I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.
There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.
The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?
I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.
Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.
Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.
Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.
What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.
Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.
To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.
Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.