When you forget the meaning of soccer results

It's almost 20 years since I wrote an absurdist short story called The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant. A distressed woman calls her doctor because her soccer-loving husband can no longer process the information in scorelines such as Leyton Orient 2 Torquay United 1.

"What on earth are they trying to say here?" the agitated man shouts while sitting in front of his TV.

I feel like I'm becoming the man in my own story. Since professional soccer started excluding fans from stadiums, I find the majority of games almost impossible to watch, and the results without meaning. I fall asleep, I start scrolling through my phone, or I turn off to observe my wife's cacti grow instead. Anything to avoid the atmospheric vacuum of the stadium or the inane talking points trying to pretend that soccer is something of significance at a time of varying global crises.

I did sit down and watch a game in the English League Cup a few weeks back -- Lincoln City was at home to Liverpool. Ordinarily, this would have been the sporting event of the decade for me and my fellow Lincoln fans, even allowing for the fact that Liverpool would send a second string lineup in a competition that's no longer worth the risk to their high-earning stars. We were outclassed by Liverpool's reserves and lost 7-2, the worst home result in the club's 136-year history. My only reaction was a shrug. It was a mildly curious scrimmage, at best.

A couple of weeks later when the English champions lost 7-2 to Aston Villa in the Premier League, I texted a friend who's a Liverpool supporter. Was his team becoming addicted to the 7-2 scoreline, I wanted to know. He responded in good spirit. So maybe that's what results are good for now -- goading a mate for a half minute of light entertainment

One of my favorite twitter feeds comes from The League Magazine (@Theleaguemag), which reproduces pages of English and Scottish soccer results from old and sometimes ancient newspapers. It's not just the scores, the scorers and the league tables that fascinate me, though. It's the attendance figures. That, for example, when Luton Town played Bradford City in the English fourth division on April 26th, 1968, there were 14,147 people who made the effort to go along and pay to watch.

Now we're getting somewhere with the meaning of soccer results. If a game takes place in a stadium but there's no one there, did it really happen? Of course it did, but when I look at the list of results on Saturday evening, it no longer feels like it. They're just a series of random numbers. So what if Aston Villa, somewhat surprisingly, beat mighty Liverpool by seven goals to two? In years to come, there will be no Villa fans to tell the story to gog-eyed grandchildren that concludes with the four magnificent words, "And I was there!"

I understand that soccer is being played so that the game can survive, and also so that its biggest stars can continue to draw salaries of several hundred thousand dollars per week. And so that Sky Sports in the UK can charge its customers almost $20 to watch certain standalone games, even though they already have a subscription. Ah, so that's the meaning of those results. To produce other results, in quarterly and annual spread sheets, while pretending to care about the game as a whole.

I'm still not feeling it. As expected, Bundesliga stadiums are closing to fans again thanks to the dramatic resurgence in European COVID-19 cases. The brief weeks of perspective about soccer's importance at the pandemic's start have been usurped again by the old entitlements taking sport back out of context, and treating it once more like the world should revolve around its particular needs. At least, until governments re-impose a suspension of play.

In The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant, the doctor determines that his patient "has suddenly and dramatically discovered that football results are inherently meaningless. Which would not be a problem if he had not spent the past forty years engaged in little or nothing else." There's no cure, but he prescribes some pills to keep the patient calm and docile. Perhaps because once you've been granted this insight, there's just no going back.

['The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant' is included in the short story collection "For Whom The Ball Rolls," currently shaking up the amazon rankings at 6,537,709, a number whose meaning is more than clear.]

13 comments about "When you forget the meaning of soccer results".
  1. frank schoon, October 20, 2020 at 12:47 p.m.

    You know I never got the appreciation for stats. The use of statistics in sports is a disease a virus that is so overused in American sports. I remember in the 80's reading in Dutch mags how the American love for stats is beginning to influence Dutch soccer. Similarly to the Hall of Fame which is so American for you won't find that in Europe. 

     A long time ago, I remember having lunch with a couple of basketball coaches who were talking stats. With my dutch way of directness, although not meant to be offensive,  I made the comment, ,"why do you need stats, to see what's going on wrong with your team, for I don't need stats see what my team is doing wrong." The comment wasn't taking in appreciation but that is how I look at the game.

    I find that the more you rely on stats the less you understand the intricacies of the game and the English fans are a perfect example for they let the more intricate things of the game go right over their head. But this is why England is not known for great tactical geniuses or thinkers of the game ,thus stats, loyalty ,geography is part of that makes up their support for the team. I remember, Dimitar Berbatov, a Bulgarian player with a velvet touch on the ball playing for ManUtd. In a game he trapped a ball that came high out of the air on his shoe with such grace that even if he placed an egg on his shoe it would not have broken. Meanwhile the English fans had no clue or feel or appreciation what he just did....that's English soccer for you.

