Outstater: The Soccer-Football Dust-Up

July 3, 2014

Has the World Cup got you down?

The United States isn’t the big guy on the block there. And if you are a football fan (mostly conservatives), you are being dragged into unflattering debates with irritatingly informed soccer fans (mostly liberals). And although of global import, it all seems depressingly petty considering the real problems facing Indiana and the nation.

As a student of both sports (my one son played soccer and the other football), maybe I can help.

First, please know that this conflict stretches back thousands of years. The contrasting strategies of the two “games” have determined the rise and fall of civilizations. Their discussion is anything but petty.

The late John Keegan, military historian, argued that there are two forms of warfare that have shaped the world: eastern (think soccer) and western (think football). And if the connection with the respective sport is not obvious, let me break it down:

Soccer tests the mental if not physical skills required of the eastern form of war. Made up primarily of lightning-fast cavalry, it features a continuous ebb and flow in the action, the winning side not always being apparent. Its innovations include the stirrup, chariot and compound bow. Tactics utilize a mobile force using feigns, including false retreats followed by counter attacks, assorted diversionary movements to isolate and achieve numerical superiority, and finally, encirclement of what is left of the opposing army — all tactics you can see play out on any soccer field.

Since the expulsion of the soccer-mad Moors from Spain, however, it has been the western way of war that has prevailed — with the huge economic, scientific and industrial capacities needed to support it. Football, which for these purposes should be thought of as the leather-helmet or even rugby variety, is its manifestation.

Here, more than in soccer, there is concern about weather, terrain and a uniform playing field. Football tests both the mental and physical skills required in western warfare, foremost being complete discipline in the face of pretty certain hurt or ruin, and the courage and strength that implies.

Tactics revolve around a set-piece battle rather than a shifting field. The opponents face each other in phalanxes — historically, infantry in the middle, cavalry on the sides with artillery to the rear. (It is interesting to know that the tactic Alexander the Great used to conquer the world is indistinguishable from the trap block executed on any football field on any Friday night.) Innovations include effective body armor, the short sword, the pike square, the long bow and, most recently, the nuclear bomb.

Which brings us to the profound difference. It is one thing to ride down from the hills, shoot a few arrows and ride back up again; it is another to stand toe-to-toe and hack at each other with axes and broad swords, your retreat blocked by cavalry waiting to run you down and chop off an arm or a head.

Fortunately, modern football rules have eliminated most of that. The fact remains, however, that the western way is a brutal thing while the eastern way is “a beautiful thing,” as soccer fans like to say.

Perhaps, though, that is only true relative to its alternative — and perhaps then only superficially.

That last statement intrigued Keegan. He theorized that the western way prevailed precisely because of its ugliness, its awfulness; no sane society wanted to endure it on a regular basis. Eastern warfare, by contrast, with its calculated rather than certain risk, was more or less constant.

And this, perversely, gave western societies greater time to develop between periods of utter horror and devastation — to develop concepts such as absolute private property, individual rights, agricultural techniques, a common law, constitutional government, respect for scientific achievement, etc.

Feel better?

— Craig Ladwig



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