Friday, February 5, 2010

Basketball and Soccer

Fresh off of watching the Denver Nuggets dismantle the Los Angeles Lakers (in Los Angeles, without Carmelo Anthony), 126-113, I want to talk a little about two sports that I find oddly similar. Neither is my favorite - baseball has no equal, to my mind - but both nonetheless have a certain gracefulness that baseball lacks. Baseball, after all, is a sport organized around some confluence of poetry and mathematics, instinct and strategy, individual competition and team coordination. Those things exist in other sports, too, but in baseball events happen discretely, and are therefore measured with a precision unequaled in any other sport.

Ahem. I'm trying not to get sidetracked.

The object of both soccer and basketball is to score by putting a round ball into a goal. Of course, in soccer there is a goalie protecting a goal that is quite large, and it is not uncommon for neither team to score over the course of a whole 90 minute match. Basketball, on the other hand, is prone to scores like 126-113, especially because each basket is worth 2 or 3 points, instead of just the one.

Nevertheless, the essential similarity is this: both games involve a great deal of dribbling and passing, with nuanced offensive and defensive systems designed to allow players to take a good, high-percentage shot. Both games require tremendous stamina, because they involve running - and often sprinting - back and forth almost continuously.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the games is scale. Soccer is an epic game, a kind of war of attrition, requiring stamina and focus, and, at the decisive moment, sudden speed and agility. A team might spend the better part of a half-hour wearing down at their opponents, trying a pass from the flank or working through the center of the field (pitch, as they call it in England), only to see each attack thwarted by a well-organized defense. Finally, when someone makes a mistake, they might get a real chance to score, but even then a striker must maintain his composure, or else see the goalie turn away his shot.

Basketball, by contrast, is an explosive (and, in a very real sense, American) game. It is about quickfire scoring, jumping and sprinting, steals and hard fouls. The clock stops in basketball - unlike in soccer - but only just (unless the game is on national TV, in which case it stops for needlessly long commercial breaks). On the whole, it is speed and agility not at select moments, but always, with stamina and focus coming into play as the game wears on. Whereas in soccer you might ask, who will have the speed and agility to break free at the pivotal moment (taking stamina and focus for granted), in basketball you would ask, who will have the stamina and focus to come through in the final quarter, when the game is truly decided.

It is worth noting that, especially at high levels, soccer is also a game decided in the last "quarter." The final 15 minutes of a soccer match see the most intense play, and often the most goals. Some teams, indeed, are organized around this principle: play slow and conservative for 75 minutes, try to keep the score at 0-0, then explode at the end (after making your substitutions) to secure the win. Many basketball teams play in a similar style, though of course such a strategy has an obvious foil. Consider the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, who often rested LeBron James late in the game because of the tremendous leads they managed to gain in the first three quarters.

You could also say that both games share similar drawbacks. Officiating is notoriously difficult in both sports, and is therefore the subject of much grumbling among fans. On a related note, players from both sports have acquired a reputation for complaining and over-exaggerating potential fouls in order to get calls in their favor. The reason, in both sports, that this practice is so widespread is its effectiveness; in sports where officiating is difficult, it pays to be a good actor and "help" the officials get the call right.

Is there anything to make of these similarities? Probably not. More than anything, it helps to explain why basketball has internationalized so well. It is not absurd to say that basketball is the second most popular sport internationally (behind soccer). While there is not the diffusion of talent in basketball that there is in European soccer - or even in baseball, where excellent leagues exist in Japan and South America - countries around the world, and especially in Europe, have embraced basketball.

It is somewhat surprising, then, that soccer has not infiltrated the United States. Of course, to many Americans it is "boring" and "slow." It is not American Football, after all, with 11 minutes of action during a 4 hour game...

Sarcasm aside, soccer is a subtle sport, but, more than anything, it is a difficult sport to advertise during. That, more than anything, has kept it out of the American mainstream. American sports thrive on the commercial break, and any watcher of the Beautiful Game knows that the commercial break is taboo during a soccer match. As a result almost every European team wears sponsorships directly on their jerseys - something American sports fans roundly reject. Really, it's just a cultural difference, but it has helped keep soccer off the airwaves in America. That, and the awkward time difference between here and any of the major leagues (the MLS is not a major league).

Soccer has made inroads, however, just as basketball has made inroads into Europe. The United States national team made the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. Just last year they defeated world #1 Spain in the Confederations Cup. This June, they find themselves in a very winnable group in South Africa, joined by Slovenia, Algeria, and England.

Which is the really exciting thing. Come June 12, the World Cup will kick off for USA soccer with a match against England, their first World Cup head-to-head since the USA pulled off a huge upset in 1950. Needless to say, this is a huge match for USA soccer. Even if you're not a soccer fan, I recommend putting down the date. Think of it as a really long basketball game, without the clock stoppages and commercials, and with a much bigger - but harder to score on - goal.

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