I have been an avid soccer fan ever since my youth in Fuerth, a soccer-mad city in southern Germany, which for some inexplicable reason won three championships in a three-year period. My father despaired of a son who preferred to stand for two hours (there were very few seats) watching a soccer game rather than sit in comfort at the opera or be protected from the elements in a museum.
Soccer evokes extraordinary passions, especially during the quadrennial World Cup competition now drawing to a close for 1986. It has been estimated that the Brazilian gross national product suffers a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for every day Brazil plays because its rabid fans sit before television sets or radios. I am sure statistics in other soccer citadels are comparable.
Soccer lends itself to a competition of national teams because it requires an extraordinary combination of individual skill, teamwork and strategic sense. Since there are 11 players engaged in continuous action, each game produces its own tactical necessities that must be solved through improvisation on the playing field.
This was true even in my youth, when soccer was much less complex and much more oriented to the offensive. Then there were five forwards, three midfield players, two fullbacks and a goalie. The offense being numerically superior to the defense, goals were much more frequent than they are now.
By the late 1930s managers sought to overcome this advantage by assigning the center half to shadow the opposing center forward. The creation of three de facto fullbacks constricted the attack that since time immemorial had been built around the center forward. In the early 1950s the Hungarians showed how to overwhelm this defense by turning their center forward into a decoy. He would move to the sidelines or back toward the midfield, thus drawing the shadowing defensive player out of position and creating an empty space in front of the goal.
But as in military strategy, every offensive maneuver in soccer evokes a compensating defensive move. The answer to the roving center forward was a zone defense; defensive players were required to cover a certain area regardless of which attacking player was located there. Total soccer was invented shortly afterward; all players had to be able to defend as well as attack and to shift from one mode to the other with extreme rapidity.
The modern style of soccer in fact emphasizes defense -- with a few exceptions such as Brazil, Argentina and France. The basic alignment has become four defensive and four midfield players; the forwards have shrunk to two. These massed defenses can in general be overcome only by rapid thrusts emphasizing very accurate passing. The result is a very tactical game whose complexity makes it a fascinating reflection of national attitudes.
The styles of play of leading soccer powers -- West Germany, Brazil, Italy and England -- illustrate this point.
West Germany is, with Italy and Brazil, the most successful team of the modern era. West German soccer entered the postwar era with no particular legacy. Postwar Germany's newly professional soccer being as novel as the frontiers of the state it represents, it could adopt total soccer with a vengeance. The German national team plays soccer the way its General Staff prepared for war; its games are meticulously planned; each player is skilled in both attack and defense. Intricate pass patterns evolve, starting wherever possible right in front of the German goal. Anything achievable by human foresight, careful preparation and hard work is accounted for.
And there have been great successes. Of the last six World Cups, Germany has won two; was second twice; third once and out of the running only in 1978. At the same time the German national team suffers from the same disability as the famous Schlieffen plan on which German strategy in World War I was based. There is a limit to human foresight; psychological stress on those charged with executing excessively complex maneuvers cannot be calculated in advance.
If the German team falls behind, or if its intricate approach yields no results, its game is shadowed by the underlying national premonition that in the end even the most dedicated effort will go unrewarded; by the nightmare that ultimately fate is cruel, a nightmare reinforced by the knowledge that the German media are unmerciful when their always high expectations go unfulfilled. The impression is unavoidable that the Germans' often outstanding national soccer team has not brought a proportionate amount of joy to a people that may not in its heart of hearts believe that joy is its ultimate national destiny.
Brazil suffers no such inhibitions. Its national teams are an assertion that virtue without joy is a contradiction in terms. Brazilian teams display a contagious exuberance; Brazilian fans cheer on to the ecstatic beat of samba bands. Brazil always has the most acrobatic players; the individuals one cannot forget, whatever the outcome of the match.
But, as in Brazil's political institutions, this individualism is combined with an extraordinary ability to make the practical arrangements required for effective national performance. As a result, Brazil has appeared in more World Cups and won more than any other team. It was eliminated in the quarter finals of the current competition partly as a result of an egregious seeding, which placed Italy, the old World Cup holder, France, the European champion, and two potential champions, Brazil and West Germany, into the same half of a sudden-death elimination round, while the other half contained only one team, Argentina, that has ever been in the final four.
