Commentary

Where soccer fails, the NFL gets it right

By Paul Gardner

An impertinent book, this. The title and subtitle tell you succinctly what you are getting: “The Ugly Game -- How football lost its magic and what it could learn from the NFL.”

Soccer bowing to football? Preposterous! Not at all says author Martin Calladine. In his reckoning, the battle between the two sports is already over, and football has come out way ahead.

Calladine, growing up in England, immersed in English soccer, has abandoned his attachment to that sport and is bursting to tell everyone how tedious soccer has become and how vastly superior the Yankee version of football is.

I know nothing about Calladine. He does tell us that he loves stats, and there are quite a few graphs and charts in this book, most of which bore the hell out of me (meaning, quite possibly, that I’m too mathematically retarded to understand them).

I’ll overlook the stats. Because Calladine makes a lot of good points about the decline of soccer’s appeal, and he has a lot of fun making them. True, it’s all rather personal; a close relationship between Calladine and soccer has been betrayed and as he sees it, it is soccer that has perpetrated the betrayal, with Calladine the jilted lover.

Clearly an intelligent bloke, Calladine sorts out, with humor and occasional spite, soccer’s failings and stupidities. He feels -- pretty strongly -- that the sport has been allowed to deteriorate into a weak imitation of itself, a sport that has lost its personality, a sport without leadership. 

The catalog of soccer disasters is nicely contrasted with the way that the NFL, according to Calladine, gets things right.

(Talking of stupidities, Calladine has some of his own to add. He quickly (page 3 of the Introduction) tells us “Despite my love of American sports, I’m not sure I could ever feel comfortable using the word ‘soccer.’” Oh, come on, Martin -- you do know that the word was coined in England itself? So what’s the problem here?)

But that’s merely an annoyance. On the whole Calladine does a pretty good job of pillorying the poverty of the English soccer vocabulary. His chapter on the banalities of English TV commentators is a rollicking read -- from “the intellectually subnormal level of football broadcasting” through “we’ve bred a generation of pundits who, if they lived in the US, wouldn’t be able to get hired by a local paper to cover high school sports” and on to “football pundits have an almost complete inability to say anything interesting about the game.”

Right on -- we know all about that, Martin -- we have to put up with those guys contaminating the airwaves here too.

Calladine links the hopelessness of the pundits with the hopelessness of English soccer, especially the English national team: “Would I really want an end to the England team? Well, either that, or they agree to play properly and stop spoiling the World Cup for me.”

But Calladine already knows the World Cup has been spoiled by soccer itself. Mostly by being not very exciting and by a shortage of goals -- “goal-wise, major football finals have tended to produce slim-pickings.” They are “cagey, low-scoring games” and compare very poorly with the “openness and offensive intent” seen in Super Bowls.

I’m in total agreement and have said so repeatedly in this column. Calladine makes a few suggestions that he thinks might pull soccer back from its impending demise, but they seem half-hearted. Of course, I disagree with most of them, though he is surely right to include larger goals among them -- an idea that has been often (and, I think, wrongly) ridiculed in the past. Ridiculed because apparently no one at the top levels of soccer actually pauses to think about the sport. 

Should they ever begin to do that, they could do worse than start with this Calladine contribution: “woven into its [soccer’s] very design are a set of assumptions about human physical limits that are centuries out of date. Players now are too big, too strong, too quick, too well-coached, too tactically aware and too well rewarded for finals to be meaningful affairs.”

For me Calladine comes crashing off the rails when he starts to reveal what lies behind his rejection of soccer and his genuflection to football: in a word, brutality. Football, he says, “is, by its very nature, violent. Wonderfully so, in fact.” There’s simply not enough violence in soccer for Calladine’s liking.

I cannot see that he helps his argument by telling us about a minor-league player (in England -- nearly all of Calladine’s tales of woe take place in English soccer) who suffered a broken tibia, was out for a year and then, on his return, broke the same leg with a sickening crack, clearly audible to the spectators.

Are we really expected to find that gruesome tale uplifting? Seems so. Because soccer is “No longer a game with a physical edge ... and it’s the poorer for it.”  The NFL is preferable, even though Calladine admits that its wanton violence must mean “often horrendous” injuries, “But, god, is it magnificent.”

