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.