Sidelines from the Euro2013 Sideline

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sidelines: From the Euro2013 Sidelines

This article originally appeared in the September Issue of Our Game Magazine. Subscribe now.

[Sidelines] The marathon season of Damallsvenskan requires that we report for preseason at the onset of the new year amid raging, bitter cold ...and finish just prior to the year-end holiday season, our final matches dusted in fresh white snowflakes. For the last two years there has been a two-month hiatus mid-season, in 2012 for the London Olympics and in 2013 for the EUROs in Sweden. During this season’s cessation, I spent the latter part traveling throughout the country to five different arenas to watch seven games and nine different teams compete in this exciting and prestigious tournament. And despite the nagging sensation – I WANT TO PLAY—I can say that I enjoyed the change of perspective from the pitch to the sideline.

As an athlete I’ve been told many times that the moment that I cross over the paint onto the pitch I must leave everything else behind me... and again when the match ends...I should...well... “leave it on the pitch.” Still, at an elite level, football becomes not only a source of income, but also a social circle, a source of pride, a vehicle for aspirations, and even a home. Hard as I try, the sport seems to transcend all demarcations. In many ways, I embrace this border-free lifestyle. The skills I’ve honed over the 20 years of my football career concerning technique, tactics, group dynamics, and training have simultaneously taught me about autonomy, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, and the pursuit of happiness. Again and again, I am reminded that soccer is, simply put, “the game of life.” And from this perspective, I refuse to “leave it on the field.”

From the stands as I watched Europe’s best football teams compete nation versus nation, it struck me that perhaps a without- boundary-embrace of the game happens on a much larger level. Each country’s style of football became vivid as if I were watching different styles of dance, and each squad seemed to move in a unique rhythm. I couldn’t help but notice that a national team’s tempo and strength reflects the culture of the very country in which it was born.

Football is self-expression. Like food, art, and dance, it is a microcosm of society: dramatizing the social order as well as the culture of its people. These teams from different nations reflect the varied virtues, vices, and priorities of the country. As I watched Spain versus Russia, France versus England, and Norway versus Germany, I observed the collision of cultures and witnessed their unique displays of patriotism manifested through sport.

American soccer epitomizes this connection between sport and society. In the land of the American dream—rags to riches through hard work—it only makes sense that the football culture centers on mental toughness, physical prowess, and dogged persistence. I would describe both American soccer and American society as highly competitive, tenacious and expedient. Like pursuing the American dream itself, the USWNT sustains a fast paced, high-intensity game throughout the match -- a pace, I might add, that few other nations can match.

At the risk of over generalizing, the USA celebrates success at the finish line, in contrast to Spain, which takes more time to celebrate the way. Known for Flamenco music and dance, bullfights, sunny beaches, and Sangria, the passionate, close-knit people of España live festival- style just about every day. I witnessed this first hand my junior year of college as I
spent winter quarter studying in Madrid. We have a running joke in my house about “Spanish time” as the rest of us wait on my Spanish roommates, sometimes hours, after practice as they stretch, talk, and shower shockingly slowly. During the EUROs, the Spanish Women’s National Team demonstrated their appreciation for the game’s beauty and nuances, as they tiki-taka’ed the ball up the field with all the creativity, freedom, and passion of a festival. Spanish football was born and nurtured on the streets, where there is an authentic and ever-present love for the beautiful game. And, although I am well aware that the USA appreciates the beautiful game and Spain does play to win, there is a notable stylistic difference on the pitch.

In contrast, Swedes describe their lifestyle with a word unequivocal in English: lagom. Over the last year and a half in Sweden, I have surmised that lagom means enough, adequate, just right, in moderation, in balance, optimal, and suitable. Lagom suggests the feeling of appropriateness, where in similar circumstances, we Americans tend to use words like “average,” which carries a connotation of mediocrity. Within the game, lagom comes from an understanding that putting the team first is the best way to reach any goal. In the USA, teams are more often built around star players; playing football in Sweden, however, the whole is valued much more than its parts. As I observed from sold out stands cloaked in yellow and blue, two of Sweden’s EURO matches, the lagom mentality was on fine display. Sweden played with group tactics, team organization, and defined player roles. With lagom, there is room for everyone to share in the successes as well as commiserate in the failures. I watched in admiration when the bench practically stormed the field after every Swedish goal, when the team marched united around the stadium to thank the fans, after their heartbreaking semi-final defeat, and when the newspaper headlines the next day read: “Save Your Tears, We Are So Proud of You.” I was once again reminded of the connection between football and the society of lagom.

Finally, Germany stole the EURO trophy with a disciplined, organized, and consistent style of football. They were not the flashiest of the competitors this year, but for the most part, Germany played minute 90 with the same intensity as minute 1. The Germans conceded just one goal throughout the tournament and squeaked out 1-0 victories in the elimination rounds. In my perspective, their compact and systematic play reflected some of the same qualities associated with the prevailing culture and economy. The German people, like their football, are largely considered a forward-thinking people, who appreciate security, rules, and planned organization. Across the board, the Germans sustain high levels of performance and stability in sports. In football this is made evident by the consistency of the player roster for this tournament. Like the present population of Germany, its women’s national team reflects a diverse yet cohesive set of talents. No, they did not play the most glittery football, but the trophy sure did sparkle.

I started this article by stating that football is so much more than just a game. It transcends the boundaries of the field’s sidelines, reflecting and dramatizing society. While highlighting some of the cultural differences between countries through nuanced stylistic variances, football simultaneously acts as a social union, thus, transcending this very notion, and emphasizing the commonality between all athletes and all people. The moment the whistle blows at the start of the match, the Russians... same as the Swedes... same as the English...same as the Danes entered an even playing field, all dreaming the same dream, ending with the same image: hoisting the Cup amid the golden rain of celebratory confetti before fans and state. 

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