POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #55: Reflections on the Most Beautiful—and Broken—Game

By Jeffrey D. Allers

Germany’s prestigious game of the year award, the Spiel des Jahres, is weeks away from announcing its annual winner, and yet it is another game that has captured the attention of the country and most of the rest of Europe.  The second most-prestigious football (or soccer) tournament, the European Championship, has entered the knock-out stages, and every night, fans young and old crowd  around television screens of all sizes. The legendary Pele once called football “the most beautiful game,” and although, like all sports, it certainly has its ugly moments, no one can deny its privileged position as the world’s most popular game.

And why shouldn’t it be?  The game can be played just about anywhere with just about any kind of ball.  And unlike most other sports, children can begin playing almost immediately after they learn how to walk.  There are skills to practice and perfect and strategy to learn, but the sport still rewards creative play within its relatively simple rules set. The old board game adage certainly applies here:  “simple to learn, but requiring a lifetime to master.”

Soccer’s popularity has increased tremendously in the United States since I left my homeland almost two decades ago.  Even my small hometown in Iowa has high school teams now.  It probably would have been my favorite sport growing up, if there would have been better opportunities at that time, but my only exposure to the sport was a summer league in which the coaches and other players knew very little about how to play the game.  Consequently, all of us crowded around the ball as if we were forming a Rugby scrum, while a young Vietnamese from an immigrant family—the only boy who actually knew how to play—suddenly emerged from the pack, dribbled the ball effortlessly down the field and placed it calmly in the back of the opponents’ net.

I did not play the game again until moving to Germany, and have only done so regularly in the last couple of years, after I was invited by a friend next door to join a weekly neighborhood group.  It has become so popular, in fact, that I organized a gym for us during the winter months.

Games of all kinds have always fascinated me, whether they were board games, computer games, or sports.  Just as I enjoy learning new board games, I find the challenge of learning football exhilarating, even at this stage in life. Friendly competition also encourages community, in board games as well as in sport, and I now know dozens of families in the neighborhood due to our weekly football games.

Fußball has long been a national pastime in Germany, especially in the post-war period, when just about anything else to do with national pride was strongly discouraged.  In fact, it was the World Cup of 1954 that first provided Germany with a new, healthier sense of national identity, made possible by its football team.  In that tournament’s championship game, the underdog Germans knocked off the highly-favored Hungarians in a made-for-Hollywood “Cinderella” story that foreshadowed the “economic miracle,” when Germany’s economy would also unexpectedly rise from the ruins (someone finally recognized the story’s potential at the box office, releasing the film Das Wunder von Bern in 2003).

Yet for all the advantages of football—it’s accessibility, popularity, balance between tactics and creativity, and drama—there are two glaring weaknesses in the game.  In fact, if the “cult of the new” dominated the world of sport as it does the hobby board game forums, football would most likely be labeled “broken” and sporting fans would move onto the next new thing (with the exception of W. Eric Martin, who would, no doubt, be pleading for us to give it another chance, in order that we could discover the game’s hidden depth).  And although I’ve personally become of fan of both playing and watching football, I find it difficult to sell the game to many of my friends back in the United States, in the same way I would have difficulty convincing hobby board gamers to play a game of Monopoly without first fixing some of its age-old problems.

The first weakness of football is the level to which the games are decided by a single referee (with the aide of two sideline flag-wavers).  The need for referees is, of course, absolutely necessary in big-time sports, and we can be thankful that they are not required on board game nights.  This is probably why I also prefer playing informal “pick-up” games of football to official league play.  But, when world championships—as well as an unimaginable amount of money—are on the line, one cannot avoid the need for a neutral party to officiate the game.

The problem with football, however, is that there is no other sport in which so many games have been decided by a single, crucial error from the referee.  Every sport acknowledges that referees are only human, they cannot see everything, and they can make mistakes, but the game-deciding mistakes in football are so common, I am surprised that more radical changes have not yet been made. In the last two major tournaments alone, there have been goals allowed that clearly were not goals, and there were many goals disallowed that should have been counted.  In a sport where the scoring is low and goals are very difficult to come by, this can be an extremely frustrating setback for the players who work so hard on the field.

The destiny of the English football team, in particular, seems to be forever determined by outside forces, needing a bad call from the referee in Wembley to win the ’66 World Cup against Germany, then losing to the Germans when their goal was mistakenly disallowed in 2010.  At this year’s Euro, their opponent, Ukraine, was wrongly denied a goal, allowing England to advance from the group stages.  At least the mistakes made by referees balance out over the course of English football history, much like the averaging roll of the dice in a game of Settlers of Catan.  But I wouldn’t want to be on the next English World Cup team, as it seems that, unless more changes in the officiating are made, the fates are due to make them the victims of another game-deciding bad call.

