Seeing sociology in the US men’s national soccer team coaching change

A number of articles have noted the new approach of the new coach of the US men’s national soccer team, Jurgen Klinsman. But this is the first one I’ve seen that suggests Klinsman’s outlook is sociological in nature:

What Klinsmann’s hiring is really about is the big picture, about where soccer is going in the United States, how it will be played and by whom?

It is a grand experiment that is as much about sociology and psychology as it is soccer, and one that promises to be — even to Klinsmann — at least as interesting as whatever happens on the field.

“I deeply believe that soccer, in a certain way, reflects the culture of a country,” Klinsmann, who since 1988 has lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said at his introductory news conference. “You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? It is important over the next three years, especially in the beginning, that I have a lot of conversations with people engulfed in the game here to find a way to define style. What suits us best?”

The question of style posed by Klinsmann — one of the few people with the gravitas and wherewithal to carry such a debate from his perch — isn’t simply about aesthetics. It is about empowerment.

Some Americans might think that having a “national soccer style” might seem odd (is there a “national football style”?) but other countries have such approaches. How exactly cultural values match up with soccer play would be interesting to look at in more depth. Are the explanations that the team fits the values simply post-hoc explanations? (A similar argument: the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers play a particular style of football – tough, good defense, hard running, etc. – because of the industrial cities in which they started.) I suspect a “national style” works because it is meaningful and traditional (and perhaps successful), rather than necessarily more true than other possible styles.

Part of the issue raised by Klinsman (and hinted at in this article) is the culture of US soccer that seems to privilege a particular path related to race and social class: going to expensive sports academies as teenagers and then going to college. Few, if any, other countries follow this route. This is a structural issue: how could the path to playing for the USMNT be altered to open it up to more players, particularly those who can’t afford or don’t want to pursue the “typical” route? As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, these certain structural advantages help some and not others.

A lot is being asked of Klinsman and cultural changes are difficult to make. But it sounds like Klinsman has some ideas about what to do and US soccer seems to be at a point where people realize it needs to take “the next step.” It will be interesting to watch how the Klinsman sociological experiment goes.

Racism the reason for the lack of black soccer managers

Two English academics examined an issue that is reminiscent of similar issues in the United States: what explains the relatively low proportion of black soccer managers in England?

More than half the respondents to an online poll of 1,000 soccer fans including current and former players believe racism is the reason for the lack of black managers in English soccer…

“The number of black and minority ethnic managers in English professional soccer has been stable for nearly 10 years,” Cashmore and Cleland wrote.

“There are usually between two and four (out of a possible 92). Yet black players regularly make up more than a quarter of professional club squad.

“The findings indicate 56 percent of respondents believe racism operates at the executive levels of football, i.e. the boardroom.

“While some accuse club owners of directors of deliberate discrimination, most suspect a form of unwitting or institutional racism in which assumptions about black people’s capacities are not analysed and challenged and continue to circulate.”

Soccer has tried to combat racism throughout the game for years – see the ever-present slogan “Say No to Racism” in the new FIFA commercials playing during the Women’s World Cup and my FIFA 2010 video game. But negative stories pop up from games time to time and I imagine that this study doesn’t please those in charge. Even if racism is not present at matches, the perception is that it is still in the sport.

I was intrigued to see that these conclusions are drawn from a web survey. Here is some of the methodology for the study:

This method did not suffer from the kind of sampling error that can bias more traditional sampling: participation was completely voluntary and confidential. It was self-selecting. The only possible bias would be a skew toward those with access to the internet. We believed this was an acceptable bias in the circumstances. To elicit the necessary data, both authors engaged in club fans’ forums across the United Kingdom (from the Premier League down to non-league). A large number of forum editors were formally contacted by email and in those forums where permission was granted (over fifty), a paragraph about the research and a link directing fans to complete the survey was included. As the research was anonymous, at the end of the survey the participants were reminded that by clicking submit they were consenting for their views to be used in the research.

This study doesn’t have the “kind of sample error that can bias more traditional sampling”? Self-selection is an issue with web surveys. This may not matter as much here if the authors were most interested in obtaining the opinion of ardent fans. But it might even be more powerful if the average citizen held these opinions.

Sporting events and human rights

With FIFA’s recent awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qater, some commentators have discussed whether the expansion of football (soccer) was the overriding principle in the decision. Ann Killion of Sports Illustrated suggests the decision didn’t really account for human rights at all:

Amnesty International and raise serious concerns about Qatar from a human rights perspective. A 2010 report by the Office of the United Nations high Commissioner for Refugees rated Qatar “not free.” While women have been granted some rights in recent years, in practice they have very little ability to pursues those rights. In 1996 a gay American citizen was sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes…

Using a mega-sporting event as an instrument of social change is a dubious proposition. Did human rights improve in China after the Beijing Olympics –or are restrictions on freedom even greater now?

