One does not need to watch much of the World Cup, especially with high definition replays from dozens of super slow motion cameras, to understand how fierce the competition is between national teams. A measure of this competition is driven by national pride, and, similar to the Olympics, I would offer that the World Cup is one of the healthiest opportunities available for the expression of national pride.
And it is wonderfully fascinating to view each team as a cultural expression of their homeland and history. Certain nations play in more disciplined and mechanistic ways, others rely on their shape or constant pressure and flexibility. For others, it is the beauty and flare of a goal that is as important as the goal. For some countries, it is about teamwork and unselfishness. For others, it is about individual glory. In all cases, there is a conviction by players and coach that, whatever the approach chosen, it is the one that they believe stands the greatest chance of competitive success. It is by each teams coordination and collaboration that they have their best chance of competitive success.
In games, I assure you, the competition is in fact intense. As a general rule, players will do whatever they can do and get away with whatever they can get away with, be that rough play, shirt pulling, or even taking dives. If not caught, what are often considered “professional moves” can create that slight advantage that results in an open shot or saved goal. This is where the referee’s whistle comes in. By foul calls, stern warnings, demonstrative yellow cards and the occasional red card ejection, the referee effectively informs players of exactly where the behavioral boundaries are. The players cannot fully know this in advance as every referee is different. Some like to emphasize the flow of play and will only call egregious fouls. Others want to set a strict standard right off the bat and are perhaps a bit full of themselves.
This competitive nature of soccer only goes so far, however, and is rather wonderfully balanced by mutual respect and integrity. I was reminded of this last night watching the most recent Karate Kid movie with my daughter. Without wanting to steal the punch line, it seemed to basically came down to that, so long as your mind is right, it is OK to smash the opponent down, but not to break his leg. This is the the way it is in soccer.
In soccer, what is proper is all about three dimensional shades of gray and milli-second judgments, rather than clear fouls. It is OK to bash heads, if you are both going for the ball. It is OK to go shoulder to shoulder, but not to come from behind. The ball can strike your arm, but your arm can not strike the ball. You are to play the ball, not the person. Onside means that you are even or behind at the moment the ball is passed, not ahead.
Hence the difference between that which is allowed and disallowed in soccer is subtle and dynamic and, since there is only one referee with a whistle, a matter of ongoing highly imperfect and subjective perspective and impulsive judgment.
Notwithstanding the competitive intensity of soccer between the whistles, there are some notable moments of respect and integrity that are also layered in. Examples include the good natured chit chat between players in the tunnel before walking out to the pitch, their respectfully listening to each team’s national anthems, exchanging team banners at the beginning of a game, and even exchanging sweaty jerseys at the end of the game.
Perhaps the best example of respect in soccer is when a player goes down injured and the other team with possession voluntarily passes the ball out of bounds to allow for attention to the injured player. Once play resumes, the team that was given the benefit voluntarily and without discussion returns the ball. There is no referee involvement here. This is an example of the courtesy and respect that balances the dogged competition in soccer.
In fact, perhaps most amazing of all in soccer, at least for most soccer players, is that in countless pick up games around the globe, there is no referee at all. Whatever the nation, we all learned to “make our own calls” in soccer. When there is a foul or near foul, a consensus develops quickly on the field one way or the other, or there is soon a compensating and balancing agression. We learn playing soccer that there are many shade of gray decisions and many perceptions, that people will not always agree and mostly that “what goes around comes around.”
A Missed Opportunity
It is in this regard that I thought the German team, nation and the world recently missed a massive opportunity to better ourselves. For anyone who is oblivious to all this, repeated video replay showed in agonizing detail that an English score was in fact nearly a yard over the goal line, but the referees remarkably did not see it as such. What a moment for soccer and the world! Every person on earth (except for the 4 blind referees) agreed that a goal should have been awarded, and yet an injustice was done.
Technology may, in fact, be a part of the answer. Referees are already utilizing wireless headsets to allow them to better communicate. It would also seem hard to argue against goal line technology . . . especially as I imagine one will be able to purchase a laser goal line unit for $19.95 in a couple of years. Beyond this, the application of technology, especially video replay, to soccer, is not so clear.
But official video replay and referee or FIFA correction where not needed to do the right thing in the Germany/England game. I suppose that, in the heat of battle, it is understandable that the German team would have proceeded forward with their “good fortune” of the non-awarded English goal. In fact, there is a very long soccer history here (ignoring World War II for the moment) of an English goal being granted nearly 50 years ago, when the Germans surely feel that they were robbed and historic grainy video footage seems to confirm the same. Some view the current goal line debate as a historic balancing of this earlier injustice. But what I would have wished for is something else. Something far better. Something rather magical.
As the German coaching staff and team would have been clearly informed of what happened at half time (a clear English goal inappropriately disallowed), I believe that it would have been an all time class act if the German team would have agreed to simply walk the ball down and to put the ball in their own goal. The referees’ error, so capably highlighted by modern technology, was that egregious.
Consistent with an ultimate soccer ethos of “doing the right thing,” such as when there is an injury on the field, this would have been a truly historic act that would not have only reverberated through the soccer world, it would have reverberated though our political and global consciousness. It would have been an expression of integrity and understanding the likes of which rarely take place. In that single opportunity, the German team, and by proxy the German nation, could have done so much for Germany and the world. This enlightened act would have said, “We do know what is right, and we are going to do things right.” Goal line technology was not necessary for this recognition and act.
