Yesterday, South Africa played Mexico to a 1-1 draw amidst the buzz of vuvuzela horns. It was a great outcome for the lowest-ranked host country in World Cup history against a top-20 powerhouse, and a match that embodied something special about The Beautiful Game. (More)

The Beautiful Game, Part II – Oh Yes. (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers soccer through the lens of Franklin Foer’s 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World: An [Unlikely] Theory of Globalization. Yesterday we saw the dark side: fan violence and club owners who treat the sport as their personal fiefdoms. Today we’ll celebrate what The Beautiful Game can be, and what it can teach us and our children.

Count me among those who applaud FIFA for not giving in to complaints about the vuvuzela horns. Millions of plastic versions of the ancient African instrument were audible across South Africa yesterday. Their loud buzz reminds me of a huge swarm of bees, but while I’m allergic to bees I like the horns anyway. They are yet another way the South African people are making World Cup 2010 a cultural showcase, and well they should. Part of soccer’s brilliance lies in how it encourages and celebrates the unexpected.

A 1-1 draw, a triumph of brilliance.

The host nation get an automatic entry in the World Cup. It’s unlikely South Africa would have qualified otherwise. The South African national team have only been part of FIFA for 18 years – since the end of apartheid – and they’re ranked 83rd in the world. Africa has several stronger teams: Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Gabon, and Burkina Faso are all in the top 50. Mexico, by contrast, are ranked 17th and a perennial World Cup qualifier.

Yet yesterday South Africa earned a 1-1 draw against Mexico, and the South African goal was a display of sheer brilliance. A series of deft passes that rivaled FC Barcelona at their best sprung Siphiwe Tshabalala on a breakaway down the left wing. He sprinted past the last Mexican defender and threaded a stunning top-corner shot past the keeper. It was The Beautiful Game at its most beautiful. Even the opponents looked impressed.

Mexico’s goal later in the second-half was, by contrast, a mistake. Three of the four South African defenders moved up to play an offside trap, but the offside trap works only if every defender advances. Instead a long diagonal cross landed at the feet of Raphael Marquez only a few paces from the goal mouth, and the keeper was frozen with two other Mexican players onside in the penalty area. Despite scuffing the shot, Marquez put the tying goal in the back of the net.

Tries are many, but goals are few.

There were other scoring opportunities for both sides, before and after, but none connected. That’s not unusual in soccer. Most goals involve great offensive play or a defensive breakdown, and even then scoring is iffy. A mishit strike, solid play by the keeper, or the ball hitting the goalpost can and will stifle most chances. In the two matches yesterday, South Africa and Mexico scored the only goals. France and Uruguay scrapped to a tense but scoreless draw. The matches epitomized the soccer adage: “Tries are many, but goals are few.”

That was long an obstacle for American fans. The American soccer audience is larger than ever, but still some complain there’s too much pointless kicking the ball around. As a friend said to me a few years ago, “If I’m going to watch sports, I want action. I want to see something on the scoreboard change besides the clock.”

She was an avid basketball fan, and for her action meant scoring. In basketball that equation is usually true. The shot clock was introduced in the NBA, and has spread to other levels of competition, to prevent the four-corner stall where a weaker team or one with a lead would play catch while defenders chased and fans yawned. The nature of basketball makes it comparatively easy to play keep-away unless the rules prevent it. As most pro and college basketball teams make at least 40% of their shots, more action – playing to score rather than playing keep-away – does mean more scoring.

But the nature of soccer – played with the feet and not the hands – makes it much harder to play keep-away, and few soccer teams make even 10% of their shots. A soccer match can have non-stop action with both teams playing to score, and still end in a scoreless draw. That happened yesterday with France and Uruguay, and more famously in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and China. Still scoreless after 90 minutes of regulation and a 30-minute overtime, the match went to a penalty kick shootout. Brandi Chastain’s goal clinched a 5:4 victory for the U.S., dampened hardly at all by prudish tut-tutting when she joyfully flung off her jersey.

In soccer, and in life.

The “Tries are many, but goals are few” nature of soccer mirrors life itself. If we judge a year of life by how much we score – goals attained – you would think we spend our days playing keep-away. But most of us are busy and try many things in a given year, or even a given day. We meet people. We explore ideas. We struggle with challenges. And most of the time we don’t quite reach the back of the net.

We often imagine ourselves playing life with our hands, as in basketball. “Reach for the gold ring. Grab opportunity in both hands and hold on tight.” But I think we play life with our feet, as in soccer, where you can rarely “hold on tight.” We can influence events but rarely really control them, and life’s ball takes odd bounces for all of us. As in soccer, most of us lead lives with some basic structure but much of our activity is unplanned, and we must respond to events as they flow by.

All of that means we don’t score very often in life. But as in soccer, making a life goal – meeting That Someone, finding That Job, visiting That Place, seeing a child reach That Milestone – is all the more beautiful because it happens so rarely. The Beautiful Game reminds us that our destinies are not carved in stone, and that on any given day, in any given moment, when preparation, inspiration, and perspiration meet good luck … we can still create a reason to celebrate.

That’s what the joyful vuvuzela horns are about in South Africa. They’re the buzz of life itself.


Happy Saturday!