So the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa is over. It concluded yesterday with a new champion for the first time in 12 years. Welcome La Furia Roja, Spain’s possession-heavy and technically sophisticated national team, to the exclusive list of now only eight teams who have won the World Cup in its 80 year history. They deserved it - Spain has played the best, most demanding soccer for probably the past two or three years, and they came into this tournament roughly equal with Brazil as favorites. The game yesterday was not a memorable one, though. The Dutch team had a deliberate plan to disrupt the way the Spanish play by incessantly fouling them. It almost worked, but it was ugly, destructive, and ultimately got a player kicked off the field and lost the Dutch the game.
Side note: I think it’s time for this blog to get a tag filter for “tortured metaphor,” because this post is about to be another one. Oh yeah, it’s time for me to draw parallels between soccer and sexual assault. We’re gonna do this - it will happen.
Soccer is a simple game. There are only 17 rules that govern the entirety of the sport on the field itself. Those rules indicate appropriate play, and levy punishments for violating the standard. The rules are also vague as hell, allowing referees latitude to interpret a particular moment in a particular game in the way that he or she sees most fit. Refereeing standards change by culture and by particular ref, which can lead to hilarious confusion in international tournaments like the World Cup at times. Soccer is a contact sport - players are allowed to tackle one another to get the ball, try to muscle each other off the ball, and nudge each other while jumping for a header. The ref’s job is to make sure that the game keeps its physical character, but remains as safe as possible for the players and doesn’t devolve into a brawl.
Most normal fouls in soccer take place when two players are trying to accomplish opposing goals - a defender is trying to stop a forward from putting in a cross and goes into a tackle a little too quickly, or a midfielder is trying to win an unclaimed errant ball against another player. These are part of the game, they are (usually) not intentional, and you’ll see most players who foul or get fouled in a standard situation like this help each other off the ground, and maybe even give each other a pat on the back. In the best of cases, this is a simple gesture towards sportsmanship - hey, sorry I hit you harder than I thought, nice run, let’s get on with the game. Good times for all.
The type of fouling the Dutch used yesterday was different. Their game plan was to use tactical fouls to break up play. When committing a tactical foul, the player isn’t trying to win the ball or even make a play; the goal is to stop whatever the other team is doing, break their rhythm, and intimidate them. The most common use of tactical fouls is to send a message to a particularly skilled member of the opposite team (we’re going to kick you every time you get the ball until you’re bleeding), or to try and stop a team that has vastly superior technical skills. This latter strategy is what the Dutch used yesterday - the Dutch coach probably decided that the Spanish team, known for the last two years for it’s amazing ability to maintain possession of the ball and make beautiful, rapid short passes to one another, was too talented to play straight-up. He decided only way the Netherlands could hope to win was to disrupt the Spanish passing game, to throw them off their rhythm, and to make them nervous. It was clear by the 15th minute that the Netherlands’ strategy in the final was to kick, trip, hit, and physically batter the Spanish team to the point where they got rattled. It worked, especially in the first half - the Spanish pass machine failed to find its feet, the players misplayed tons of short balls, and guys like Andres Iniesta who normally couldn’t lose control of the ball if he wanted to were being let down by their first touch.
Eduardo Galleano’s brilliant Soccer in Sun and Shadow is probably one of the most well-known books using soccer specifically as a metaphor, and you all should read it. It you are a person with feelings, you will cry. It was books like Galleano’s that helped me see the universality of sport as a lens for our world. Not even joking, at about 9:50 pm last night, after watching, then discussing the game with friends for most of the day, I told my roommate that I thought the tactical fouling in this Final had given me the perfect metaphor for sexual violence. He was skeptical.
Here’s how this tortured metaphor works: the field, the game, the rules of soccer - these serve as community guidelines. Although they never know how a particular game is going to go, soccer players have basic guidelines that constitute the norms of their world when on the pitch. This is similar to our general communities, too - I never know exactly how my day is going to go, but there are basic realities that I generally expect will exist in my life. Soccer players know that no one follows all the rules perfectly all the time, and that those rules are open to interpretation. They also know that the more flagrant a violation of those rules, the more likelihood there is that the transgressor will be punished. Players get nipped in the ankles all the time and expect it, and it’s unusual for a referee to stop play because of it, but players don’t expect to get kicked in the chest like Xabi Alonso was yesterday, and most of them know they can count on the adjudicators of the game to take appropriate action (Howard Webb gave Nigel De Jong a yellow card for his very nicely executed front kick).
This being established, I come back to the tactical foul. This is the best sports-based metaphor for sexual violence I’ve ever found. Let’s investigate.
- Tactical fouls never “just happen.” Normal fouls happen. Tactical fouls are a deliberate attempt on the part of a particular player, or even a team, to assert control and dominance over a match through fear. There is a very clear perpetrator for a tactical foul, and a specific reason that teams use them - they scare their opponents and make them play differently.
