National Character and Entitlement on the Pitch

The idea that a people’s national character can be divined from, or at the very least is reflected in, how they play soccer is hardly original. Die Mannschaft are always well-organized because Germans love meticulously plotted plans; Brazilians play “with the rhythm of samba” (definitely not an enormous cliche); Serbians are “Balkan wild men” or whatever and so Nemanja Vidic will cleat you in the face and laugh about it…it’s pretty easy to slide into unhelpful stereotypes with this line of thinking.

But it’s also undoubtedly true that the world of soccer is not a borderless entity, and that within the only semi-permeable boundaries of any particular (often nationally-determined) community of players, coaches, and fans, certain skills, techniques, and approaches will be valued more than others. It is perhaps not surprising that the footballing culture in which Vinny Jones (on the left) managed to have a successful career is the same one which has in the last twenty years been unable to uncover a decent left-sided winger.*

The veracity of any of this can be hotly debated, but one bit of broad-brush trait attribution it seems every other nation does agree on is that Americans aren’t actually that good. At the highest levels you might almost be able to justify the persistence of this perception as a sort of heuristic that allows talent evaluators to minimize uncertainty, downside liability, and reputational risk. Sort of like the athletic version of, “nobody ever got fired for hiring a kid from Harvard”.

But on the personalized level of pickup games and recreational leagues, it’s arrogant and entitled. There’s no need to rely on a macro-level heuristic in assessing the quality of your teammates relative to yourself; you’ve got loads of data (every single play) and no potentially better alternatives (the game in question is a closed system in terms of talent). And yet time after time after time people who feel themselves as coming from a proper “footballing nation”, and who objectively suck compared to their American teammates, step on to the field and act like they have an unalienable right to take every free kick, set up shop in the middle of the park (after all, how could an American play the role of an enganche or trequartista?), and try audaciously idiotic back-heels or rabonas no matter the circumstances.

Enough! If you’re going to step onto a field with arrogance and entitlement, from now on it has to come from something you’ve actually accomplished yourself; maybe you played in college, or for your hometown club’s youth side. Feeling some sort of ethno-national kinship with Andrea Pirlo or Leo Messi is no longer a good enough source. It means you’re not a poser when you root for the national side, but it’s not helping you pull off any of those bicycle-kick clearances.

*I will never say a bad word about Steven Gerrard, but when you’re rolling him out as left wing in a 4-4-2, something’s gone seriously wrong with your player development pipeline