Welcome back to the footballing season. It’s been an off year for summer football. Or has it?
The German national team won the European Cup in teutonic fashion. Struggling to keep up with the fluidity and nous of other teams they proved able to grow from game to game and found ways to score when it mattered. Only that this description of teutonic football no longer represents the kind of football that spectators expect from a German side.
It was the women’s team, of course, that won the title, in spite of losing their first EC game ever in the group stage. Before the final redemption there was quite a bit of disappointment with the way the German women’s national team presented itself during the European Cup. But it was also quite obvious that many commentators dismissed women’s football altogether.1
I would like to look at this phenomenon from a football philosopher’s perspective and make a point about the game in general.
I firmly believe that if you want to understand the game, you need to appreciate the context in which it is played, and how different circumstances facilitate a different set of rules of what constitutes sound football.
The point is that the difference in context matters. It completely alters the decision making process to arrive at an optimal solution for a given in-game situation. And since football is all about decisions, as are games in general, we are looking at a different sport whenever there are different requirements about what constitutes a good decision, a decision that heightens one’s chance to win the game.
Women play the beautiful game. But they play it differently to what we are used to seeing on TV. And chances are, so do you and your lads and gals. The amateur footballers’ style of playing is a long ways from pro sports. Ridiculously so.
If you ever played a game of pick-up footie, you may have come to the realization that while the laws of the game remain largely the same, the set of footballing decisions available to you differ greatly from when you play organized ball. This may sound trivial, especially if the pitch dimensions are different. But it is an experience that teaches you to appreciate how flexible a term good football is.
A beautifully timed diagonal pass to the wing would be a great pass in pro football. But in pickup football there never is a winger making the sort of run for the pass to work. A sprint down the sideline, away from the ball really takes a toll on a player, both physically and mentally, because more often than not it is in vain. And if you are the Stehgeiger2 attempting hollywood passes to send a wheezing plumber into isolation whenever you touch the ball at a pick-up game, your team mates will make sure you get less and less chance to frustrate them.
The athleticism of players already puts harsh limits on the kind of game they can play. But even when you have well conditioned, highly motivated players in organized football there are differences to pro sports. In league play in the lower divisions you probably won’t find an offside trap to be a prominent feature of a team. That is because relying on the trap is a bad choice in this context. The refereeing is not up for it. When a tactical maneuver is too unreliable because of external factors, you would be unwise to plan your game around it.
So when you have players who are collectively on a different level of athleticism, as is statistically the case with women compared to male footballers, clearly the kind of passes or dribblings that qualify as sound decisions are different. Even if women were to close the gap in professionalism and finances, the very best of their game would still look different from the men’s version of pro football.3
That is because they are playing a different game. One that is enjoyable on its own terms.4 Needless to say, it is also worthy of critique and criticism on its own terms. Since we are tactics buffs, or would like to think so, there is ample opportunity to find fault or praise with the way women’s teams play football. True enough, the level of competition in women’s pro football is often below what it physically and structurally could be, still.
It’s just that the generic term of football is applied without qualifiers that leads to a confusion of categories. Professional men’s football is not just in another league. It is not even the same sport as non-professional-men’s-football.
Needless to say that the discussion was very male centric and in public fora it often is neigh impossible to keep sexist attitudes about how the looks of players are relevant to their watchability out of a genuine football discussion. ↩
A German term describing footballers who prefer to see as much of the ball and orchestrate a game with as little running involved as they can get away with. ↩
I find suggestions like shrinking the size of the pitch in women’s football completely baffling. But then tactics aficionados who love a proper midfield standoff are not the people who need frantic, high octane goal-to-goal action to enjoy the beautiful game. Incidentally, amidst many rule changes introduced to slow down the pace, in volleyball it is the women’s game that is actually more accessible to the casual viewer. ↩
It can be fascinating, even, to observe how and where the run of play of the women’s professional game differs from the men, because the constraints on good footballing decisions are different. And from there we could extrapolate more about the hidden rules that govern football for different levels of play. ↩