I own the video to the right. At the apex of my soccer playing career, I considered myself a hard defender, so far as one playing D-III soccer for a small private school in upstate New York can be “hard.” I was a marking back with decent speed, good on-the-ball defending skills, and sub-par distribution. I thought I was a good tackler; I enjoyed “getting stuck in.” I also broke my own tibia twice, in the same spot, on sliding tackles and never thought twice about altering my playing style. (Actually, I remember later targeting for retribution the player who I first broke my leg against.)
I am a changed man. I didn’t realize just how changed until listening to the recent Men in Blazers podcast discussing the explosion of straight red cards in the Premiere League. Michael Davies and Roger Bennett were bemoaning Vincent Kompany’s sending off against Manchester United specifically, and the changes in English football generally. Former English national player and ESPN analyst Steve McManaman did his best not to use the word “soft.”
Initially, I heard myself disagreeing with the hosts. “I watch soccer to see beautiful and spectacular feats of physical impossibility,” I thought, “and the smashed ankles of the most skilled playmakers decreases my chances of seeing that.” Therefore I nod along when Grant Wahl wonders how long Lionel Messi can withstand defenders’ assaults. I enjoy watching Barcelona play, and would like to continue that enjoyment. Then, as I heard McManaman saying, to paraphrase, “we like our tackles and the physical play,” I realized that my current taste in soccer aesthetics wasn’t always the case. After all, I own that video – and it’s the only soccer video I own. I dished out hard tackles and injury. And, on several occasions, I loudly argued that basketball was not a contact sport, while soccer was. Now I began to think of all the pickup games I’ve played since I graduated college. In 10 years I couldn’t remember one hard, sliding tackle, or even the last time I wanted commit one. In fact, the player I was is the same player I now scream at on the US National Team – “Why can’t we have someone who knows how to play out of the back, instead of hoofing it up top all the time?” I have to admit that, if I ever was “hard,” I am now “soft.” (Enjoy chuckling to any euphemistic jokes you can make.)
Similar hand-wringing from both the “protect the players” and “protect the sport” sides is occurring in American football and hockey circles. Concussions vs. Contact. Fights vs. Gameflow. I don’t know when exactly my tastes changed. But I’ve generally found myself celebrating international and Olympic hockey for it’s lack of senseless pugilistics and wondering if football is an inherently flawed sport that just can’t leave a former player with his full compliment of cognitive abilities. I can’t remember when I last watched “Soccer’s Hard Men.” Perhaps this evening I’ll go home, pop it in my dusty VCR and press play. I don’t know if I’ll begin to miss those meaty tackles of yesteryear, especially considering I had forgotten how much they defined my formal playing days. But it might be nice to see Vinnie Jones, squeezing a handful of Paul Gascoigne, and wonder if it’s impossible to have it both ways.