The sublime meaning of the kickoff

Of the many aspects of soccer that I spend too much time thinking about (or, more likely, far more time than others), the kick off at the beginning of the game never fails to provide me with an opportunity to drift off into my own head.

When I first began watching soccer in earnest, I recall thinking that, of all sports, soccer has the least dramatic start.  Indeed, for awhile, it was the only sport for which I didn’t mind missing the opening. Think about it:  in basketball, you have a jump ball. No one is sure who will have possession, and the start itself is a battle. Moreover, it’s not a “normal” part of the remainder of the game. Paralleling basketball, hockey’s face off gives the audience the drama of discovering who will have possession. And while there will be more face-offs during the game, they do not reflect what we normally think of as the game itself.

In football, while we know which team has possession, the opening kick off (well, each kick off) itself is a moment of drama.  Will the ball stay in play? Will the receiver fumble it? Will there be a long return? While recent rule changes have somewhat muted the drama of the kick off, it remains a movement of tension. We don’t know the outcome. 

In a way, baseball “kicks off” in a way similar to soccer. The opening act is a regular and routine part of the game.  Not only do you know who is on offense and defense, but the first action is exactly what will be going on throughout the game: a pitcher will throw a ball to a catcher, and the batter will try to hit it. That said, while some people claim to find baseball boring, every pitch is a drama with an unknown, but possibly explosive, outcome. The batter might take a ball or strike but they almost might start the game with a base hit or homerun the first time the ball is engaged. Hell, the batter may get hit by the ball.  Like every other pitch, the start is a moment of drama. Similarly, in tennis, the first serve  is simply a routine but of the game, but tennis also provides a bit of drama. The serve might be a fault; it might be returned; it might be an ace. Again, the first touch is part of the game, with no predetermined outcome.

While you can make the theoretical argument that the kickoff in soccer can be a kick in the goal, that would be such a wild exception, that it’s not worth considering here. In effect, the kick off in soccer is so undramatic that the ball can be kicked in any direction, even backwards, to start the game. And while a build up of play can move quickly—we’ve all seen goals scored in the first minute—and the first pass might be rather clever, almost always, it’s a pass that leads to another pass… It’s what the rest of the game will be. That said, like all things soccer, there is something poetically beautiful about the non-drama of the kick off.

On the one hand, the routine nature of a pass from player to player gives us a sense that a game never really ends, that is always ongoing. Yes, yes, teams win and lose games, but it’s almost as if, in some larger sense, the game never stops. It drops off and picks up at the same place—a pass from player to player. This is precisely because the kickoff or opening is simply an iteration of the game itself. As Bill Shankly is said to have observed, “Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.” And we see that simplistic (and its ultimate beauty) from the first second.

That, however, is not my favorite aspect of the kick off. Rather, in soccer, more clearly than in other sport, the kick off is a team action. Yes, one player passes the ball solely to one other player, but at that precise moment, everyone on the teams is getting into their roles. The team is a unit of 11 different parts, each moving artistically together. Pelé once noted that while he was constantly being asked about individual soccer players, “The only way to win is as a team.  Football is not about one or two or three star players.” In the first pass, we see this. The players move into their roles as if in a ballet together. Each needs to know what the others will do (just think about how often soccer is compared to some form of dance).   

And it begins with the kickoff. The whistle blows, the pass initiated and immediately, the team is not 11 different players but a dynamic and beautiful system. Each player needs to understand him/herself not as an individual playing with others but as part of a whole. Indeed, the non-drama of that first pass is, if nothing else, a reminder that soccer only appears to be an “individual sport” at rare moments (PKs are that moment). Otherwise, the banal nature of the kickoff reminds us that this is a game of passing, of working together, of teamwork.

Soccer, we remind each other often, is “the beautiful game.” The kick off is a reminder of how that beauty is made.

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