By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (February 22, 2007) — According to John Amaechi, who recently announced he is gay in his new book Man in the Middle, most NBA players are primarily motivated by factors such as money, fame, groupies, and self-esteem — but not love of basketball.
“The fan sitting at home … wants us to love the game like he does,” he writes. “If he knew why we really play the game, for the most part, he might not love the game. He might not even watch it.”
There probably is not a good way to verify his claim, as it’s the rare player who will publicly admit that they don’t love what they do. So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that most players see their careers as means rather than ends and consider why so many of them might have lost their love for their chosen sport.
There are some obvious factors. The commitment required burns out many athletes long before they become professionals, especially if their parents force them to play. There are too many games, and many of them are relatively meaningless. There’s a ton of pressure to win, and constant scrutiny from the media and fans. And the amount of time spent practicing, working out during the off-season, dieting, rehabbing, etc …, reinforces the message that this is job rather than a game.
The biggest factor, in my view, however, is that the players have so little control over how they play their chosen sport.
Whenever I need reminding that soccer is ultimately a game, I invariably pull out a DVD of one of Brazil’s matches from the 1970 World Cup. They always remind me that there need not be a distinction between working hard and playing, between being prepared and improvising, and between being pragmatic and being artistic.
There is a great myth that this team was only interested in attack and that manager Mario Zagallo hardly bothered with tactics. For example, after the World Cup, West Germany’s manager Helmut Schön argued that, “the Brazilians were not really a team, just a collection of marvelous individuals, with a suspect defense.”
Pelé, however, has done his best to trash this myth:
“When we lost the ball, everyone would come back into our half and defend, the same way teams do now,” he said. “We scored lots of goals because I think we were the best-organized team. But I am serious, this was a defensive team. When we lost the ball, only Jairzinho stayed up, the rest of us, we all retreated into midfield. People don’t realize that because we scored a lot of goals, but what we were doing was playing modern football.”
Most players have always had a responsibility to help defend, but they were also given the green light to attack. That’s simply not the case anymore. The 2002 Brazil team, for example, kept its shape, neutralizing opponents while patiently waiting for Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, or Ronaldo to settle matches by conjuring up a moment or two of magic. They won every match, just like the ’70 team did, but it was relatively uninspiring. Modern soccer — like all the major team sports — is characterized by a stifling caution and a conspicuous lack of self-expression.
The common theme that runs through the evolution of football, basketball, baseball, and soccer is increasing emphasis on physical fitness and managerial control.
Football provides the most extreme example. There has not been an every down two-way player since Chuck Bednarik retired from the Philadelphia Eagles in the early ’60s, and teams now rely on a plethora of situation substitutions. This means that many players spend dozens of hours every week preparing to carry out a single task, like being the lead blocker on short yardage plays.
Players rarely improvise, like they did in the ’50s, and the coaches, not the quarterbacks, call the plays. Playbooks are 300 pages long and coaches attempt to choreograph every conceivable detail by watching hundreds of hours of film. Football players would no doubt love playing more if they got to play a wider variety of roles and if they were more responsible for offensive and defensive play-calling.
Baseball and basketball are doing their best to emulate football’s methods. Thus, baseball teams use situation relief pitching, which was all but unheard of 30 years ago, and NBA coaches are constantly breaking down film of opponents on off days during the regular season. These practices no doubt improve performances and make teams more competitive, but the downside is that players become little more than well-paid cogs in a machine.
You might think that soccer would be relatively immune because games are more or less continuous and the 10 outfield players have to switch positions regularly. Managers seem determined to prove otherwise.
First, they took responsibility for tactical changes during matches away from captains. Managers used to sit on the bench pensively; now they are constantly standing on the sidelines barking out instructions. The introduction of substitutions, which became a necessity because of how physical games had become by the late ’60s, allows managers to make drastic tactical changes. It also means that some players can use more energy because they know they will be coming off at a certain stage in the match. Teams now use film to breakdown individual performances and fitness has increased dramatically because every player is now on personalized regiment.
Last season, Real Madrid’s manager at the time, Wanderlei Luxemburgo, gave an earpiece to his captain Raul so that he could give instructions during matches. The Spanish FA prohibited the practice the next day, but its adoption is probably just a matter of time.
Why is this a problem? What’s wrong with being fitter and playing a more complex game? Coaches tend to stifle players’ creativity. They want to control everything, and this means that they tend to try to place an emphasis on planning and strategy rather than on encouraging players to invent the game during matches. Hence, Schön’s claim that the Pelé and his pals “were not really a team, just a collection of marvelous individuals.”
And second, they tend to be more concerned about losing than winning. They generally adopt a safety first approach. Former Borussia Mönchengladbach manager Hennes Weisweiler once remarked that he would rather lose 6-5 than 1-0, but he no doubt is the exception. Brazil scored 19 goals and allowed only seven in 1970, but Schön and many others felt their defense was suspect. Maybe the real problem is that most teams’ attacks are suspect.
Most players no longer love sports because they have to work under managers, like Jose Mourinho, who are so unrelentingly pragmatic that they rob games of their most essential element — play.
Players do not have enough of a say in team strategy and they enjoy far too little freedom on the playing field.