On Soccer and Boredom

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On Soccer and Boredom

This past week, the head of analysis at Gracenote Sports and a football-watching veteran Simon Gleave tweeted this in response to some of the backlash against Euro 2016 as a “boring” tournament:

Gleave is partly correct; there is, in fact, minor consensus on the “good” and “bad” international tournaments over the past few years. For example, the 2014, 1986, 1970 World Cups are generally considered to be ‘good’, while the 2010, 1998, and 1990 World Cups are ‘bad.’

Nevertheless, our rosy view of some of these ‘better’, more entertaining tournaments are often distorted by our unreliable memory, leading to survivorship bias. Over time the classics stand out, earning repeated mentions and viewings in histories and Youtube reels, while the more boring games—unless they include the final—are gradually forgotten.

What remains consistent throughout the history of international football however is our insatiable desire and expectation of entertainment. For example, reading through Brian Glanville’s The Story of the World Cup, which provides the British writer’s summaries of every tournament going back to 1930, one is struck by his continued frustration over the lack of attacking football, the absence of drama, the misery of games decided on penalty shootouts, a crime against the game. This decline in excitement of course got worse over time as the World Cup expanded, which he, like many others, ascribed to FIFA’s greed.

Glanville is not the only writer to take issue with the influence of money on increasingly boring international tournaments. As the late Uruguayan soccer sage Eduardo Galeano wrote on the 2002 World Cup in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, “It’s a soccer for robots. Such boredom supposedly means progress, but historian Arnold Toynbee has already seen enough of that when he wrote, ‘Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency toward standardization and uniformity.’”

Yet despite this apparent degradation, by some miracle millions around the world tune in to watch these big tournaments, and in growing numbers. If the game is getting worse and worse, why do so many still watch it? Are football fans simply suckers, dazzled by Nike ads and the latest FIFA video game, holding out against hope something interesting will happen in a game ruined by greed and globalization?

In some ways the popularity of football in the early 21st century makes no sense. Even at its best, the game is defined by long stretches of predictable play marked by only a few fleeting but sublime moments of excitement. What accounts for its popularity in a culture where the plots of films and TV shows are dictated by algorithms which ensure the viewer does not enjoy a second without stimulation and excitement, where people will immediately whip out their phones at traffic stops to check their status in one of five different social media platforms? The idea that millions would want to watch a game characterized by 22 people running around on a static green pitch for two hours trying to score what will likely be at most one or two goals is absurd.

Maybe it’s because football reflects ‘real life’ far more than any serial drama or heavily edited reality show. Despite our endless need to force the game into some narrative mould, the reality is that even at its best, football, much like our own little lives, is mostly predictable, sometimes crazy, often but not always enjoyable.

Perhaps it’s for that reason that the boring nature of soccer comes as a relief at a time when many of us, particularly the young, feel they are not allowed ‘off years,’ time in shit jobs where we learned nothing, developed no skills, went on no adventures, all cardinal sins in our current self-help culture which demands constant personal development, improvement and success.

While we read the biographies of important people and feel ashamed of our own meandering and mundane lives, we fail to realize these books have been edited to keep the best bits, with rough edges rounded out to give the illusion that these people lived their lives like a Russian novel, as if they had never sat for hours in the DMV or woken up hungover, eager to do nothing but watch infomercials inside on a beautiful sunny day. They’re like a soccer highlight reel, with all the stoppage time, goal kicks and throw-ins removed.

The radical truth is we shouldn’t shy away from boredom; we need it. Without boredom, both life and soccer would lose its vitality. Bertrand Russell captured this best in his book, The Conquest of Happiness:

There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

None of this is to say you should chide yourself for turning off a horribly dull, meaningless 0-0 group stage draw. But maybe we would feel better if we just gave a rest to our endless, frenetic demand for more goals, more fancy moves, more on-field drama, more entertainment. Maybe we can just watch the football, hopeful that something exciting will happen, and grateful when it does. If you want endless, non-stop entertainment, there’s plenty—too much, in fact—of that elsewhere.