Is Qatar going to magically transform for one month of football 12 years from now? Are football fans going to be able to freely drink a cold beer in the 120-degree heat? Are women and gay visitors going to be accepted?

Somehow I don’t think the 22 men of FIFA’s executive committee really care.

Should a sports body, such as FIFA or the Olympics, take human rights into consideration? This is an interesting discussion. FIFA claims to be about football all over the world, hence their recent plans to have the World Cup be hosted on multiple continents. But whether this spreading is motivated solely by money or about truly sharing the world’s game is another matter.

If a sports body did require certain levels of human rights for countries to host (or to be able to send athletes), could this change any policies anywhere? And if it didn’t change state policies, would it be harming individual athletes who are not responsible for the stance of their home nation? The only example I can think of is that of South Africa where they were not allowed to participate in the Olympics until the apartheid policies changed.

On the basis of human rights, would athletes and nations be willing to boycott a worldwide sports body like FIFA or the Olympics?

Ultimately, we may have make a judgment about whether human rights or money is a bigger motivating factor for sporting bodies and nations. And if money does seem to be the main factor, the task for human rights advocates is to figure out how to counter.

Quick Review: The Damned United

With the World Cup taking place, I picked up The Damned United which chronicles a short period in the life of enigmatic British soccer manager Brian Clough. Troubles ensue when Clough becomes manager of Leeds United, the dominant team at the time. The 2009 film features Michael Sheen (of playing Tony Blair fame) who plays Brian Clough.

Quick thoughts:

1. I enjoyed the film. I thought the story was compelling and sufficiently deviated from the typical sports film where a misfit coach joins a misfit team and they magically come together to win a championship.The story involves a number of flashbacks that reveal how Clough came to be Leeds’ manager.

2. Clough and his managing partner, Peter Taylor, have a well-played “buddy” relationship.

3. After watching, I went online to find more information about Clough. According to the Wikipedia entry for the film, the movie plays fast and loose with Clough’s real story. This may be due to the fact that the film is based on a fictionalized novel of the same name written about Clough. Clough’s family apparently boycotted the film and others in England were not pleased.

4. Since I liked the film yet found out the real story was not quite what the movie portrayed, I feel somewhat cheated. I know films (and other media) often take “artistic license” but this film, in my opinion, went too far. In this case, real life was interesting enough without changing certain dimensions of the story.

(The film was well-received by critics: 114 reviews, 107 fresh/94% at Rotten Tomatoes.)

Soccer taking off in America?

Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy over at ESPN, writes in his latest column that he finally believes soccer is taking off in America (see Questions #19 and 20). This is a common debate, particularly at World Cup time: have Americans finally latched on to the “world’s game”?

Simmons develops several arguments, which I summarize here:

1. Many fans weren’t just excited about Landon Donovan scoring during injury time against Algeria – more understood what it meant.

2. The US performance in this World Cup brought Americans together and there are not too many other athletes or teams that can do this.

3. Moments like this make big impressions on young children who then carry their fervor into their adult life.

4. Media and technology now make it easier to access soccer.

In summary, Simmons writes:

Soccer is no longer taking off. It’s here. Those celebratory YouTube videos that started popping up in the 24 hours after Donovan’s goal…tapped into a collective American sports experience unlike anything since Lake Placid….Those clips choked me up. Those clips gave me goosebumps. Those clips made me think, “I forget this sometimes, but I’m glad I live in the United States of America.”

It is interesting that Simmons says this now. He says he knows what cynics would say: people have been saying this for years.

I think he is right in one sense: more Americans do now seem interested in soccer. TV ratings have been good, particularly for the US matches. ESPN has carried every game and its easy to find highlights and commentary on many outlets. Americans like rooting with each other for Americans – this is what happens in the Olympics in four-year cycles and that typically includes sports no one watches between Olympics. There are few moments that bring Americans together for a common purpose and sporting events like the World Cup are rare. Additionally, the US now has a reasonable soccer league, MLS, that has developed into a decent feeder league for First Division European leagues.

In another sense, Simmons is making a strange argument. What does it mean to say that “soccer is here”? Is it now a top-three American sport? Of course not. It may have already eclipsed hockey (check out the consistent broadcasts and ratings on Spanish-language TV) but it would need sustained interest, not just four year spurts, to come close to football, basketball, and baseball. The YouTube videos Simmons writes about of Americans celebrating Donovan’s goals (successfully edited together here) are positive; but they are just a small sample. In fact, most of these videos feature middle to upper class white males sitting in a bar when they should be at work. We are nowhere near national holiday status for big matches.

The whole discussion about whether “soccer is here” is tedious. America is a big country: we have lots of room for lots of sports. In reality, there are still just a few sporting events that draw national attention from the casual fan or even disinterested people. The Super Bowl is the best example while the NBA Finals, World Series, and Olympics lag behind.

