An American Ponders Soccer: The Improvisation of the Game Makes Brazil Excel at It.

Brazilian soccer player Neymar It’s difficult for Americans to understand how important soccer is in Brazil. The US has never gotten beyond a semifinal in the World Cup, and that was in 1930. Americans aren’t very good at soccer, although in the last few years the women’s team has changed that perception, ranking first in the world.

Even the men’s team did better in the World Cup this year than predicted, surviving a difficult first round. So why do Americans lag behind in this sport while they excel in many others?

The sad fact is Americans are mystified by soccer. We simply cannot comprehend a game played with a ball but without hands. Hand movements fit the biophysics of the human body better than feet. Soccer is metaphysically unfathomable to Americans.

Soccer is strange for us because American football and basketball and baseball are based on the accuracy of using one’s hands. Soccer is the opposite – it’s an imprecise game of feet. Kicking a ball is less accurate than throwing it. It’s easy to make a mistake in soccer and not kick the ball to the exact spot it was intended.

In American football, the movement of the ball goes where it was intended without an opposing team member reaching it first. To throw the ball to the wrong person in American football, an interception, is rare; in many games it never occurs at all.

By contrast, what Americans find odd about soccer, Brazilians thrive on. It is precisely the imprecision of soccer that makes Brazil the perfect host for the sport. The lack of exactness in the physical movements of soccer forces spontaneity and improvisation, which is why Brazil excels at it.

Brazil is so good with improvised movement on the field (or pitch) that soccer fans have a name for the Brazilian style of play – jogo bonito. One of the keys to the jogo bonito is the fluid movement of impulse on the field.

While difficult to define, fluidity is the theme of Brazil’s winning style of play and originates in Brazilian culture. Brazilians are a spontaneous culture, especially when it comes to fun and games. Parties arise on the spur of the moment, in much the same way that Brazil’s best teams score goals – using the improvised beauty of the game.

Besides the sole use of feet (or the head) to move the ball, there are other highly imprecise elements of soccer; for example, the clock. At the end of a 90-minute game, when the referee adds the lost time, he doesn’t add 3 minutes and 40 seconds; he adds 3 minutes or 4 minutes.

An example of the imprecise nature of soccer time was in the US/Portugal World Cup game, when Portugal scored during added (or stoppage) time. The referee had originally added 4 minutes of stoppage time to the end of the second half, but then changed it to 5 minutes.

The final goal by Portugal came at 4:43 of stoppage time to tie the match. In sports like basketball and American football, the time clock is a precise tool, with coaches and referees conferring on whether to add or delete one second to the official game clock.

In the World Cup, the loyalty of the players is imprecise as well. Opposing teams enter the pitch together, more like the Olympics. This never happens in US sports. World Cup players shake hands or hug in the tunnel leading onto the field before the start of the match because they know each other from professional play in Europe. Many are greeting their own teammates from Europe who are now on the opposing team.

Even the name of the sport is imprecise. Is it soccer or football? It’s worth noting that while Americans continue to call the game soccer, this can’t be blamed on American arrogance or eagerness to be different. The name of the game as invented in England was originally “socker”. The updated spelling to soccer was still being used in England into the 1950s and 60s. Even today, it is referred to as soccer in Australia.

Despite an American team in the World Cup this year that no one, not even Americans, expected to reach the finals, soccer is becoming more popular in the US. Perhaps this is partly due to FIFA’s influence, making changes to the game in the direction of precision.

For example, all the World Cup stadiums in Brazil this year had numbered, assigned seats, like the stadiums in the US. Additionally, all the games started precisely on time. Most important, FIFA finally permitted the introduction of goal-line technology, by putting a computer chip inside the ball, to ensure there would be no human error involved in judging when a goal was scored.

Maybe it’s time for FIFA to consider changing some other rules, and not only to please precise fans. I believe FIFA should consider using a video review of calls by the referee. As fans of American football have learned in the past few years, precision adds accuracy and honesty to the game.

International tennis allows for challenges of the referee by the players, and the referee can be overruled after a video review is displayed on a large screen in the stadium for the fans and the TV audience to see.

The video review in tennis is so precise, through extreme magnification, that it’s impossible to make a mistake on whether a shot was inside or outside the boundary lines. There is no question that video review in soccer would eliminate most of the opportunities for referees making incorrect decisions.

Brazil 2014 had its fair share of referees’ mistakes. Last week a group of fans from Colombia sued FIFA for a billion dollars for what they say was a mistake when the referee denied a goal scored by Colombia, calling it offsides. Brazil went on to win that game 2-1, eliminating Colombia.