    Stats have perhaps some use, obviously but it goes way too far. For example, Cruyff once mentioned if Ajax went according to the computer  player stats he would never have made Ajax today, or Dennis Bergkamp would never have been the player if he learned in Germany...


  2. James Madison, October 20, 2020 at 1:17 p.m.

    The absnece of fans has not affected the enjoyment of those of us who depend on TV for EPL matches.  If anything, it has allowed the cameras to focus more on the games and not be distracted by crowd shots.

  3. frank schoon replied, October 20, 2020 at 1:24 p.m.

    Stipulate when hiring  producers and camera men, they have a backround in soccer. This way we get rid of the crowd shots during the game...

  4. frank schoon, October 20, 2020 at 1:19 p.m.

    Guys ,have you noticed during a game as the player is substitutedd there is a stat showing how many kilometers he ran. I mean, REALLY??? The amount of kilometers spend has nothing to do with how well one played. 

    The impication is that the more you run the better you played. Frank Rykaard the former Dutch NT coach once stated ,'the amount of sweat you produce is no measure how well you played. Maradona stated that 'soccer is not about athleticism, it is not about how fast you are,but how fast you think with the ball on your foot while under pressure". Cruyff stated that the more you rely on running the dumber you are as a player", and nothing is faster than the ball, it's all about quick ball movement."

    When you take these statements  into account by these greats for instance, then you have to question why so many of these coaches apply so many technological tricks like players having to wear gadgets on their backs ,employing GPS systems and what not. Van Hanegem recently stated that we are beginning to lose the essentials of the game with all these meaningless measurements. It all means that these coaches are weak in "SEEING" the deeper essentials of the game and therefore employ these measurements....

  5. Wooden Ships replied, October 21, 2020 at 10:14 a.m.

    Frank, the irony today is that if a manager didn't employ this technology the players themselves would view them as unknowing. The science of coaching, like VAR, is taking away the joy and essence of the game. Most can't see it. The game is forever changed. Most will say it's better, for they know no different. 

  6. Beau Dure replied, October 21, 2020 at 11:14 a.m.

    But those stats can sometimes give us insight on tactical decisions. For example -- Jill Ellis made a good decision to put Crystal Dunn, who did a lot of running, on the flank behind Megan Rapinoe, who was virtually stationary compared to her teammates.

  7. frank schoon replied, October 21, 2020 at 12:08 p.m.

    Ships ,so true. Beau , you don't need stats for that only some minimal decent insight into the game.. The job of a coach is to place together players in a manner that takes away their 'negative aspects'. So, you know Megan Rapinoe is in her 30's, she is no spring chicken, which means in order for her to safe energy and be useful in her focused attacks she than needs someone to cover the space for her, which is Crystal Dunne that can all day. That is called balance. Without even having seen both players , Dunne and Rapinhoe, for example, it is only common sense for any coach to see, understand and follow what  I just stated.  Obviously, the coach ,Ellis, is familiar with the players and has watched these players would the move bolster the idea of having Dunne plays behind Rapinhoe. 

    Frank Rykaard when he coached Barcelona had Ronaldinho on the leftwing. He stated that because Ronaldinho is so good offensively, that we needed to give him help by having the midfielders work and sacrifice more by taking some of the workload of Ronaldinho in order to make him more dangerous on attack.

    Like I've stated you don't need stats, Cruyff never needed stats. Stats can't not tell you how to position yourself properly off the ball it in order for the ball to be able to move faster. All stats can tell, how many ,how much, how far.....Stats can't teach you how to think, that's take insight and or creativity....Thinking, able to see the game, that process produces stats ,not the other way around.

  8. frank schoon replied, October 21, 2020 at 2:41 p.m.

    Ships, one thing about soccer players, you can't fool them. They can tell right away if you know youra Sh*t about the game and even more so if you can demonstrate ,talk with your feet, showing exactly what you want... These laptop coaches, with their GPS toys and what not I have little respect for. Most of these talk a goodgame but couldn't take on a lamppost one on one and they're the first ones to try the latest gadgets, and trends....So few really know the game...

    Have you noticed before the player is subbed in ,the assistent coach has a script of what he has do, where to go...ARE YOU SERIOUS!!!  This is not Subbeteo, things changed from second to second and therefore the players needs to be able to read the game and  move accordingly, players are not puppets...We have too many of these 'weekend warrior' coaches who really lack the "insight' of the game

  9. frank schoon replied, October 21, 2020 at 2:43 p.m.