- Tactical fouls break the rhythm of the game. They force players to concentrate solely on the fouler or the foul itself (especially if it was violent); even the best players can’t easily concentrate on the play they were about to make when someone else is kicking them in the shin. Tactical fouls throw the normal patterns of a game into flux.
- Tactical fouls create an atmosphere where people change their behavior because of fear. You could see this in the Spanish play in the first half: every time one of them received a pass near a Dutch player, they looked like they were bracing for impact. This isn’t very different from the culture of fear that sexual violence shows to women and gender non-conforming folks and forces them to think about their safety every moment of the day. The Spanish team, which is normally so silky with its passing, couldn’t play their own game when all of them were watching both the ball and their own ankles for fear of a Dutch challenge.
- Every player who is fouled reacts differently. Some players bounce right back up, take the free kick (if they even got one in the first place), and keep playing, hoping to level with the fouler by scoring and winning the game. Some players are injured, and can’t easily bounce right back up. Others, especially if they’ve been fouled a couple of times, might get angry and foul back (like Iniesta did in the second half).
- Tactical fouls are dangerous. Some players know how to tactically foul with the least chance of physical injury (and the least chance of getting caught); others are not so skilled. When Xabi got booted in the chest, he had to limp off the field for a moment. Thankfully, it looks like he didn’t sustain any major injuries, but De Jong could have broken Alonso’s ribs.
- Tactical fouls are supposed to be punished, but context matters a lot and determines what, if any, punishment gets doled out. Subtle players who pay attention to what the refs are watching can tactically foul almost with impunity. Other players know about them, sure, and they might even develop a reputation as a dirty or underhanded player, but neither the refs nor the governing body of soccer does anything about it. The more blatant the foul, the more likely the ref is to recognize it, but even then there might be external factors preventing the ref from taking action. That was certainly the case in this final: Howard Webb, the referee, was under pressure to keep control of the game, keep the players safe, and not to “ruin” the match by throwing anyone out. He was sorely pressed, though, once he realized the Dutch were going to play the type of game they did. If he actually gave out the number of cards he should have, a lot of the Dutch players (and probably Carles Puyol, too) would have been booted from the game by the second half, and that’s a Final no one wants to see. Once he gave a Dutch player a yellow card, both that player and Webb knew that he was under too much pressure to keep the game “good” to give them another yellow card without them committing a stupidly obvious foul. The result of this pressure was that a lot of Dutch players ended up with a warning, but were allowed to stay on the field because their being on the pitch was more important in this sport than protecting the Spanish. Huh, a player or the moment being more important than protecting other people? This reminds me of another sport.
- Tactical fouls are a lot harder to condemn if your team is committing them. This one is probably the most depressing, but it’s important for the metaphor to work. Thankfully, the US doesn’t usually play a particularly dirty game in international soccer, but it’s tough to condemn my team, my country, for doing it. When my team is tactically fouling, it’s strategically genius, it’s a way to show dominance, to expose the other team as weak and girlish. Hey, if it’s my team, I may not even call it tactical fouling; when we do it, it’s just “playing physical.” In reality, thuggery is thuggery no matter who is doing it, but my loyalty to my team makes that harder to see.
- Tactical fouls do fall under the authority of a moderator of community standards - the referee, in the case of the game, and the police or law enforcement community in the case of sexual violence. In the best of cases, a referee is an impartial authority figure who maintains the spirit of the game and respects the community in which it is being played while also protecting the players. In reality, refs are still human. They don’t see every play that happens, they bring their own team or play-style biases with them, they get tired, or lose control of matches at times. Refereed sports can only maintain the game to the level of the community standards - there is, unfortunately, an acceptance that tactical fouling is just something that exists in soccer, and even though its ugly and potentially harmful, the refs can’t come down too hard on it. If that community standard were to change, tactical fouls might disappear, too. If our community standards about sexual assault were to change, too….
The Dutch played like thugs in yesterday’s game, and thankfully for a neutral observer like me, they paid the price for it. They never played the game their talent could have allowed them to, they lost a player to a red card, and the Spanish won the game. The whole world saw the Dutch strategy and we’ll see how it shakes out over the next couple of days, but soccer pundits are already starting to call it like it was - a bad idea, a shameful game, and a good way to lose the match and the respect of the international soccer community. So many of these things SHOULD parallel we treat sexual violence - it should be shameful to commit it, it should make perpetrators lose the respect of their peers and fellows, and they should be tossed out fair participation in their community if they insist on deliberately hurting others.
Also, viva La Furia Roja!
*Ok, mega-disclaimer: clearly, I understand that tactical fouling and rape are LIGHT YEARS apart in terms of their actual impact on the world and people. Likewise, I understand that the Dutch team is not, in fact, made up of horrible men who do terrible things to their fellow humans. The metaphor works because of the structural similarities, not because the scale or scope of the activities is anywhere near comparable. I would never argue that. At the end of the day, soccer is a (beautiful) game, but a game still.