Soccer doesn’t have to be as big as it is in other nations to be considered “here” but it does have to be a consistent draw in person and on television. Perhaps by the next World Cup, MLS will be thriving (increased attendance, more players headed to Europe) and the soccer generation who have filled youth leagues for decades will be older and more attentive. Perhaps not.

But if one is truly a fan of sports and competition, it’s hard not to get interested in the World Cup. In addition to national pride on the line, it features the world’s best players and a truly international cast.

Winning vs. a country’s culture

Brazilian coach Carlos Caetano Bledorn “Dunga” Verri has had a successful World Cup run thus far: four matches and four pretty easy wins. For many national coaches, this would lead to general praise from the media and fans.

But not in Brazil. Dunga has been playing with a more defensive-minded system, particularly compared to the attacking-with-flair Brazilian teams of past decades. A quick description of the battle Dunga has been fighting:

Then there were the fans, who almost always favor the spectacular and revel in the nation’s tradition of breathtaking open-field play.

Brazil has always been about offense, offense, offense. It has the deepest pool of talent in which to select a team. Its players pride themselves on creativity.

Even some of the  country’s former stars, such as Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s 1970 team, have blasted Dunga:

“I am not confident in this group because our national team do not play Brazilian football…I’m talking about movement and use of the ball. We have good defenders, but the midfielders: if you ask Brazilian kids, who are our midfielders, they shrug their shoulders.”

So if Brazil wins a sixth World Cup title, what then? Will the country celebrate in the same way or will it be considered a less-than-great title? Sports fans can be an interesting lot, particularly when they are used to winning.

Training a young American soccer star

Two articles that disagree about whether young male soccer players in America should be going to Division One college programs to play. There are now many more female Division One soccer programs and they can offer more scholarships than men’s teams.

It has been my understanding that soccer is like baseball; college, for many, is a waste of time. (Baseball players have terrible education levels due to this common life in the minor leagues.) The best young soccer players in the world are often discovered before they are 15. College simply delays their development. Soccer has a sort of informal minor league system; young players play for lesser leagues (like MLS in the US or Division One or Two in England) before they are bought by a first-rate squad. American soccer players are only now consistently playing for better overseas squads, such as Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan in the Premier League.

For women, it is a different story. There is a professional women’s league in the US – but it attracts little attention and pays little. College offers good competition while getting an education. Outside of going on to play for the Women’s World Cup, many players may never see the attention they get in college.

1. The New York Times: How A Soccer Star Is Made.

2. Minding the Campus: Why U.S. Men’s Soccer Will Now Decline.

The rules of officiating: consistency and openness

Two rules regarding officiating I have witnessed in recent days: consistency and openness.

The other night, I provoked a 5-minute argument in the middle of a pick-up basketball game. The other team claimed I was consistently setting moving screens. (Ironically, before the game both teams were discussing how both the Celtics and Lakers set moving screens that are not called all the time.) But they were unwilling to call it as a foul. One of the key rules of pick-up basketball: players call their own fouls.

Perhaps another rule: be somewhat consistent in calling your own fouls. Don’t just complain about things you don’t like – you can call the foul and no one will argue. For many professional athletes, they also desire this consistency from officials. They may disagree about the validity of certain judgment calls (and most sports have judgment calls to be made on almost every play) but if they know both teams are playing by the same rules, they can handle it. Even the appearance of impartiality is enough to get players, fans, and coaches up in arms. Coaches like Phil Jackson have been recognized as masters of playing this game – criticize the officials in hopes of drawing better calls for your team in future contests.

Additionally, officials should be able to explain and be held accountable for their calls. This was not the case in the past, particularly in baseball. If you read baseball history, umpires often acted like dictators who saw no need to every offer any apology. But technology and league reviews now in most sports have reduced these traits. Scrutiny of every call is easy – plenty of replays, media outlets, and websites to discuss every decision. Witness the lauded efforts of umpire Jim Joyce who sincerely apologized to the Detroit Tigers pitcher whose perfect game was ruined by a bad call. Leagues are now willing to penalize officials based on bad calls. It doesn’t change the outcome of the game but it can bring a small measure of piece of mind.

Thus, the anger even a day later from the US Men’s National Team after a disallowed goal from their match against Slovenia. The issues:

1. A perceived lack of consistency, particularly in the second half. Players being mugged in the box are ignored. Phantom fouls are called.

2. The referee has not explained his call. What exactly did he see? Does he now see it as a bad call?

FIFA seems ready to admit the poor call as they are looking to remove the official from any further World Cup matches. I’m sure this will be of little solace to the US team but it does indicate we live in a new world of officiating.

One soccer match = World War II battle?

Great headline from The Sun regarding England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria earlier today in the World Cup: “Never in the field of World Cup conflict has so little been offered by so few to so many (with apologies to Winston Churchill).”

Apparently, it is the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s famous speech during the Battle of Britain. For many fans around the world, soccer/football might truly be on the scale of wars between nations. For many Americans, even with all-out coverage this year from ESPN/ABC, it is merely a diversion.