It’s A Simple Game Until You Care About It
A huge part of soccer’s attractiveness to me at the beginning of my fandom was my complete ignorance of it. My understanding of the rules was tenuous. I did not know the dimensions of the boxes. I did not understand the transfer system, wage structures. No idea how formations worked. Couldn’t name more than, maybe, a dozen soccer players. At the very beginning, and for quite a while afterward, there was only the aesthetic enjoyment of the sport itself. I liked watching the ball move and the players run back and forth. A simple game and I enjoyed it quite simply.
I’ve been an NBA fan since childhood, and that time has bred a familiarity with the underlying structural cogs and wheels and shadow clockworks that dictate the movements of players from team to team. Salary caps, luxury taxes, max-salary contracts, veteran’s minimum contracts, team options, player options. Also, poison pill contract structures, tax aprons, television contracts, collective bargaining agreements. I will not call myself an expert–or anything approaching an expert–on these things, but know this stuff exists, I know these things work together to create effects which I can see in the way players move around from team to team. I know that’s pretty much the baseline knowledge required to talk about the sport. It’s the same as understanding that there’s a force called gravity that causes things to fall to earth is kind of a baseline of knowledge for talking about human experiences, but that understanding doesn’t make a person a physicist.
All of which made soccer a kind of vacation from thinking. It was just the ball and the players and the passing and the running.
But if there’s a Pandora’s Box moment in any person’s relationship to a sport, it’s the moment a person develops a rooting interest. As soon as you begin to root for a team, the next obvious question you ask yourself is some form of “why didn’t they win?” From there, you start thinking about players, who’s better. Not just who’s better but how do you use a players talents to make the team better. If Messi is the best player in the world, why can’t my team just get him? Because: wages, transfer fees, player valuation, stadium size, sponsorship deals, debt amortization, television contracts, league structure, ownership structure, economic partnerships, and on and on and on and on. A cascade of ever-more complex information ranging from quantifying player quality to hard-core global finance.
Consider, for example, the biggest story in domestic soccer at the moment: the Seattle Soundersacquisition of Clint Dempsey from Tottenham Hotspur. Hey, awesome, I love watching him play. How did they get him? Well, here are some of the terms you need to be aware of when considering the Dempsey deal: single entity (as in the structure of the MLS), allocation order (the order in which teams can acquire USMNT players, which at the time of the deal stipulated Seattle’s main rival, Portland, having first crack), Designated Player (a salary cap exception tagged to a specific player), and transfer fee (OK, that’s an easy one).
The friction between the enjoyment of soccer, and sports in general, as pure aestheticism and the nuts and bolts, Sim-City-level of engagement of the modern sports fan, is something I find fascinating. Sometimes I just want to see the ball get kicked around.
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