The second weakness of football is the extent to which cheating is encouraged–within the rules, of course.  While it’s true that every sport has players who will, at the highest level, do anything to win the game, it is again the frequency and impact on the game that makes it such a problem in football.  The most glaring example, immediately apparent to outsiders, is the amount of diving that players do, acting as if they are injured in order to gain an advantage.  This relates directly to the first weakness: with one main referee, players have found that it is possible to manipulate his decisions if their play-acting is convincing enough.  And even when the cheating is obvious on television replays, no action is ever taken—even after the game is over. Why not, at the very least, level fines against obvious cases to discourage the practice?

The idea of trying to pander to—or manipulate—the referees in soccer has unfortunately become a large part of its culture.  The skills required are admired in many countries (think Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in 1986, again against England), but every country seems to consider them as part of the normal tactics.  After a 4-1 loss to Brazil in a recent friendly, ex-German star and current coach of the U.S. national team Jürgen Klinsmann complained that his team, among other things, did not try to “confuse” the referees enough, as is “normal” for the powerhouses in the sport.  One U.S. player retorted in a later interview, “That’s not our game.”

Thankfully, the type of football I play more greatly resembles the times I get together with friends to play board games, where it is not simply the letter of the law that matters, but also the spirit of the rules that are important. Even a recent card game that light-heartedly celebrates cheating, the original and fun Mogel Motte, really isn’t about cheating, as it has rules for how a player may and may not “cheat.”  It’s true that if we played for higher stakes than personal satisfaction or bragging rights, some players would, inevitably, try to cheat to win board games.  Every professional sport has this weakness, but the rules of football do not sufficiently deter it, and it ends up becoming part of the game—and, unfortunately, has a trickle-down effect to the youth and children who learn the sport by following the wrong examples.  I’ve even witnessed this type of behavior in 6-year-olds.

The “most beautiful game” may be in need of fixes more than A Few Acres of Snow, but, like that Wallace deck-building masterpiece, it cannot be denied its millions of fans the world over, who are willing to overlook its flaws.  Perhaps it is because, as German journalist Kai-Uwe Zickerick wrote in the Berliner Kurier on June 22, the injustices actually contribute to some of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history.  One could even compare it to the way in which fans of the classic board game Risk retell the stories of when the luck of the dice allowed a player to defeat a clearly superior opponent’s force.

Together with Herr Zickerick and the rest of my Berlin friends, I will continue to watch that kind of drama unfold at the European Championships, where referee decisions share headlines with the skills of some of the most highly-trained players in the world.  But I also cannot help myself in hoping for incremental changes, the game designer and rules tweaker that I am.  Afterwards, I’ll  happily return to my neighborhood football group, to experience the same enjoyment I do at board gaming nights, where my friends are more interested in playing the game in the spirit of the rules, rather than taking advantage of its flaws.

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About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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16 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #55: Reflections on the Most Beautiful—and Broken—Game

  1. Sternenfahrer-MUC says:

    Hi Jeff, even though being German myself, I totally aggree with you that the “acting like being hurt”-part of the Fußball is bordering to being disgusting, especially with today’s high resolutiong TV sets where you can see the highly paid footbal player peeking through his fingers to the referee, like a four year old kid would try to see if his parents buy the story.

  2. Eric Brosius says:

    Good article, Jeff. Soccer/football is a terrific sport when not marred by these issues, and often it isn’t marred by them, but when they intrude, they are extremely off-putting to someone like me who didn’t grow up loving the sport. I’d add a third annoyance, which is the ease with which a team can stall if it wants to (for example, if it is a goal up.) Sure, there’s plenty of skill in getting that goal to put you into the lead, but it can make the second half of a game quite dull.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Yes, that is another weakness of the sport. Until now, however, that kind of strategy continues to win championships. Hopefully the Germans can finally prove this year that attacking football can be both exciting to watch and successful in winning championships.

  3. Florian K. says:

    It was in the World Cup of 1954, not 1950, when Germany won in Switzerland. Also: “Wembley”. Good effort for an American though.

    Seriously, excellent read. As with boardgames (and quite like you, it seems), I prefer playing myself to watching others do it.

  4. Scott Russell says:

    Watching soccer pales in comparison to (ice)hockey, but it may be my second favorite sport to watch. (That still relegates it to pretty low on my list of things to do, but my son and I do occasionally intentionally tune in a game [as opposed to seeing a game on a TV at a bar.]) I played in an intramural league in college (very recreational) and my son played a few seasons before he switched to hockey.

