Given what soccer means to me now, it’s embarrassing to remember how little I knew about it when I went to see the U.S. Women’s National Team play in the 1999 World Cup against North Korea. I had a fantastic time, moving forward and back on my seat, popping up and yelling “YES!” then “uuuuuh” on the way back down. I triumphantly jumped up and down at each of our three goals, throwing my voice into the roar. I bought my first sports souvenir, a mini-ball, and thought about the match for days afterwards.
Honestly, I must have missed at least one of those goals. My son was six months old and spent much of the game in the baby backpack on the ground in front of me, cradled in between my knees. It was the only place that gave him a little shelter from the abrupt, and therefore startling, movements and noise of the big people surrounding him. At some point, the kind people in my group started taking turns walking the arena ramps behind the stands to calm him. I remember my disappointment at missing even a few minutes of the match, and how I rued not having gotten a babysitter. My poor planning was because I’d had no idea what a big deal the game was and how many people would be there. My previous women’s sporting event had been in a desolate Fenway Park, watching a travelling women’s team play baseball against a AAA men’s team.
Soccer. The world around, people call it “football” and “the beautiful game.” To most Americans, especially those of us well removed from being immigrants, it’s the “confusing game.” Despite any bewilderment, however, friends and family of the three million kids who play in the U.S. cheer, and, like me, sometimes even end up coaching. Soccer–unlike American “football”–is played with every body part, except the hands, unless you’re a goalkeeper. Keepers can use their hands as long as they’re within a rectangle called “the goalie box.” This much I knew when I was drafted, much to my delight, to be one of my son’s coaches when he was seven years old and in his second season. For some reason, I’d always imagined he would play soccer and I would coach.
The virus within me, probably caught during grade school kick ball and dormant for years, now burst into a full-on love of the game. But that didn’t mean I understood how the game was played. That “goalie box”? No such thing. As established by Law 1 of the Game: Field of Play, that is the “penalty area,” an 18 yard box that educated fans simply call “the box.” As Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct explains, if a player on the goalie’s team fouls an opposing player within that box, the opposing team gets a “penalty kick.” That’s the scene everyone has seen on TV of a player shooting directly against the goalie from a spot 12 yards away from the goal line, with all of the other players on the field standing outside the box. It’s all specified in Law 14: The Penalty Kick.
The smaller box within the penalty area isn’t the “goalie box” either, nor does it have its own law.
As for the defining rule of soccer, that no one can touch the ball except the goalie, it’s buried as an exception within Law 12 and elsewhere. As in: a player (except the goalkeeper when inside the penalty area) will be penalized for touching the ball with a hand. During a match at any level, you’ll hear someone shout, “hand ball! Come on! That was a hand ball!” When my son became a referee, I finally learned why so many “hand balls” aren’t called. The Twelfth Law of the Game outlaws “intentional handling.” “Handling” includes any extension of the hand, like clothing or, oddly, anything a player might throw. You have to wonder who once threw what and inspired the specificity of including “throwing” in the definition.
Confusion about soccer doesn’t confine itself to the sidelines of youth soccer. Plenty of Americans go to professional soccer matches with little idea what’s going on, yet they still enjoy themselves (six month old babies not withstanding). In 2009, when my son was ten, we bought inaugural season tickets to the re-born Boston Breakers, our area’s professional women’s team. (The Breakers were initially founded in 2001 as part of a league that emerged out of the excitement over that 1999 U.S.-hosted World Cup. Interest waned, and the league folded in 2003. The story of women’s professional soccer is full of the business drama inherent in “minor” leagues.) By then, I had enough of a sense of the game to answer many of the questions floating in the stands around me. I also still had many of my own, which, in turn, more knowledgeable fans were happy to answer.
In rising frustration and anger a fan might yell, “what do you mean that wasn’t a goal? The ball went in! I saw it! Why did the ref give it back to the other team?” The explanation is almost always “because someone was offside.” Offside is the most bewildering rule in soccer (Law 11). I tell my youth players, “if you’re on offense and don’t have the ball, keep at least one defender between you and the goalie. If you have the ball, keep dribbling.” Beyond that, there are all sorts of ifs, ands, or buts, that make off-sides so complicated that the primary responsibility of the two assistant referees is to walk up and down the sideline, raising a flag to notify the ref if they think see an offside infraction.
“Hey, look, that player just knocked over my son again! That team is way too rough!” This is a routine complaint at youth matches, particularly among parents of children under the age of twelve or so. It often comes as a surprise that soccer is a contact sport, for both girls and boys.
As a coach, I have to goad many girls into using their bodies aggressively. “Come on, knock against me, right here on the shoulder. Push me away from the ball!” I have to remind the indignant ones (“she pushed me“) not to use their hands to shove back. I caution the larger ones that if it appears to the ref that she and a smaller one weren’t going for the ball and the smaller one falls, the referee is going to call the foul on the larger one. I tell the smaller ones that if they get pushed hard enough to start to topple over, not to expend too much strength trying to stay up. If you’re about to fall, fall.
This counsel to my lightweight players approaches the gray line of what in professional parlance is called “diving.” Dives, subtle or spectacular, are a tactic used in every professional and international match to influence referee calls. The most preposterous divers, upon relatively minimal contact with another player, fall to the ground, look at the official incredulously, usually with hands raised skyward, and yell “foul!” Diving is not against the rules per se, but as poor sportsmanship, the referee may warn a flagrant repetitive diver to cut it out, and even, if pushed to it, “show” one of those mysterious yellow or red cards they carry in their pockets.
The referee has only one card of each color, which is why cards are “shown,” not actually “given.” They’re not prizes for players to keep. Yellow, which is starting to look like neon green (resulting in jokes about refs handing out green cards, like the ones the U.S. gives to some immigrants to grant them permanent residency ), is a warning or “caution.” Red means the player is ejected from the entire field area, and her team has to play the rest of the match a player down. Also, in soccer, yellow plus yellow equals red; two cautions, and you’re out.
Referees believe they rule objectively, but their perceived subjectivity provides fertile ground for heated arguments by fans and players. Players try to influence calls, for example by diving, because it works. I try to instill calm among youth players, and myself, with the mantra “the ref is always right, even when the ref is wrong.”
This summer (2015), I went to a Women’s World Cup double-header in Montreal with a friend who wasn’t a soccer aficionado. I was in heaven, and it wasn’t because I was amid throngs of fans. There were only a couple thousand people in a stadium for 60,000. First, we watched Spain tie Costa Rica, 1-1. Neither team was very good and both goals were scored early. But this left plenty of time for me to happily explain to my friend what was happening on the field. Immediately afterwards we got to watch Marta, the most exciting and best female player in the world, lead Brazil in a great matchup against South Korea (2-0). It was the best I’ve seen Brazil play in years.
The Laws of the Game may seem inscrutable, but there are only seventeen of them, if you want to learn. Though they are the official rules for only older youth and adult matches of eleven-player teams, their underlying intent about fair play and misconduct applies to many versions of soccer, like “futsal” and other indoor varieties, and to casual pick-up games. My ruling? Even if you don’t learn the laws, you can enjoy watching or playing soccer. At it’s most basic, it’s just running around kicking a ball. What could be more beautiful than that?