The much hyped sporting spectacle called the Football (actually FIFA) World Cup is finally over (Ed: this is a dated article, was in peer review for a while), and thankfully we all are spared of the ball by ball (err, but then there is just one ball in football, and one can’t even say goal by goal, because, many a times there are no goals in whole matches, so what — offside by offside? we will get to that later) updates by otherwise sane people. While those who were mired in the temporary insanity come back to their senses, and others who are still ruing the loss of their favorite teams, and their fallen heroes, I decided to give some serious thought to the entirely useless subject of football, and sports in general. Why?
Soccer, or the more literary name football, has always been trumpeted as the true “world sports”, and the football world cup, by extension, the real World Cup. Like any Orwellian truth, the only validation of the claim is that it’s been said umpteen times. In two words, my defense would be: my foot! But, unfortunately, scholarly treatment needs more formal approach. And after my scholarly analysis on Cricket and Indian-ness, people expect nothing less than a well reasoned, in depth, argument. So while I still insist: world cup, my foot, lets play ball.
Quantity, not Quality:
The claim of football being the true “world sport”, unfortunately, is based solely on numbers. On the face of it, it sounds obvious: a sport that’s played by close to 200 countries ought to be the front runner in the race for the global game, and yet, one must ask why do so many countries play football?
The answer, again unfortunately, is not very flattering, but it’s simple. Just like the game. I mean, how much more simple can a game get? Unless you start counting athletics as games!
Evolution of Games
In this section, I will apply the principles of evolutionary biology to analysis of professional games or sports (the terms this article will use interchangeably, without any loss of generality).
Games, as the famous psychologist Eric Berne said, is what people play. However, that hardly gives us any insights that we can use for our comparative discourse on games. One thing we can take from Berne is that games involve a “series of stimulus-response pairings” (Ref: Games People Play, Eric Berne). It’s no wonder that most games have two competing entities — unlike athletics, which have multiple entities, and therefore, strictly, are not games as Berne explicitly defines them. Sports are just a sub-set of games, and hence, same restrictive elements of definition apply (games being more general).
Note: This article is less about the history of sports, than it’s about the evolutionary history of sports. So we would not split hairs about which sport started when. In other words we would gloss over any inconsistencies to this evolutionary theory, and say that it’s just a anomalous data point, that we don’t need to fret over.
I call athletics pre-games, for athletics did give rise to a crucial element of professional games: winner-loser terminology. Notice that real games moved away from primitive athletics when they realized that there was no need for the “also ran” categories, and second, and third positions. You have a winner. Rest, from an evolutionary perspective, are losers. Any other distinction is irrelevant. This gave rise to a first set of real games, that had two competing entities (either one person, or multi-person teams).
The first generation games involved a simple “challenge response” pattern, that Berne identified as the basis of all games (Berne used the more generic term stimulus, instead of challenge, but that does not change anything).
Those who were expecting a transition from Games 1.0 to Games 2.0, have a rude shock in store. There is a decimal system here. And we intend to use it. The next evolution of games was when a challenge-response design was slightly extended by adding a common goal. No one seems to wonder why, in say football or hockey, does the event of the ball going into net is called a goal. Here is the answer, before you start wondering on my prompting. These games have, in addition to challenge and response as a basic theme, an underlyingmeta-theme of achieving a team goal. Notice that the basic mechanism is still challenge and response, but with multiple entities getting into the fray, it becomes impossible to keep track of who is winning, unless the win-lose criteria is quite drastic — like people remaining alive on each side (which happens in more violent games like gang-wars, tribal fighting, and wars). That’s where goal comes into picture. It gives the games a grand narrative and makes it easier for the adjudicators to decide winners and losers.
The prime example of this category, as you guessed correctly, are football (various forms), hockey, polo, and other such games.
Notice that these games are all same structurally. They are goal oriented series (possibly multiple parallel, and intersecting) of challenge-response pairing, that end in a win or draw, based on how many times is the goal is achieved by each team. Notice, also, how these games, if they have to have a winner — for the tournament to move forwards, with reducing number of teams — tend to fall back to the pure challenge and response structure, by resorting to penalty shoot outs, say, which are 1:1.
The real evolution of games happened when someone looked at the whole gaming business seriously and said: this is all so simple; any idiot can play these games. We need a real complicated structure to keep idiots out. And thus came into being the modern, advanced, complex structured games that are classy in nature, unlike the barbaric boxing, or just barely-more-than-barbaric football variants (some of them downright barbaric themselves).
The evolution from games 1.1 to games 2.0 is quite a non-linear progression, as anyone who has any idea of evolutionary biology would expect anyways.
