What makes soccer, the so-called beautiful game, so beautiful? Saturday’s Champions League final is the perfect occasion to ask this question.
In the past, I would have staunchly supported Barcelona against Juventus, not just as a club but — with its potent combination of attacking players — as the representation of all the beautiful things that the sport has to offer.
But as my relationship with the game continues to evolve, I have gained a new perspective. Until recently, I viewed ideas about “the beautiful game” purely as a description of what a team does when it has the ball. There’s the magic that individuals can produce but also the rhythm of brilliant combination play — it can seem like art when all that is combined into both rehearsed cohesion and spontaneous ingenuity.
But Juventus shows off the beauty in another part of the game. To watch Juventus is to appreciate a team that thrives on a backbone of tactical discipline and dedication to the perfection of a system. Yes, the team has skilled players and moments of individual and team brilliance in the attack, but Juventus excels with its relentless focus and dedication to all principles of the game, and primarily through its defensive cohesion.
Defending, just like attacking, is an art. It may be a much less-understood, less-respected or less-praised art, but it is certainly an art. I still believe that Lionel Messi and Barcelona produce numerous moments of breathtaking creative beauty every game, but the beauty of soccer is not restricted to offensive flair. There is also magic in reading the game defensively and working with 11 players as one to nullify these spurts of genius and to capitalize on the rare moments of weakness in a strong opponent like Barcelona. That is the task at hand for Juventus, and it is a hefty but exciting one.
I have had to think a lot about these principles recently, since I have been playing central defender for my club, F.C. Kansas City. I see firsthand the art in disruption, and I now view the game as a series of individual psychological battles. Who can anticipate the action first? Who is getting the better of the opponent because she is slightly smarter and more aware in important moments? These skills, like the flair that excites the crowd, are indeed part of the beauty of the game. The connection with teammates and the ability to cover someone else’s mistake, or have a teammate cover one of yours so that it is nearly imperceptible — now that is art.
Our coach, Vlatko Andonovski, teaches defending in a way that I have never experienced, and it has changed my view on this side of the game. Everything we do is technical. Yes, there are necessary tactics and positional understanding that come into play, but our coaching staff approaches defending in a fashion that completely meshes with what I love about the game. We work on footwork that is focused on winning the ball and maintaining possession rather than just clearing it, but also on the proper way to stick a leg out and reach around a player to intercept a throw-in. It is all very precise, and all in line with what inspires and excites me about playing the sport.
And so when I look forward to the Champions League final, I don’t view the matchup as I would have in the past. It is not Barcelona’s brand of total, artistic soccer against a group of defensive, tactical robots from Italy trying to crush the art. It is a battle of two very different, yet equally sophisticated, skills.
If you can appreciate that, and know that behind every tackle is merely a different kind of anticipation, timing, footwork and technique, then you can accept a game like Saturday’s as a complete work of art, in all of its nuances.