I think part of why I spent so long defending some Fulham players last season was a feeling that the game is collective and therefore anything an individual does or doesn’t do is in part a function of what everyone else is doing. When you get a collective meltdown it’s very hard for anyone to thrive.
Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.
As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.
Allow me to state the bleeding obvious: this is a tactical game. It is not about passion and individual genius, notwithstanding the relentless commodification of stars like Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar. No, soccer is about the use of reason and intelligence in order to construct a collective team formation that will contain and defeat the opposition. It requires discipline and relentless training, particularly in order to maintain the shape of the team and the way it occupies and controls space. This is the job of the coach, who tends to get reduced to some kind of either bizarrely animated comic character or casually disaffected bystander when games are televised. But he is the one who sets the team up to play a certain, clearly determined way, the prime mover although sometimes moved rather than unmoved.
Otherwise said, soccer is not about individual players. You can have great individual players in the wrong shape and the results can be tragi-comical, as with veteran English midfielder Steven Gerrard’s performances at this World Cup, where he ran around breathless, pink-faced, and making mistakes, like the one that led to Uruguay’s winning goal. This doesn’t happen (so much) when he plays for Liverpool because he is part of a rational system that he understands, which has a number of interconnected moving parts and which is defined by the ability to relax and rely on your teammates. Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally, and intelligently and make it effective. This is what Costa Rica has shown to great effect, without any star players. They know exactly what they are doing and play with admirable pride and trust in their coach.