Monday, June 01, 2009
Back in college when I majored in psychology in the hopes of making the same breath-taking salary as I now make writing, I studied this psychological assessment of a person's cognitive level. Given nine objects the person had to group them based on size, shape, color, and material. Each object could be part of several different groups, so their separation required some creative thinking. I reverted to the test's structure this week when I had the chance to see two very different and yet very similar soccer games. With soccer as the broad context, the comparisons and contrasts seemed limitless.
Wednesday I watched the UEFA Champions League Championship game between Barcelona and Manchester United. Spoiler alert! I'll be revealing who won. An American equivalent to the match might be the Super Bowl except the pageantry for UEFA has a sparse swagger rather than an over-produced excess. Nevertheless a comely lass dressed in the Championship Cup did do her best Victoria's Secret runway walk towards the camera as confetti fluttered around her and a huge chorus belted out the Champion League Anthem based on Handel's "Zadok the Priest" from the Coronation Anthems. It wasn't Bruce Springsteen, but it did get the emotions boiling. Then the teams marched out along the center line and spread out across the field flanking the officials. Every team member showed his anxiety in jittery limbs and tense expressions.
Likewise I got to see several US Youth Soccer Association State Championship games in Wisconsin this weekend and last. The players weren't as seasoned or physically mature, but the same stakes existed: win or go home. While the only confetti bits were errant napkins and wrappers, the celebratory mood did exist on those fields. The teams marched out to the center line, fanned out beside the officials, and basked in the applause of parents, siblings, and fans. I really delight in watching the entrance of the teams on the field. For the younger players it may be the first time they have ever participated in a tradition they have seen preceding World Cup and Gold Cup games. The nerves they felt had to be as intense as any of the nerves Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo felt on Wednesday. It's their taste of the world-wide rituals of the game. And it was their chance to relish it.
For the first few minutes of the UEFA game Man U dominated. As a team they seemed confident and motivated, but when Samuel Eto'o suddenly used a brilliant pass by André Iniesta at the ten minute mark to power a goal behind Edwin Van der Sar they just as suddenly dissolved into confusion and reticence. How often have we watched our own children be psychologically taken out of a game after an unexpected goal? Team dynamics really aren't much different for 12 year olds and 28 year olds. That intangible network that holds team members together and drives them collectively towards success can dissolve in an instant and never be regained. Such was the case with Manchester United. Many a state championship game turned on the inability of a team to create or maintain that group dynamic.
Even someone as skilled and seasoned as Ronaldo managed to received a pass in the six yard box and then boot it over or wide of the goal. Remember that the next time you groan when your daughter's teammate does the same. The complex and delicate mix of skill, temperament, nerves, and placement may not be mastered by Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United or Sara Smith of Hometown FC. The problem is that Ronaldo is being paid to have mastered it and our sons and daughters do it for the joy of the game. So we need to cut them some slack.
All this brings me to the fans. While I heard occasional jabs at the officials or angry shout outs to players, for the most part state championship fans have been well-mannered and supportive. Not so for the fans at UEFA. Fan intensity in soccer comes with the territory especially at the professional level. Fans don't accept any sort of error. So cat calls, whistles, boos, and even unprintable chants echo regularly throughout soccer stadiums of the world. But at the youth level in the United States we have managed to maintain an atmosphere of near civility. A few members of Robbie's team got yellow cards during the game for having garbage mouths, which comes with being a teenager and knowing everything about everything. The frustration with perceived bad calls erupts in verbal harangues. In that regard they are no different than any of the players at the UEFA game, but in the professional ranks such outbursts are more regularly tolerated and ignored.
Although it probably seems like an inconsequential element to the game, uniforms can play a very important role for the players. My sons will often express the hope that they will be playing in a certain uniform combination for reasons of superstition, pride, or comfort. When that combination can't be worn, it can have a trickle down affect on team spirit and motivation. As a mom I only hope they won't wear the white shorts on a muddy day. I wonder if Man U felt less strong in their all white uniforms. They did seem to melt into the background compared to Barcelona in their bright blue and red stripes. There's no way of knowing if uniforms had anything to do with the team's demeanor, but as a former psychology student I have to read something into everything.
I look forward to the US Youth Soccer Association Championship Series. I love seeing other teams and watching players whose jerseys I'll be buying someday for my grandchildren. It's a grand gathering of talent, hope, and enthusiasm. Again I'll encourage families to try to attend their Regional Championships and, if they are in the Northeast, the National Championship. While it isn't the World Cup or the FA Cup or UEFA, it is a spectacle in its own right and a show of earnest, passionate soccer. While a ticket to UEFA probably set a fan back several hundred if not thousands of dollars, the Championship Series is free of charge (except possibly for parking) and offers dozens of games to watch and enjoy. The one good thing about soccer being a growing sport in the US is that it is still a relatively inexpensive spectator sport. Bring along a recording of "Zadok the Priest" and you'll nearly have the complete UEFA experience.