Now, this did not, at least not yet, happen, and perhaps a best opportunity has been lost. I offer, however, that an expression by the German team that, if we were to do it all over again, we would do this, or perhaps contacting FIFA and asking that the final score be adjusted (if only a token of doing the right thing) are options that do exist and should be considered. As every mediator knows, these kind of symbolic acts do in fact matter in the relations of people and nations.
The Power of Collaboration in Soccer
Back to my high school days in the Chicago area, I distinctly remember taking the “El” train into Chicago with my high school soccer buddies to watch the 1970 and 1974 World Cups on closed circuit TV at one of two Chicago theaters that showed the broadcast. I cannot tell you how I today relish that each and every World Cup game is beamed in high definition right into my home and duly recorded. Back in the 70’s, we would go to foreign neighborhoods and spend days on end drooling over the world class soccer on exhibition. We watched Pele, Roberto Carlos, Edu, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Maradona. It was magical. We were not in America. We were in World Cup Land.
It was far from the “white bread” day to day experience that I was used to. In fact, my sense was that my friends and I were on most days the only “white boys” in the theater. We were quickly taught by the others, a morphing “United Nations” in attendance depending on who was playing, how rabid soccer fans can be and also how, beyond national allegiance, they also shared the “beautiful game,” appreciating and applauding all quality play. We would see victors coming to humbly express consolation to losers, knowing that their day to lose was likely near. Only one team has a final experience of winning it all. Everyone else gets to go home a loser, success being defined more my meeting or exceeding expectations than by winning it all.
My learning about collaboration in soccer was set in motion in high school by our team chant (it was a Ukrainian chant – loosely translated it was: “in and out, in and out, score, score, score”). If only our adoring parents and fans knew! Anyway, we would begin this chant on our team bus a mile from that day’s “pitch,” so loud and boisterous that the bus swayed and bounced its way announcing our arrival. I am confident that opposing squads could hear us in the distance and, as our madhouse on wheels arrived at the game, there was no doubt which squad was more ready for the day’s competition. It was our team’s collaborative approach, our being in perfect synch, that gave us a competitive edge even before the other team saw us. The earth was shaking as we arrived. Other teams stopped everything that they were doing upon our arrival with jaws dropped. How could a team of adolescent boys be so perfectly in synch? Perhaps it was the secret meaning of the chant. Whatever the reason, I truly believe that we won most games before we even got off the bus. By comparison, other teams were fragmented and lacking cohesion. We were “one.”
And then there was my experience of playing the nation’s #1 team in college. Playing against USF (the University of San Francisco), with a dozen scholarships, was like playing “Brazil” to our Stanford team. USF was the previous year’s national champion and undefeated and untied in the current year. Their backline were all northern Europeans and at least 6’5”. Their midfielders were all from Greece and Italy with legs like tree trunks. Their forwards were from Africa, a couple of which played for the Nigerian national team. The only thing USF lacked was our high school chant (now carried on to college) and this gave us a chance.
Our Stanford coach drilled into us in the week before the USF match that the “best team” did not always win at soccer. What was key he said was that we were “all on the same page” in terms of exactly what we were to do. If we were all of a single mind, he said, we could beat any team that is not so well coordinated.
True or not, we believed it. We practiced our “tight marking” and “quick counters” endlessly that week. We played Dutch “total futbol” wherein we were constantly limiting USF’s space (in soccer, space = time) so as to create as much “rush” to their game as possible and force mistakes. And when mistakes were made, we would ferociously come forward. In time, our unity created dissent on the USF team. We did not play in awe; we played as one. Remarkably, we managed to tie USF that day 4-4, with all four Stanford goals being scored by the “Messi” of our day, Bob Geiger. As I write this article, I can still feel the rush of blood through my body simply remembering the experience. We were down 1-0 and 2-1 and 3-2 and 4-3, yet we always came back. We believed and our team unity and collaboration allowed a minor miracle to happen. Needless to say, watching the recent U.S. team success and Landon Donovan’s game tying and winning goals brought tears to my eyes.
Competition, Collaboration and Integrity
And so, I have come to learn that there is nothing quite so effective in terms of competition as a team being fully collaborative. We were no longer a team of individuals, but a single mind, a single body, doing what we knew needed to be done to be at our competitive best. This experience has never left me. It has become, if it is possible, a part of my DNA. Soccer has made me a “brave warrior” and team member. Soccer has taught me not to worry about being perfect (there are far more missed shots than made shots). Critically, soccer has taught me to shoot, to take chances, to believe. Soccer has taught me to be my best, and that being my best means being in ongoing coordination and collaboration with those around me.
Now, as hundreds of thousands, and soon millions, will gather to celebrate national team victories (with even more holding their heads in their hands trying to understand an incomprehensible defeat), I am acutely aware of how much competition, not all of it pretty, exists between teams and nations. Our high school team’s chant and our college team’s singular trance were, in fact, ultimately adopted for the single reason of our being at our competitive best. Still, despite all of the zealous competition, in fact because of it, we the world, are the real winners.
In international soccer, we have perhaps the world’s best substitute for our temptation toward destructive war. Soccer and the World Cup offer each nation, large and small alike, the ability to be at its collaborative best in the interest of international respect and appreciation. The World Cup, despite its imperfections, is in fact “the world at its best,” nothing less.
And so I do hope that the German team and nation will consider the noble act that I have described, at least consider saying, if they were to do it again, they would grant England the disputed goal. It would have been, and would still be, an act that would make the world a much better place. Goal line technology is not necessary for Germany to take this enlightened and historic step. In fact, goal line technology would deny Germany this unique opportunity to do the right thing and to forever elevate soccer, sport, and Germany in the eyes of the world. At issue is whether soccer and life are ultimately more about doing the right thing or more about winning at all costs.