You will doubtless have your own opinion about the beauty of violence.

Calladine is on much firmer ground when he details the terrific job that the NFL does in making sure that football does not get out of balance -- i.e. in maintaining a balance between offense and defense. 

For me, that is the key word: balance. A word that, as far as I’m aware, is unknown to the soccer biggies. Soccer at the moment is seriously unbalanced, has been for decades, in favor of defense. Football -- and basketball and baseball -- have in the past made small rule changes to restore the balance. Soccer does not do that.

Anyway, who are the soccer biggies who would make the decisions? I have no idea. But in the NFL you do know. The owners. And Calladine has a lot of incisive stuff to say about the NFL owners. For a start, how long-lived they are when compared to the increasingly fly-by-night soccer owners. 

According to Calladine, every English Premier League team has changed ownership at least once in the past 20 years. Whereas in the NFL, “the average team has been owned for more than 34 years by the same person or family.” A sort of family continuity that has led to the growth of a “culture of custodianship,” within which this large group of powerful and frequently fractious businessmen manage to work together and really do have the “good of the game” in their sights. “Unlikely as it seems,” says Calladine, this “self-selecting group of rich, largely white, largely older men, seem to have managed to look after a sport better than a much more democratic, open system.” 

Calladine plows on with the wonders of the NFL -- with the things soccer should think about copying: TV revenue sharing, TV blackouts, salary cap, rookie contracts, and of course, the player draft. 

The player draft, says Calladine, is “brilliant.”  Not least because it helps prevent billionaire owners “buying success.”

I suppose that’s true. But it’s difficult to place much trust in Calladine’s praise of the draft because he seems to have very little understanding of the role of college football. The college game gets only five mentions (all of them en passant in 180 pages. That Calladine really has no understanding of the exploitation of college players, and the unholy alliance between professional NFL football and college amateurism, is made starkly clear with his assertion that an NFL team “must find and develop its own players.”

Way off, I’m afraid. OK, so Calladine’s case for NFL perfection is itself far from perfect. But his indictment of soccer contains a lot of difficult truths. While I do not agree that soccer has “lost its magic,” I’m pretty sure that it will do so if it doesn’t start correcting its own imperfections. 

Were there such a category in literature (maybe there is?) as “Rants,” that’s the shelf where “The Ugly Game” should sit. That is not meant to belittle it. Like all good rants, it’s full of energy, of good ideas and awful ideas, of common sense and utter nonsense. And of course, tremendous enthusiasm. That is contagious, and that is what makes Calladine’s book so enjoyable.

The Ugly Game -- How football lost its magic and what it could learn from the NFLBy Martin Calladine. (Pitch Publishing, Durrington England)

19 comments about "Where soccer fails, the NFL gets it right".
  1. ROBERT BOND, February 2, 2017 at 2:01 p.m.

    DFB hat gewonnen-ich habe Spass...

  2. Clayton Davis, February 2, 2017 at 2:03 p.m.

    There definitely needs to be a change of the rules so that defense is not so heavily favored. I don't think violence helps because it tends to favor defense in soccer.

  3. John Soares, February 2, 2017 at 2:59 p.m.

    Even in "violent" football. Most of the cheers, praise and money go to the "so-called" Skill Players , QB, RB, WR. No disrespect to the players on the line. They are doing their job. The point: the LAST thing we need in SOCCER is more violence.

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now, February 2, 2017 at 3 p.m.

    Sounds like a terrible book.

  5. Gus Keri, February 2, 2017 at 6:29 p.m.

    So, after you wasted your time and read the book, you decided it belongs to the "Rants" shelf. Why are you wasting our time in making us read about your terrible decision in reading it? Any person who recommends increasing the level of physicality in soccer to match American football is anti-soccer.

  6. :: SilverRey :: replied, February 3, 2017 at 11:23 a.m.

    OMG this tastes horrible. Here, try it.

  7. R2 Dad, February 2, 2017 at 8:11 p.m.

    With a title like that 180 pages seems a stretch. This guy probably pines for the early 90's, when players could routinely break the legs of their opponents with little to fear but a slap on the wrist.