However, besides FIFA’s conservative history of reluctance to alter the rules, there is also the problem of how introducing video reviews to soccer would interrupt the nonstop flow of the 90 minutes of the game, which is one of the most exciting elements of the sport – the constant threat of time ticking away.

To allow for video review in soccer, it would be necessary to have a more precise system of time-keeping. To compensate for lost game time from a video review, time would need to be added at the end through stoppage time. Stopping the game for a video review also would allow the players a chance to rest and hydrate, as was done in many of the World Cup games this year that were played in very warm cities like Manaus.

However, to be fair to both teams, a more precise measurement for stoppage time should be created. The time of the game must be exact, down to the second, controlled by an official timekeeper, rather than the referee. And when stoppage time is completed, the game should end immediately, unlike games today, where the referee often lets play continue until there is a natural break in the action.

As the game exists today, the referee, one man, is in complete control of a country’s success or failure. The current system of time-keeping gives far too much power to one man.

Precise time-keeping could be accomplished by adding an official whose job it is to control the game clock. With an official public game clock, the time is displayed for everyone to see – fans, players, and the TV audience. Today, the clock shown on TV during a World Cup game isn’t precisely the same as the referee’s watch.

A precise, official clock would add more excitement for the fans and TV audience, and it would also allow for better strategy by the players who would know exactly how much time was left in the game.

As The New York Times noted in an article last month about the World Cup: “Soccer’s elastic definition of time means that no player on the field, no fan in the stands and no announcer on television has any earthly idea as to when the last kick of the ball will come.”

Another addition that could enter the FIFA arena besides video review and a precise clock, would be to add an additional referee on the field. With two main referees running on the field during the entire game, in addition to the two along the sidelines, there would be less chance of bad decisions, as two viewed angles are always better than one.

As in American footfall and baseball, when there is a difficult decision for the referees, they confer with each other to see who had the best viewing angle. Additional officials would also make bribery of referees more complicated and help clean up FIFA’s corrupt-image problem.

While spontaneity and an elastic definition of time in everyday life, transferred to the game of soccer, may be at the heart of Brazil’s five World Cup victories, it clearly wasn’t working this year. Obviously, the jogo bonito wasn’t strong enough to beat the precision of the German team.

Perhaps the devastating loss by Brazil in the semifinals will prove to be a lesson that the days of spontaneity are over. Like the globalized world of the 21st century, soccer may be changing, too.

Precision, timeliness, and learning to speak English may be the new pursuits in Brazil. They could mark Brazil’s entrance onto the world stage and hopeful emergence, one day, as a developed country instead of a developing one.

Besides the German team’s crushing of Brazil, the other unexpected result of the 2014 World Cup was the smooth logistical unfolding of FIFA’s extravaganza. Because Brazilians are not strong with their long-term organization and timeliness, preferring to rely on spontaneous improvisation to solve problems, it was expected (and predicted by FIFA) that the World Cup would be a disorganized mess. Tourists would get lost or delayed at airports and miss games with no one to assist them in their native language.

Instead, recognizing the value of tourism for the country’s image, the government employed another time-honored Brazilian tradition to rise above the world’s expectations: the jeitinho brasileiro. For example, without warning, thousands of government employees were dismissed from their office duties and sent to the airports and arenas in the host cities to help with the onslaught of foreign tourists.

The expression, jeitinho brasileiro, has a long history in Brazil. Not easily translated into English, it refers to using ingenuity to resolve an issue – often by bending the rules.

The Brazilian flair for improvisation and an entrepreneurial spirit that take advantage of shortfalls in preparations were in evidence around the World Cup stadiums, beaches, and other tourist spots frequented by the estimated one million foreign visitors during the tournament.

Brazil also exhibited its ingenuity by accommodating tens of thousands of fans who arrived for the World Cup without tickets. Estimates of Argentina fans alone were as high as 100,000, many arriving by car without tickets or hotel accommodations.

Parking lots, tent cities, and even arenas were opened up to make room for foreign fans without places to sleep. Additionally, every host city had an area designated as Fan Fest, giving Brazilians and foreigners who had traveled a long way a chance to celebrate the games, even if they didn’t have tickets, watching on giant outdoor screens, often with live music concerts before or after the game.

The idea of tent cities going up during a World Cup hosted by the US would be frightening.

Needless to say, Brazil found a way to capitalize on its tourism attraction, thanks to the jeitinho brasileiro – creative and spontaneous problem solving. Brazil proved that the US has a few things to learn from its South American neighbor. Now, we just need to wait and see if the US can win a World Cup and overcome its mental block against a ball game played without hands.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine Curitiba in English. (


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