World culture, world game: soccer’s direct and indirect play

Coaches talk about Direct and Indirect play. Direct play is based on going towards goal as fast as possible, big kicks and lots of headers, tackles and collisions. It’s exciting soccer because possession is lost frequently. This is how the Irish and English tend to play, Sport Anthropologists theorize it’s due to the combination of climate, body type and culture. In these countries where the ground is heavy and muddy, and the players are tall and strong, it doesn’t make sense to try a lot of passes. Put the ball in the air and it won’t get stuck. Cross the ball into goal and jump to head it in.

Football from northern England:
1:30 is the poster child for direct football.

What about Scotland? While the pitch is just as likely to be heavy, the Scots are said to be smaller in stature; A Scottish team can have one or more players who fit the nickname “wee mon” and they can be key players. So here you might see a Scottish short passing game.

Let’s go to the cradle of World Cup winners, the Americas. Warmer weather. Players who are smaller in stature. A culture of individualism and hero-worship of the pícaro, the character who, lacking power and resources, achieves all through observation and cunning. Playing indirectly to find a weakness in a stronger, taller and richer opponent is not just a soccer strategy, it is cultural folklore. A friend and teammate, Pedro Merino, once taught me a Spanish phrase for execution with finesse: “mucha mano izquierda” – meaning you have to use your left hand to achieve something. The epitome of indirect play.

Indirect play requires more patience and thought. It is counter-intuitive to play backwards and sideways and especially difficult in games where spectators are present. Parents tend to cheer a big kick, regardless of where it goes. Playing indirectly takes more subtlety and it’s riskier because failure gives the opposition good attacking chances, so it is easily criticized.

However, it is possible and you will see it at some of the world’s best teams. Here a small club called Barcelona pulls it off.

Often this player is involved.

What style of play fits the US, then? Our climate ranges from Montana blizzards to parched Texas desert. Our citizens include athletes from all backgrounds and sizes. Our culture is a mélange of Anglo-Saxon rigidity, Mediterranean flair, Asian work ethic and Latino creativity. Our athletes include Mike Tyson, Joe Montana, Mary Lou Retton, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong and Barry Sanders: what do they have in common? What thread links Spud Webb with Mark Eaton? Ozzie Smith with Harmon Killebrew? The answer can be seen in our Olympic basketball teams: at our worst we are a rigid collection of players who sacrifice their individuality for a team that lacks bite. At our best we are an explosion of unstoppable elements who sacrifice for each other to showcase each other.

E pluribus unum, baby. Out of many, one.

With the Hammer, understanding indirect play is something we are working on. I can’t know what the boys’ high school coaches will want to play like, but I want them to be ready for either style. I think it showed quite well last Saturday, especially in the first 15m or so. Our defense was active and we gang-tackled effectively. We were successful playing the in all directions and had many more attacking chances than our opponents. We will continue to work hard on knocking the ball in all directions, including backwards. We’ll probably screw it up a few times too. That’s part of the learning process. But when successful yesterday, I thought the boys were outstanding. They’ve learned so much, so fast since August. They are taller, heavier and stronger too. They’re quite good with their 1v1 foot skills and are now attacking more creatively.

If yesterday was their final exam, I think they earned as A-minus.

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2 Responses to World culture, world game: soccer’s direct and indirect play

  1. Pingback: Picaresque | Jim's a keeper

  2. Pingback: Call it a hunch | Jim's a keeper

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