Soccer is an easy game to enjoy but not always an easy game to appreciate.
British players who come to America to play in the North American Soccer League sometimes are surprised and amused when the crowd loudly cheers a long goal kick taken by the goalkeeper or a powerful header out of defense, things which are simply taken for granted by spectations in Europe and South America.
It is especially difficult for American spectators to understand fully and respond to soccer because it is a free-flowing, continuous game, rather than one of sudden stops and starts, like American football, and because it is so easily and rapidly reversible.
There is a logical, grinding progression about American football. You make gains, you suffer losses, in terms of territory.In soccer, the original football game, a beautifully elaborated movement can come to grief in a split second through a goalkeeper's save, an inaccurate shot by a forward, or one which hits the woodwork of the goal. Then the ball is whipped away down the field for a counterattack by the previously defending team, a thrust which may easily bring a goal, since counterattack has been the essence of soccer for many years.
In soccer, the player who most captures the spectator's eye is not always the one who is playing well. Take goalkeepers, for instance. A spectacular goalkeeper may fling himself all over the place, punching and catching shots. But a less-flamboyant goalkeeper, with a more highly developed sense of position and less desire to flaunt himself, may scarcely need to move at all.
Positional sense is, indeed, the heart of soccer. The ability to read the game, as the English call it, on think a move or two ahead, to be in the right place at the right time, separates the intelligent player from his lesser brethren.
The dynamic aspect of this known as "running off the ball." When your own team is in possession, the man with the ball can make a good, telling pass only if a colleague is running intelligently into an open space or where an open space is likely to appear.
The telling, or through pass, involves getting the ball over or between defending players to an offensive teammate who is in posiresembles a two-on-one or three-on-two fast break in basketball.
Defenders must always b eware of "ballwatching," losing awareness of what is going on around them in their mistaken obsession with the ball itself.
Soccer tactics cannot be like American football tactics because the players are constantly in motion. But set plays can be run when the ball is "dead," that is to say, on corner kick and free kicks.
A free kick is a place awarded to a team when a player of the opposing team is penalized. A corner kick is a direct (on goal) free kick taken from a corner area by an attacking player if the ball goes out of bounds across a goal line and is last touched by a defender.
Brazillians like Pele kick the ball so powerfully that they can afford to bang their free kicks directly at goal. But there are many cunning moves on free kicks. One free player may make a dummy run over the ball, for instance, while a second runs in to shoot, or perhaps to pass to a third.
The dribbler, the player moving the ball over the field with his feet, can be one of the most exhilarating sights in soccer. Pele, again, scored dozens of marvelous, individualistic goals. But the spectator must ask himself whether a player is serving or harming his team, by controlling the ball too long, until he loses it or finds all his colleagues guarded by defenders.
"Make it simple, make it accurate, make it quick," was the slogan of a famous English manager of the 1950s, Arthur Rowe. Soccer, it has often been said, is a simple game, but to simplify the game can in itself be a sophisticated business. The greatest players see and do the thing which becomes obvious and inevitable only the instant after they have done it.