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Pelé called it “the beautiful game.” The simplicity of his comment about soccer has resonated among fans of the game for decades. The beauty of soccer begins with skill. Beautiful soccer means controlling an impossible ball, such as Dennis Bergkamp’s 89th-minute goal in the 1998 FIFA World Cup or Maxi Rodriguez’s chest-to-volley strike from the upper corner of the penalty area at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Soccer’s beauty is in the perfectly paced seeing-eye pass threaded through the smallest opening in the defense, which you will see anytime Luka Modric (Croatia), Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), or Paul Pogba (France) is playing. Soccer’s beauty is also seen in a solo dribbling run through the defense, such as Diego Maradona’s 1v7 run against England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup or in nearly any game featuring the incomparable Leo Messi.
You can also find the beauty in the longrange “bombenschuss” strike by Paul Breitner at the 1974 FIFA World Cup or the audacious half-field score by Carli Lloyd in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final. Then there is tactical brilliance. How about the 25-pass sequence to a goal by Argentina against Serbia in the 2006 FIFA World Cup or the lightning-fast length-of-the-field counterattack for a goal by the United States against Brazil in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup final? Brazil’s fourth goal against Italy in the 1970 FIFA World Cup is still considered a masterful display of teamwork, skill, and guile. The objective of soccer is the same as in any other team sport: Score at least one more than the opponent to win the game. This simple philosophy is enormously complicated. To be successful, a team must be able to present a physical, technical, tactical, and psychological display that is superior to the opponent. When these elements work in concert, soccer is indeed a beautiful game; when one aspect is not in sync with the rest, however, a team can be masterful and still lose. The British say, “They played well and died in beauty.” Soccer, like baseball, has suffered under some historical inertia: “We’ve never done that before and won. Why change?” or “I never did that stuff when I played.” That attitude is doomed to limit the development of teams and players as the physical and tactical demands of the game advance. How the game has advanced!
For example, the first reports on running distance during a match noted English professionals of the mid 1970s (Everton FC) averaged about 8,500 meters (5.3 miles). Today, most distances average between 10,000 and 14,000 meters (6.2 and 8.7 miles). There are reports that many females, with their smaller hearts, lower hemoglobin levels, and smaller muscle mass, can cover the 6 miles attributed to men. The distance and number of runs at high speed have also increased as the pace of the game has become more ballistic and powerful. To those of us who have followed the game over the years, the professionals sure do seem to strike the ball a lot harder now.
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