To be sure, the Brazilians, being human, cannot avoid some weaknesses. The players sometimes are so intoxicated by their brilliant maneuvers that they occasionally forget that the purpose of the exercise is to score goals. And I have never seen an outstanding Brazilian goalkeeper. Perhaps the reason is that the task is too lonely; the goalkeeper, after all, has to stay put while his teammates enjoy themselves tracing clever pass patterns on the turf. Or perhaps the only purely defensive assignment on a team offends the Brazilian self-image.
The fact remains that a Brazilian team on the attack -- which is most of the time -- looks like a samba band at carnival time. Wave after wave of yellow shirts roll against the opposing goal until the opposition is overwhelmed without being humiliated: in the end it is no disgrace to be defeated by a team whose style no one else can imitate.
Italy's record places it among the top teams of world soccer despite the fact that it fell victim to the same absurd seeding as Brazil. The Italian style of soccer reflects the national conviction forged by the vicissitudes of an ancient history that the grim struggle for survival must be based on a careful husbanding of energy for the main task. It presupposes a correct assessment of the character of the opponent, paired with an unostentatious and matter-of-fact perseverance that obscures the many intricate levels on which the competition takes place.
The initial objective of Italian teams is to force the opponent out of his game plan, to wreck his concentration and to induce him to abandon his preferred style. In the early stages of a match the Italian team tends to look destructive and purely defensive -- a style achievable only by extreme toughness and discipline. But once the Italian team has imposed its pattern, it can play some of the most effective, even beautiful soccer in the world -- though it will never waste energy simply on looking good.
The World Cup of 1982 is a case in point. In the first round Italy conserved its energy by playing three execrable draws. But in the sudden-death competition Italy first so frustrated Argentina's dashing style of attack that the outstanding Argentine player, Maradona, was ejected for assaulting one of his Italian tormentors. In the next game, against Brazil, Italy exploited Brazil's penchant for the all-out offensive to win with quick-breaking counterattacks. In the final Italy rattled the German team by abandoning its usual defensive tactic and prevailing with an all-out attack.
No discussion of national styles in soccer can be complete without some reference to England. Before World War II and for nearly a decade afterward, England was clearly the dominant soccer power. I say England, because for purposes of international soccer, the United Kingdom fields four teams: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. No doubt a single United Kingdom team using the best players from each would be more formidable; in international competition English clubs that can use players from all over the British Isles do much better than the national team.
But the decline in the fortunes of the English national soccer team is, in my view, primarily due to the refusal to adapt to the tactics of the modern era. Before World War II the English team overwhelmed its opponents with speed, power and condition. It specialized in rapid thrusts down the sidelines and high crosses that their forwards headed toward the goal with remarkable power. But as defenses massed, the English quick-breaking style lost much of its effectiveness; as most of Europe went over to professional soccer, the advantage of superior condition eroded. Yet England refused to adapt its tactical plan to the passing game, which is needed to break open the modern defense.
The English national team had never lost a game at home until 1954, when Hungary prevailed with its roving center forward. Since then, the English team has gradually declined. It is steady, reliable, tough. It never yields to panic. It is never defeated one-sidedly. It achieves everything attainable by character and tenacity.
Regrettably -- because I thought the pre-World War II game was more fun to watch -- it has also been somewhat pedantic and stereotyped, as if in nostalgic thrall to a bygone era. England has never won a European championship; it has prevailed only once in the World Cup and that was 20 years ago playing before its own fans. All of us who enjoy England's muscular game will hope that England's relative success in the current World Cup heralds a genuine revival.
In short, the World Cup arouses such passions because it involves both an athletic competition and a contest of national styles. It can be no accident that the most offensive-minded and elegant European team is France, which only recently has become a soccer power. Or that no team from a communist country has ever reached the finals of the World Cup (except Hungary in 1954) or even the last four; too much stereotyped planning destroys the creativity indispensable for effective national soccer.
Soccer has never taken hold in the United States partly because neither a national team nor a national style has been encouraged. Still, as an unreconstructed soccer fan, I hope that another attempt to popularize the sport will be made, perhaps by holding the next World Cup slated for the Western Hemisphere (in 1994) in this country.