A reprint from the groundbreaking Psrhea Magazine literary website.
This article saw first published in March 1996.
The Worlds Most Civilized Game
The Games People Play
by Abdullah Shabazz
As a disciple of Allah and the true faith of man, Islam, I have come to realize that fun and games in ones free time should reflect ones beliefs to a certain extent. I wouldn’t be able to write this column if I didn’t follow most sports to some degree and living here in the western world the athletic undertakings tend to go towards the primal. That having been said, I am a recent convert to the Muslim faith, so shedding both my attraction to football, baseball, basketball, bowling and boxing, and my attention to hockey, tennis, golf, and auto racing is very difficult.
Besides, I really don’t want to give up interest in any of the aforementioned sports; as much as I tell myself that I shouldn’t watch, I find myself symbiotically attracted, which would explain why it is I’m usually left with lots of free time on Sundays to watch football, or open Monday nights to go bowling. I mean, how can one not appreciate how Michael Jordan glides through the lane, or how Emmitt Smith finds the seam for daylight, or how Tony Gwynn makes putting wood on a baseball look oh-so-easy?
Recently, though, I’ve been attracted to soccer, or futbol as it is known to the world outside of North America. There seems to be a natural beauty to the game that I just can’t explain; the editor of this cyberzine once wrote about soccer: “If you don’t get it, you’ll never get it.” Thomas Boswell once prophesied how life begins on Opening Day [baseball]. While I don’t mean to excuse Mr. Boswell’s harmonic – I believe he’s referring to the sense of renewal he and other fans feel as a result of both the start of spring and the opening of the baseball season – I find more parallels to life in soccer than any other sport. And despite the fact that western “civilization” invented the game, I think it truly is a civilized sport.
Soccer has the same number of players per side as football, eleven, and there is tackling, but not in the American sense. You can’t use your hands or arms and physical contact is limited to non-combative impact. Contact is tolerated as long as the ball is the objective, So decidedly American idiosyncrasies such as body checking, blocking, grabbing, hitting, and football tackling are strictly forbidden. Otherwise it is a foul. Furthermore, you won’t find other American practices such as trash-talking and taunting. And arguing with the referee is verboten. You can say one or two things to him with no raised voices, insults, profanity or vulgarity – and then you get out of his face.
I even like how justice is meted out in soccer. Fouls are not tallied – there isn’t a limit as to how many you can have – but don’t think that, like in basketball, fouls can be used as a strategy. Committing fouls for the sake of committing them, or especially aggressive physical play, or an extremely violent tackle where the ball is not the objective will result in getting “booked”. The soccer equivalent of a basketball technical, a booking is a formal penalty where the referee stops play, calls the offending player to him, gets the player’s name and number, and writes it in a little black book he keeps in his breast pocket. The referee then flashes a little yellow card letting everybody know you’ve been booked. It’s like getting arrested, which makes it more like real life.
Now here’s the kicker: Get two yellow cards in one game and you get “sent off” – the soccer equivalent of an ejection – and your team cannot replace you with another player. In essence, your team has to play with one less player than the number allowed. And because you received two yellow cards in one game, you cannot play in your team’s next scheduled game. There are even some of the more important international competitions where if you get a yellow card in one game and one yellow card in another game, you have to sit out your team’s next scheduled game. Seems kinda brutal, huh?
…But that’s not all: If you do something baldly wrong, such as exhibiting excessively violent play or hitting somebody altogether, the referee won’t even waste his time with a yellow card; he’ll pull out a red card. An even more severe booking, a red card is the equivalent of two yellow cards; you’ll get sent off, your team plays a man down, and you get to sit out a minimum of three games. Believe me, this does a better job of maintaining order than football, baseball, or basketball, where the system of fines and suspensions deters nothing.
That’s not the only thing I like about soccer. I like that there are no time-outs – the game clock is always running – and that the referee not only keeps the official game time but is the only person who knows exactly how much time there is in the game. I used to think that this was uncivilized and barbaric, but I now understand what soccer is trying to accomplish with this. There are no time-outs in life; why should there be in sports? It’s 12:00 pm and you have to get the phone bill paid by 3:00 pm or they turn off your phone. If you stop off at a restaurant on the way for fifteen minutes, that phone bill is still due by 3:00 pm; the phone company is not going to allot you another fifteen minutes to your deadline. Furthermore, you don’t know exactly (and I mean to the second) how long a lot of things will take. You don’t know how long you’ll be stuck in traffic. You don’t how long you’ll be asleep. You don’t know how long it takes to comb your hair, or take a shower, or eat a meal. And you have no idea how long you’ll live. By taking away the time-outs and not knowing exactly when then game will end the inventors of the game of soccer have minimized the time element.
Which is part and parcel with limited substitutions; only three are allowed per team per game. Ergo, with eleven players per side, that means at a minimum eight are playing the entire game with no letup. And once you come out, you are not going back in. In an specialized era where we Westerners are paying $5 million dollars to a relief pitcher to throw six to ten pitches every third game, or $3 million dollars to a placekicker, or $4 million to a third down slot-back or pass rusher in passing situations, the limited substitutions forces soccer to have to find the best possible all-around players and live with the results. No going in for one play or a third of an inning; once you’re in, you stay in and deal with everything that goes on; once you’re out, you are done for the day. If a player gets injured, then his team plays a man short until he can return; otherwise you’ll have to waste one of your three substitutions.
This minimizes the extent of which coaches can have an active participation with what’s going on on the field. The logic is simple: You’ve spend years practicing and preparing to play, and I’m paying you all this money to know what to or improvise throughout an entire game, and I’ve done the best I can preparing you; when it comes time for you to perform, you should know what to do with little or no prodding from me. Look, if there are three clerks assigned to work the front desk at a hotel during a given shift, and one calls in sick, the hotel is not closing down because they don’t have enough clerks that shift; they’ll have to make do with two desk clerks. If the grass needs cutting and dad and son usually do it, but son gets sick, dad still has to cut the grass by himself. Are you now beginning to see how soccer imitates life?
© 1996 Accurate Letters Enterprises/Psrhea Magazine