As World Cup soccer action heats up and the top 16 teams now move into the knockout stage, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the varied playing styles of different countries, particularly if you have an interest in cross-cultural topics. That’s because these differences are more than just tactical choices made by coaches – in many cases, they’re actually a window into each nation’s culture. Here is a comparison of the soccer styles and national cultures of a few popular World Cup teams.
The Dutch are celebrated for an innovative playing style known as Total Football (football, of course, being what the rest of the world calls soccer). The concept is for players to be almost interchangeable – so that, for instance, if a defender attacks with the ball then another player will take over the defensive function. This continual shifting of roles requires players to maintain a persistent equilibrium between individualism and collaboration. It also allows defenders to play more forward, which effectively reduces the size of the field and can alter the perception of space among players. David Winner, who wrote the book Brilliant Orange about Dutch football, has said that “space is the unique defining element of Dutch football.”
What does this have to do with Dutch culture, you ask? Well, interestingly enough, cultural consultants descibe the Dutch as people who value individual autonomy but make decisions by consensus. That is, they balance individualism and teamwork. More tellingly, the Dutch are famous for the way they’ve redesigned the spaces of their lives, such as the polder land reclamation projects that allow millions of people to live below sea level. The Dutch, it seems, are natural architects when it comes to space, whether at home or on the soccer field.
In contrast to the Dutch, the German players rarely improvise and almost never change positions. They’re disciplined players who stick to specific roles. The Germans emphasize organization and precision between teammates and their style of offense tends to involve direct and aggressive attacks.
Not surprisingly, the Germans also have a distinct sense of order in their daily lives. They are a formal people who emphasize structure and punctuality. They’re also a direct people who get straight to the point in conversation and hardly ever “beat around the bush.” Add it together and you’ll see why the trains always run precisely on time in Germany and why the national soccer team functions like a well-oiled machine.
The English are also a direct people. For a country that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and the concept of “time is money,” it’s not surprising that the English have a direct style of play on the pitch. The English are methodical, tactical players and their traditional offense utilizes long passes to negotiate the field. This, naturally, has the effect of moving the ball forward as directly as possible and with a minimum number of passes. Time is money, after all.
The Italians are known for strong defense, even if it did fail them a bit this year when their team failed to advance out of the first round. The catenaccio style made famous by Italy involves a stifling defense and an ability to counterattack at the pefect moment. In other words, they’re cautious until opportunity presents itself. The Italians are also known for pushing the boundaries of the rules. Andrea Tallarita has written extensively about football in Italy and, while acknowledging the Italians’ “reputation as the dirtiest players,” he argues that their objective is not to break the rules but to “learn how to exploit them” with tactical fouls or psychological games.
Is any of this connected to Italian culture? In fact, cultural experts note that Italians are cautious and have a need to reduce uncertainty. The bureaucratic nature of Italian life also leads people to look for ways to “beat the system.” It’s been said that Italians see rules as guides rather than commandments. Sound anything like the Italian playing style?
Brazil is the country most identified with soccer success and its jogo bonito style may be the most popular in the world. The Brazilian players have always been identified with an exuberant, imaginative approach. They’ve been compared to samba dancers for the spontaneous and improvisational way they move with the ball. Their offense utilizes short, precise passes and emphasizes ball possession, as opposed to long passes and direct attacks.
Well, everyone is surely familiar with Brazil’s fun-loving spontaneity, as symbolized by the annual Carnival celebration. But the Brazilians are also a naturally improvisational people – their language even has a word, jeitinho, which refers to the ability of Brazilians to work around rules. Likewise, the culture exhibits little of the “time is money” mentality, instead maintaining a more relaxed notion of life and schedules.
And the Americans? There is seemingly less to say here, since most observers believe the still-developing American soccer culture has yet to develop a national style of play. But if you read a few stories about the U.S. soccer team, you’ll actually see some of the same descriptions pop up repeatedly. Such as: the team favors speed, has an innate optimism and confidence, and is able to adapt easily to changing situations and strategies.
And you know, that’s actually not a bad description of some American cultural traits. Which only adds to the notion that national culture plays an central role in developing a playing style on the field.
These are some of the most obvious examples of how culture interacts with tactics in soccer. So if you pay attention during the rest of this World Cup, you’ll see not only some great soccer teams but also some wonderful demonstrations of culture around the world.
Photo credit: Pallo_valmiina via Wikimedia Commons.