The arguments about which is better, soccer or golf, are often based on a comparison of the two sports’ respective artificiality. Soccer, it is said, lacks skill and precision. Golf is played by people who can hit a 15-foot putt, whereas soccer demands an unnatural athleticism.
The complaint about soccer is that it lacks sophistication. The complaint about golf is that it lacks challenge.
The odd thing is that people who play both sports tend not to care much which they prefer. They play them equally well; there’s no advantage to learning one over the other.
Soccer is a simple game, but it takes a lot of skill to play it well. There are only two balls, the goalie can pick which way the ball goes, and the best players can make moves that are too fast for us to see.
Golf is a complex game, where you need to think about position and angle just as much as you need to think about swing speed in baseball. And there are so many more balls: the ball, the club, the grass on the fairway, the sand on the beach. There’s even a golf ball floating in outer space.
But golf is actually a simpler game than soccer: it has less equipment, less weight and less complexity. Fewer things can go wrong. You get a stroke every four holes rather than every five or six in soccer. If you’re playing good golf, you’ll never be bored.
I’ve played both games at a high level. I’m not sure how good I am at them — I’m probably better at soccer — but my point here is not that one sport was better than the other; my point is that they are very different games with different purposes. They should be compared differently and then compared again.
Golfers and soccer players might seem odd comparisons. Golf is a game that requires skill, practice, and concentration. Soccer is a game that requires skill, practice, and concentration. But the two sports do share more in common than they appear to. They also have some things in common with each other.
The nature of competition can be illustrated by comparing golf and soccer
In a football match all the players on one team play against all the players on the other team. In a golf match the four players on one side play against the four people on the other side, but those four people are not necessarily playing against each other at the same time.
This is an example of what mathematicians call a transitive game. It’s transitive because there is only one way to win: you must have at least one man in your side who beats at least one person in his opponent’s side. So soccer matches follow a predictable pattern of score-lines like this: 0-0; 1-1; 2-2; 3-3; 4-4; 5-5; 6-6; 7-7; 8-8; 9-9; 10-10. (In nonstandard games played with five or more players, this pattern would be
Golf is a social game. It is a sport played by human beings, and it is played in the company of friends and strangers. Soccer, on the other hand, is a solitaire game. It’s a sport played by groups of people who know each other well and who spend the whole match with their eyes glued to the television screen.
Golf’s social nature gives it an element of unpredictability. If you are playing golf with your wife and she suddenly decides to take a less ladylike shot, you might be surprised, but you’ll be delighted. You will thereby discover that she doesn’t really hate you after all.
Soccer, on the other hand, is not a good game for keeping secrets. One of the main things that makes soccer boring is that no one can surprise anyone else. The game itself is incredibly dull: there are two teams of 11 players each trying to kick a ball into an opponent’s goal in the least amount of time possible; any subtleties in how they do this are lost in an ocean of boredom.
So soccer fans are like golfers: they want lots of variation from their favorite team so that there can be at least one exciting result on every match day.
Why is there golf and not soccer? Why does it take place in Scotland, and not in Brazil, where the game originated?
One answer is that soccer depends on a different skill set than golf does. Soccer is about keeping your body in good shape for running; the game primarily uses your legs and arms. Golf is about putting, which requires coordination between your eyes and hands. Soccer requires endurance and strength; golf requires finesse. The other two answers are more speculative. One is that soccer players don’t like to be called “golfers.” They don’t want to be associated with a leisure activity that sounds like a sport for rich people and old people.
The other answer is “it’s easier to play a sport when you don’t have to carry clubs,” though this isn’t strictly true because some people carry clubs as part of their jobs—some doctors, for example, carry stethoscopes for health care workers.
This is a common problem among people who do not usually think about sports. They know that golf is a sport, but when you tell them about soccer, they get confused. Soccer, it turns out, is a kind of sport; it also has many non-sporting features—for example, it has rules and teams and uniforms and referees. The main thing that sets it apart from other sports is that the players cannot run with the ball without dribbling it first.
The reason people get confused is that they were brought up to think of sports as something played with balls by two teams. In fact, if you think about it carefully, there are just two big differences between soccer and most other sports: (1) one team plays at once against another team; (2) the goalkeepers do not have to kick the ball out to stop an opponent scoring; they can just stand still and not let anyone in.