Why Do People Like Soccer?

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There’s a lot said about soccer by people who don’t like it: it’s too low scoring, it’s too slow, it’s too liberal, people are diving constantly, etc. Supporters of soccer or football as it’s called in the rest of the world call it “the beautiful game” and flock to it in record numbers. As someone who will happily watch or participate in virtually any sport from water polo to olympic handball to Australian rules football[1] I’m not particularly interested in advocating for one sport over another but I will list some of the reasons I think people like soccer.

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To celebrate and prepare for the World Cup in Brazil, Dear Sports Fan is publishing a set of posts explaining elements of soccer. We hope you enjoy posts like Why do People Like Soccer? How Does the World Cup WorkWhy Do Soccer Players Dive so MuchWhat is a Penalty Kick in Soccer? and What are Red and Yellow Cards in Soccer? The 2014 World Cup in Brazil begins on June 12 and ends on July 13.

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People Like Soccer Because it is Incredibly Hard to Score

This may be counter-intuitive because one of the complaints of many people about soccer is that it’s too low scoring but I think it’s a feature not a defect. One of the primary reasons why people enjoy watching sports in general is to watch athletes do things that they themselves could not do. For that reason, the harder it is to score in a game, the more wonder scoring should create in its fans when it does happen. And it is hard to score in soccer — this is what an attacking player in soccer faces:

  • First they take away the most dextrous limbs at your disposal, your arms. No using your hands or arms.
  • Then they put a ball on the field that, if you kick it hard enough, bends and dips in all sorts of fairly unpredictable ways.
  • Controlling this ball without using your hands means that your top speed with the ball is way slower than a defender can run without the ball.
  • Finally, they allow one player, the guy who is there with the sole purpose of preventing you from scoring, to use his hands.

All of these difficulties (and we didn’t even mention the offside rule) make scoring an impressive feat.

People Like Soccer Because of the Buildup Before the Release

One of the unexpected adjunct pleasures of watching a game where scoring is so rare is that by the time a team does score, it’s fans have built up an enormous store of pent up will, rage, and yearning that explodes into celebration to a degree unknown in higher scoring sports. According to Chris Anderson and David Sally of Slate Magazine the average number of goals in an English Premiere League soccer game is around 2.6. In a ninety minute game a team will usually score one or two goals. That’s a ton of time for fans root without having a celebratory release. Compare this to sports like tennis where the play rarely lasts 30 seconds or basketball where a team must shoot every 24 seconds and scores a little less than half the time it shoots. I can say that the goal the United States scored against Algeria after ninety scoreless minutes of a 2010 World Cup game that the U.S. needed to win was one of the most glorious sports moments of my life.

There are two downsides to this characteristic of soccer that I would be remiss not to mention: one is that the despair of seeing the opposing team score is equally acute. The second is that, mostly in the past in Europe but still once in a while in other parts of the world, the extremity of emotion combined with a heady mixture of alcohol, antagonism unrelated to sport, and unwisely designed stadiums can lead to rioting. In 1989 in Sheffield, England 96 people were killed and another 700 plus were injured in a riot of this sort. Called the Hillsborough disaster, these deaths did lead to significant reform in England.

People Like Soccer Because of its Teamwork and Fluid Play

This is probably also related to the advantages that not being able to use your hands give defense has over offense but soccer teams play more as a team than almost any other sport. It’s not unusual for there to be a string of ten or even fifteen passes that lead up to a goal. There are absolutely star players but even they exist within a team frame-work. For every star striker (player who exists solely to score) there is a star playmaker whose greatness is seen most clearly in the passes he or she makes to teammates. If you watch a soccer match in person, try to sit farther up than you imagine is ideal. From there you will get a good view of how the twenty-two players on the field move in swoops and cycles. The play continues this way almost unimpeded for ninety minutes. As the patterns that players make (overlapping runs on the wing, forwards retreating to pick up a pass, etc.) make their way into your brain as tactics instead of the aimless wandering you first might perceive them as, you will come to appreciate them.

Some Other Reasons People Like Soccer

  • More than other sports, national soccer teams have clearly defined historic styles that usually remain constant and which relate in some way to the national character (or at least are thought to.) The Brazilians dance with the ball like no one else and win, the Italians play rugged, dirty, defensive soccer and win, the British lose gallantly, the Germans play disciplined soccer and win a lot, and the Dutch play the most beautiful soccer in the world and lose consistently in the end.
  • There’s less difference between the men’s and women’s game than in most sports. Although I won’t often watch women’s basketball, I will watch the U.S. Women’s National team whenever it’s on. The rules of the game are almost identical and I get as much enjoyment from watching their games as I do the Men’s team.
  • The U.S. Men’s team is not that good. I’m one of those weird fans that enjoys watching bad teams, but even people who don’t have that problem might enjoy a break from being an overwhelming favorite like the U.S. is in many international competitions.
  • Most people in the world (even here in the United States) grew up playing soccer so they’ve internalized the game more than other sports.

There are some reasons why I think people like soccer. Do you like soccer? Why?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Although I will admit I do not understand the rules that the name of that sport refers to

9 thoughts on “Why Do People Like Soccer?”

  1. This is a beautiful description of the game of soccer. Your Papa would have loved the article and would have been proud of you!

  2. Soccer is one of the few sports I (almost) understand! Like your mom, I, too, watched my kids grow with the game. Love it! Thanks for the post.

  3. A child who grows up playing soccer appreciates the beauty of teamwork. Each player knows that they need each other to win, or lose, a game. Many of my greatest joys have been on the sidelines watching my children play this wonderful sport. Thanks for the article. 🙂

  4. This view more than any other I have read explains the nature of soccer and also ice and field hockey. They are defensive games in which a goal really means something because of the effort made to score it and the hockey goalie’s saves are more exciting than the goals themselves. Some of the best games I have seen were 1-0 or 2-1. It is childish to want the game to be a continuous display of sloppy play which leads to meaningless points. A soccer goal is like a labor of Hercules compared with the ease of scoring in other sports and has a tremendous impact. The difficulty in scoring in these sports which is seen as a fault by some is really one of the main attractions of them.

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