Conservatism on the Field

On Tuesday night, the U.S. men’s national soccer team maintained their Group A lead with a 1–1 tie against Guatemala in their campaign to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Clint Dempsey, who plays for Fulham F.C. in the English Premier League, scored the 27th goal of his international career.

Soccer — or, as the rest of the world calls it, football — has seen sporadic growth in the United States. The word soccer in fact comes from the official name of the sport, Association Football, using the “soc” from association. Yet, many Americans do not pay attention to what is without doubt the world’s most popular sport. And while soccer may seem to have been a newish sport introduced in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, it has a longer history in the U.S. Near the end of the 19th century, there was the American League of Professional Football Clubs; then by 1912, according to David Goldblatt’s excellent history of the game, The Ball Is Round, there were two competing bodies competing to be the soccer association of the country, the American Football Association and the American Amateur Football Association. In 1921, the American Soccer League was established by St. Louis businessman Thomas Cahill. In 1930, the U.S. was good enough to make a semifinal appearance in the first World Cup, held in Uruguay. However, only a few years later, the ASL faded away. In 1950 in Brazil, the U.S. made another appearance in a World Cup and beat England in the second game of the first round.

Despite this history of early success on the international stage, soccer failed to establish itself as a sport on par with American football, baseball, and other team sports. Due to conflicts between associations, economics, depression, and war, leagues and teams collapsed, and soccer, although it did not die a full death, went to sleep for a bit. But Americans have learned to appreciate soccer, especially with the success over the past decade of the U.S. men’s national team, and cable channels like ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel, along with many U.S.-born players, like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard playing in the English Premier League, and Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore playing in the Italian and Dutch leagues, respectively.

Soccer has sometimes been dismissed — tongue-in-cheek or not — as an elitist European, socialist sport; however, there many elements of the game that can appeal to a conservative. The teams commence on an equal footing with eleven players about to participate in a game that is fluid and organic as nature, and unpredictable. They are bounded by an objective moral law, otherwise known as the constitution of football, which is established by the world governing body, FIFA. Think of FIFA as the federal government — yes, bloated and corrupt, but the governing body nonetheless, which, like a conservative’s approach to change, prefers to move slowly and patiently. An example of this is the call for goal-line technology. Instead of being dropped into the game without trial, it has been tested and argued about. In place of goal-line technology, which may still be introduced, two extra officials have been brought into the game, one each to stand behind each goal, to assist the referee in making decisions.

FIFA’s laws, however, do not overly regulate the game itself, for each nation and team is free, like each state in a union, to behave in its unique manner, its style of play their own individual manner, hence variety. There is no one style of football. The English style has historically been the long ball, i.e. long passes, although changes on both the club and international level have been introduced to bring about a more entertaining style. Brazil is famous for its magical footwork and trickery. Spain, whose team is built with Barcelona F.C. players at its core, has come to be known for their tiki-taka style, i.e. quick, short passes and movement. The Italians have played a style called catenaccio (the lockdown). They believe a strong defense, with sudden bursts of counterattacks, is the best strategy; in this latter style, offense does not receive as much attention as defense. And then, a team that is concentrating on attacking may switch to defense, depending on who the opponent is.


On the field, opposing teams are free to interact with each other, as long as the interaction is harmonious. Transgressions, such as fouls, i.e. deliberate tripping, shirt pulling, certain kinds of tackles, etc., are checked by referees and their linesmen, who act as judges. These laws are the permanent truths that conservatives adhere to and that keep the game in cohesion; and to borrow from Russell Kirk: “That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.” These laws encourage sportsmanship, without which the game stops, as laws in society encourage good and moral behavior between its citizens for the good of society.

There is the overriding concern for the good of the team. As Thomas Aquinas states in his Summa Theologiae: “Therefore the first principle of the practical reason is based on the nature of the good, i.e., ‘Good is that which all things seek.’ Hence the first precept of law is that good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided.” The team, like society, must survive. This imperative leads to seemingly constant contrast and tension between the individual good versus the collective good.

The objective of each player is the success of the team, and to achieve this, he will sacrifice his selfish desire to outshine his teammates. He is bounded by the affection he has for his teammates and they have for him. However, in this mutual bond, he is not denied the ability to play at his full potential, in fact, he is expected to play and participate and contribute to the fullest potential that his ability allows him to. He employs his excellent individual skill to the good of the team, and for his self-interest, and only when he is allowed this potential can the team succeed. If this mutual affection collapses, and each player decides to perform for his selfish success, and there is no communication with his teammates, radical individualism occurs, thus breaking the team apart – the cohesion is absent and success is beyond grasp. As well, if this excellent individuality is stifled, the team will not perform and failure is certain.

Once this is understood, what follows is the actual illustration of John Adams’s idea of natural aristocracy:

By natural aristocracy, in general, may be understood those superiorities of influence in society which grow out of the constitution of human nature . . . By aristocracy, I understand all those men who can command, influence, or procure more than an average of votes; by an aristocrat, every man who can and will influence one man to vote besides himself. Few men will deny that there is a natural aristocracy of virtues and talents in every nation and in every party, in every city and village. Inequalities are a part of the natural history of man.

This principle of John Adams is seen as the forward commands the support of his teammates, since the burden is upon him to score. As well, the goalkeeper commands the loyalty of his defenders, since he is the last barrier to prevent any attempt from the opposing team to result in a goal. A good forward is certain of his teammates’ support and that they will pass the ball to him when they must, and a good goalkeeper can depend upon his defenders to halt any attack they can. Inequality of virtues and talents is thus seen as the forward is expected to be extremely talented in his control of the ball, feinting opposing defenders to get past them and to succeed in his attempts at scoring. And those in defense are expected to know how to block well and make certain that any attack is repelled. Midfielders are the most flexible, for they play a mixture of attacking and defense, orchestrating the play and controlling the game and its tempo, as well as breaking down the opposition’s attacks.

Thus, all team members are fixed in their positions but are hardly bound by their positions; the exception of this would be the goalkeeper. There is no designated hitter or quarterback, but there are players whose skills mark them out for specific tasks; for example, Wayne Rooney usually takes the penalty kicks for his club team, Manchester United. There are occasions when defenders move forward and actually score, and there have been rare moments when a goalkeeper has come out and participated in the play and even scored. Again, because of the affection each member has for his team and his concern for its good, no one attempts to assume a role he is not naturally gifted for.

In matters of economy, football is the ultimate global free marketeer’s sport. Teams and players possess the freedom to do business with each other without heavy regulation from FIFA and their nation’s football associations. Most teams these days are composed of players from various nations. For example, in Manchester United, one finds a French defender and team captain in Patrice Evra, a Spaniard in goalkeeper David de Gea, and English strikers in Rooney and Danny Wellbeck, managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, a Scottish national, with the team owned by Americans the Glazers. In Real Madrid, there are the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe, German-born Turkish player Hamit Altintop, and Frenchman Karin Benzema playing alongside Spaniards Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and others, all managed by the Portuguese José Mourinho. These players and managers are not selected because of racial or ethnic quotas, which are not demanded by FIFA, but are bought because they are judged on their talent alone. And should they not perform, team managers are at liberty to sell them without the worry of interference from a players’ union.

With Team USA’s World Cup 2014 campaign underway, this conservative was in ultimate elation as these principles were on international display.

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