybe, maybe not. But if it ever does, that resource won’t be there.
And there’s no euro-stepping around that.
What do you think? Does football need the world? Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading! The SneakyGoodSportsShow is on the way!
Soli Deo Gloria