There are different axes of this new complexity in 2.0 games. Some are structurally complex, some are tactically complex, some have complex rules. And there are various combinations. To pit one 2.0 game against another would be missing the point. So I’ll just note down a few 2.0 games as examples. Chess (simple rules, complex decision making), Cricket (complex rules, complex structure), Tennis (complex structure, medium complex rules). And here is an exclusion list, again non-exhaustive: motor-sports (going round and round, no-challange-response, just extension of athletics with wheels), golf (simple rules, no challenge-response, just a passtime (Ref: Berne, ibid), and so on.
The World(ly) Game
Now that we have covered the theoretical framework, and the evolutionary history of games, we are in a better position to discuss comparative merits of football as a “world game”. As we have discussed, football being 1.1 category, is really athletics (a pre-game) with a ball (goal) thrown in to accommodate multiple sub-races (so is hockey). If one were to explain football to someone who knew nothing about it (and this person will have to be an alien, to not know about the game in the world), here is the description standing on one foot, as one says:
- Take the ball, avoid people in different colored jersey, beat that guy in the goal post and get the ball in.
- If you can’t do 1 for some reason, pass it to guy in same colored jersey
- Guys sharing your jersey’s color must manage to put the ball in the post more often than the guys not sharing your jersey color for you to win.
The thing is, you don’t need to stand on both feet to describe football. That description is all there is to it, or was.
One of the guys, probably someone who couldn’t get into local cricket team because he was too dim, took one look at the game and said: hey, why don’t we just put one guy near that goal post (referred to as a “kick-through”), and just make a long pass to him? And everyone started doing that. A game that’s as simple as that is bound to have loophole as simple as that.
It took them years to plug that hole, though. And came the most complex rule in the history of football: the offside rule. The trouble is, that’s how simple football is really. And barbaric guys who play it don’t understand even that simple rule — going by the number of offsides that happen at international level, and number of matches that are decided by bad rulings on those offsides. Even today, all the controversy in the game is about that one single rule that came in to plug a loophole in the original design.
Now contrast this with a game that’s complex by design, say cricket. I won’t even discuss LBW. But there are so many rules and sub-rules for deciding a catch, a boundary, a sixer, a run-out, a bye, a leg-bye, a wide, a no ball. Phew! And look at the rules for bowling action. There is no comparison even.
Simple Game, Simple Men
No wonder that Cricket is not a ‘world’ game. Not every tom, dick, and harry can play it, follow it, or understand it. Contrast is football: a simple game played by simple people, watched by simple people. I could give hundreds of arguments, but just one should suffice: the role of technology in the, so called, world’s number one game — is zilch, or close to it.
Fifa and Technology
The recently concluded world cup was more in the news for the umpiring blunders, than for the actual games (which hardly had any goals!).
And what umpiring decisions, again? You guessed it: the offsides. In cricket people are debating whether they should use something called hawkeye for deciding, arguably the most complex rule ever invented in any game — the LBW rule. But there is at least an element of speculation in it, and the debate is justified (the ball can move a lot in air, the trajectory is projected). Offside, however, is the kind of thing that is trivially decided by technology. Use of replays is good enough, to start with, but one wants to be fancy, use image recognition on the live feed, and the dumbest computer will call it right hundred out of hundred times (or have each player wear a transmitter, and let simple computer program decide based on positions). So why aren’t they using it? The official answer from FIFA is this (and I’m not making this up, as Dave Barry would say): umpiring errors are part of the game.
Simple game played by simple people watched by simple people who’ll take anything for an answer. Let me tell you the real reason. But for that let’s go back to the birth of offiside rule. This rule was invented, as I already explained, to take care of a loophole. However, there is a second loophole, that has never been plugged. And that loophole is also simple.
The second biggest loophole
There is only one way you can lose in football: by scoring less goals than the other team. But here is the problem: someone has to score a goal in the first place! So if you don’t want to lose, there is a simple formula: defend, defend, defend. And that has been used so effectively by some teams (and this tell us more of how simple the people playing the game are: only some teams exploit that loophole). If more teams use it consistently, football will be a laughing stock (it’s getting there). Buf FIFA, like any other ruling body of world sports, is filled with anything but simple people. They know that the only way to take care of this loophole is, why, umpiring errors!
The real reason why FIFA doesn’t want to use technology is this: it would mean still less goals! Today, the only thing that’s stopping teams for going for offside traps (another exploit used by slightly smarter people in the game to abuse the offside rule) is the fear of an umpiring error. If umpires don’t spot the offside created by the offside trap, you’re dead as duck!
FIFA loves offsides because they produce results. And they hate technology, because technology will produce draws, or penalty shootouts. Try telling this to simple people!
Our thesis proves that football is global because it is simple, and as such, does not deserve the mantle of a “the world sport”, as most of its simple followers vociferously repeat ad-nauseum. The search for a deserving candidate for that spot is still open, and that is not the scope of this scholarly article, although, it should be clear to those who are adept at reading the sub-texts, what the author would have suggested as a natural choice for the same. However, scholarly propriety stops us from naming that great game.