    Soccer is incredibly frustrating to me mostly for the reasons that you stated. Offsides is another pet peeve of mine. I remember watching a Brazil game two world cups ago and they scored three goals, all of which were offsides (two clearly and one borderline). As I feel about most rules, if you are going to have it, enforce it! My son’s team had a few setbacks by trying to use the offsides rule and having the (nearly amateur) refs not call it, too. But the constant writhing in pain until the call is made, then trotting off is probably the worst. Even at middle school level, hockey has a rule against diving and it’s called occasionally. (A common shout from the stands is, “Get up, this isn’t soccer!”)

    Instant replay is clearly called for. Hockey is a very traditional sport (remember how long it took to even mandate helmets?) , but it uses instant replay to great advantage at the professional level and it rarely slows down the game. It’s greatly reduced the phantom goals being scored and the true goals being waved off. I think it could certainly be used for red and yellow cards for perceived foul plays.

  5. David Marley says:

    Excellent article that brings two different topics together to some degree. While not something I’d want to see too frequently it is a great to have a different style of article from time to time. Thank you!

  6. Great article. Thank you

    Liga

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Congrats, Liga, to the Azzurri, for a well-deserved victory last night. The Germans just couldn’t get into their game, and I’m sure it had a lot to do with the aggressiveness of the Italian team. Germany, of course, spent hours afterwards analyzing what went wrong in the game (again, much like we do after a good, deep, board game), and I think the whole country has suddenly gotten quiet–a period of mourning and philosophical self-reflection, no doubt.

      Nevertheless, I’m rooting for Italy against Spain!

      • Thank you. Italian team played really well. Before the match I was sure this time Germany won. Of course also in Italy is started the endless serie of dicussions and analysis … Actually it looks like they are able to play better with strongest team than weake ones. So, as long as Italian team is involved, Football seems a quite balanced game.

        Before the match, to enter the right mood, we played some game to Soccer Tactics World, one of the funniest boardgame about football ever … of course it is a dice game but it is not so random and trivial as it looks at first glance.

        I game I really suggest to play with kids (8+), family and occasional players. Also nice as filler for gamers.

        best wishes and we hope to do as well as yesterday also with Spain
        Liga

  7. jeffinberlin says:

    It’s interesting to note that, not only do Americans have trouble relating to the worldwide popularity of football, but our sports are also not tied so much to feelings of nationalism, either (at least, since the end of the Cold War, when sports and the space program were the only ways in which the two sides could do battle without destroying the planet). With American sports, we are much more concerned with national championships on the college and professional levels, and not as interested in world championships (hardly anyone in the U.S. pays attention to the basketball world championships, for example, even though we invented the sport).

    The exception, of course, is the Olympic games, but I think it’s silly to keep a “medal count” to compare the success of different countries at the event. The Olympics are much more like a board gaming convention, consisting of lots of different participants and a variety of games, and keeping a medal count is just as preposterous as keeping track of how many games were won by players from Ohio. It’s the individual stories that are the most interesting.

  8. Hi Jeff,

    Good post.

    Yes, in game design terms, the game is broken :)

    A few ideas to make it better:

    1) yellow card for any intentional fouls (well what is it? I have been said, the ref will decide and I guess he can do that well most of the time).
    2) 10 minutes sin-bin for any intentional foul (similar idea but I think even better) or 30 minutes for bigger ones. Also the remaining time should be taken into account to judge about the size of the foul.
    3) obligation to have always one or two players in the opponent’s side (to open the game). Create a 40 meters line to manage the offside rules in this specific case. Or a 60 m line… That would stretch the game and prevent boring defensive play.

    The point you are mentioning late in your article is probably the most important one. Do they want to change? Probably not. Ref mistakes make headlines and they give something to talk about. It is all about drama. If it were not, then the game would be less random. But they want random: it just makes watching it more interesting. Who wants to watch a film where the ending is already known. Noone. Of course, we want the weaker team to have a chance.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. And I would like also any F… word to be added to the immediate punishment list. Rugby players don’t moan. They just take the ref’s decision as there is no room for them to do anything else (the team loses 10m as soon as someone complains).

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Yes, with only two types of penalties for players (yellow and red cards), it can be difficult to know when the line is finally crossed, and can differ from referee to referee. With sports such as rugby and American football, where field position matters, you can balance the severity of penalties with yardage/meters (5-15 yards in football), whereas with games like Basketball, each player gets 5 fouls and “technical” fouls can be tacked on for unsportsmanlike actions. This gives the players–and referees–a bit of breathing room. Referees will never be completely objective, and it is therefore good to give them a little room within the rules to maneuver.

      • I agree 100%.

        That’s basically the whole story of football. Very few goals, very few levels of sanctions. Discontinuity everywhere.

        But as I said, my theory is that this is just one important reason why the game is so successful.

  10. Lindsay Scholle says:

    Hi Jeffery,
    This was a really well written piece. A good read. Well done!

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