    Beau , in sum, if Ellis had to use statistics for such a simple, common sense tactical move tells me she lacks a basic fundamental understanding of the game. 

  10. Wooden Ships replied, October 21, 2020 at 5:03 p.m.

    Beau, I did enjoy Ian's article and it is a weird time without the atmosphere of fans. I still watch games, any games, I can't help myself. An occasional beer, or more likely Scotch doesn't make any difference, so medication isn't an alternative either. But, is like going to a party and it's flat. 

    Frank and insights, nails it for me. We are mostly of the same era and playing background and development. Both strikers I might add. It was brief, with regard to the amount of time needed to see what I needed to see, with players or opponents. During the years coaching at a university level, either training or games, did I ever use a clipboard. The only time I wrote things down was in recruiting-scouting future players. As time went on I grew frustrated with the programmed, club produced player. I always had a mix of international players, with them, it required less repetitive instruction. Even repeatedly covering tactical choices, too many US club players were making the same mistakes. It's like they couldn't unlearn and be more free in their movements. So, long story short, the science of coaching in the US has inhibited a more creative, free thinking, problem solving player. I've yet to see something effectively replace, pick up, street, with older players, type development. Of course, being raised and steeped in a futbol-soccer culture is a big advantage. We are slowly getting there. If one is interested in a rich, long standing soccer culture in this country, and there a few others in the states, check out the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame site. You will find teams and Cups being played from the beginning of the 20th century. 

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, October 22, 2020 at 4:42 a.m.

    I agree with WS and Frank.

    I will go one step further. A major problem with player development is that coaches throughout development are telling players what to do, so much so, that players are depending on a coaches instructions rather than finding their own solutions to problems on the field.

    In the worse case, this means that teams do not adjust to unexpected situations on the field until halftime, when and if the coach gives them new instructions. That is the weakness of coaching like it was a foosball game at the local pub.

    In my view, a coaches role is to empower the players to succeed, not hold them back. More and more I have come to see team tactics as nothing more than a game plan. The best are those that provide organization and flexibility.

    Also in my view the game was ruined when the Laws were changed to allow coaching from the sidelines, which in combination with substitutions, gave coaches too much control of the matches.

  12. frank schoon replied, October 22, 2020 at 9:07 a.m.

    Ships, <" I've yet to see something effectively replace, pick up, street, with older players, type development. "> SO TRUE !!!!!  What  mixed pickup soccer gave the youth was, "independent thinking", and  "leadership" qualities, two elements that I don't see in today's players..Players of all ages from NT down to youth lack a presence about themselves and run like little puppy dogs to the coach  for instructions...I remember one Ajax player, Peter Boeve during a game coming to Cruyff who was coach at the time, asking what to do in a particular situation. Cruyff told him to go back out there and "figure' it out yourself. You can't be a crutch to these players for they need to learn for themselves. This is something the American coaches can't seem to understand.

    The way I teach players, is to talk to the them when sitting next to me on the bench. I will point out a situation at the moment during the game that went wrong, and explain exactly at that moment who should have been where, or should have come or went away, or where the ball should have gone. In other words the players on the bench are watching a game while at the same time learning what went wrong but also how to solve it. And a lot of times ,  you can see what will happen a couple of moves ahead of time, thereby able to warn the players on the bench what can go wrong. 

    This was another reason why I miss seeing Zlatan in the MLS. You think an assistant coach with a piece of paper of instructions show up telling Zlatan what to do before he comes on the field. I think what will happen is that the assistent coach coming back to the bench with a piece of paper crammed up his butt. Zlatan has more knowledge and skill about the game in his big toe then some coach. Zlatan grew up playing up soccer and didn't even join a club until he was about 17. He got his knocks and learned his game on the streets. Zlatan was actually a 'man' among boys out there playing in the MLS. He has presence about himself and all his teammates and opponents sensed it. 

    All we have are boys playing in the MLS, who were brought up playing soccer with programmed coaches, who all learned and received their coaching knowledge from the USSF Coaching is all planned, crammed, programmed info without an element of creativeness.....This answers your insightful critique on how all the players make the same mistakes learned from these programmed club development.

  13. Francisco Cleaves, October 20, 2020 at 2:32 p.m.

    I watched the NWSL tournament and some of the Fall
    matches but sports in general have lost significance no college football or EPL for me this year hopefully next year will be different 

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