  8. Alvaro Bettucchi, February 2, 2017 at 10:56 p.m.

    The beauty of soccer has always been in seeing the intelligence and the skills of the individual player and the anticipation of the group to unify in participating in the making of the play or the goal. At one time, in Europe, there was a short goalkeeper, Bacigalupi" that made tremendous SAVES. Now we have tall, athletic goal keepers that make "saves". But the goal size has remained the same. Enlarge the goal by one yard, and the height by one foot and keep the non-violence-rules in soccer, Then see what you get. The "BEAUTIFUL" game!

  9. John Soares, February 3, 2017 at 12:41 a.m.

    While I am not "strongly" opposed to changing the goal size.
    We should keep in mind that while goal keepers have gotten bigger/better.... So have attacking (scoring) players.

  10. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, February 3, 2017 at 9:49 a.m.

    No need for major changes like that. Look for small areas where we can improve the game like goal-line technology, fast video review etc.

  11. Robert Routson, February 3, 2017 at 4:37 a.m.

    Without a creative attacking offense philosophy rule changes will not make a difference. Why do we over complicate what used to be known as The Simple Game?

  12. Ed Shaw, February 3, 2017 at 7 a.m.

    Thank you Paul for effectively reviewing this book. The two sports are on different trajectories and it's important that soccer fans and leaders think about reforms. 40ish Americans who played soccer 30 years ago did not become life long fans as many of us had hoped they would.

  13. Kevin White, February 3, 2017 at 2:49 p.m.

    I think he has a very important point: “woven into its [soccer’s] very design are a set of assumptions about human physical limits that are centuries out of date. Players now are too big, too strong, too quick, too well-coached, too tactically aware and too well rewarded for finals to be meaningful affairs.”
    Solution, reduce the number of field players from 10 to 8 or 7 and allow more substitutes. The athletic ability of current players has in a practical sense shrunk the size of the pitch. Reducing the number of field players would open up play resulting in more exciting end-to-end soccer. However the soccer culture is much too reactionary to consider such a solution.

  14. Mark Landefeld, February 3, 2017 at 4:45 p.m.

    Although some good points are made, the article leaves me wondering when I can watch the Golden State Warriors next.

  15. Scot Sutherland, February 3, 2017 at 4:59 p.m.

    There is only one thing about football that I like better than soccer. Players don't fake an injury and act as if they have been shot with a howitzer. A few rule changes I would like to see: 1) relaxation and simplification of the handball rule to include touches above the elbow. Any touch whether close to body or otherwise on the forearm or hand is a handball. 2) Simplification and relaxation of the offside rule. If any part of a player is level with any part of a defender the offensive player is onside. For example: "As long as a player's foot is onside the player is onside." If any player is in the offside position when the ball is played the whistle blows, unless the referee waves it off. 3) reducing the size of the penalty box to 36x12. 4) advancement in a tournament or playoff by having goalies follow field player rules (no hands) for the overtime period. 5) Enlarge the goal to 10 feet by 10 yards. (currently 8ft x 8yards.

  16. Andrew Kear, February 3, 2017 at 10:05 p.m.

    Football has no standing on the global stage. I don't know what the purpose of the comparison is. Football has just not taken off in other countries.

  17. Scott Johnson, February 6, 2017 at 12:53 a.m.

    It is said that the reason that the baskets in basketball are ten feet off the ground is that Dr. Naismith thought that players would be unable to reach them at that height.

  18. James Madison, February 6, 2017 at 9:34 p.m.

    Calladine gets off on the wrong foot when he complains about English soccer TV commentators. They are a tribute to the language as well as the game. The vocabulary of American NFL announcers is kindergardenish by comparison.

  19. Nick Daverese, February 27, 2017 at 7:12 a.m.

    There is no thinking by the players anymore in American Football. Their coaches do the thinking for them.

    Even at the HS level it is the same.

    I was watching a HS game. I saw a ton of open space to attack. No one hit that space. Their very smart coach did not see it. Any player who was looking could have saw it, but they were not taught to look for it and attack it.

    It is a boring game if you can't see and attack space.

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