The idea of a distinctive national style of play is not entirely foolish, but the stereotype — being a stereotype — is not exactly a straightforward representation of reality.
There are many examples of this, but I’ll give you a timely one from Gabrielle Marcotti today on the English belief about the robotic German style of play, one ever undermined by how numerous German players actually play:
Many have noted the fact that Germany has a truly multi-cultural side at this World Cup, one which draws its heritage from a dozen or so nations as diverse as Turkey, Poland, Ghana and Brazil. That part is great, if perhaps not an absolute first: indeed, in that sense, it’s a lot like France in 1998. But whoever suggests that Germany’s mulit-culturalism is what helps the side produce creative, free-flowing football is either another lazy stereotype merchant or is not too familiar with the team’s history.
It’s not as if, before the wave of recent immigrants were integrated in the team, Germany were a bunch of giant, muscle-bound Robocops (or Stefan Effenbergs, if you prefer). This is the side that produced Pierre Littbarski in the 1980s and Tomas Haessler and Andy Moller in the 1990s. Players who were uber-German and uber-talented, blessed with flair and creativity, as well as sterling technique. Come to think of it, so is Thomas Mueller and he’s as Teutonic as they come.
The fact of the matter is that German football has a long history of producing flair players: it’s just that we tend not to see them as such for the mere fact that they’re… well… German.
So that said, what is an “American” style of play? It should be remembered that outside the rather small bubble that is CONCACAF, American soccer is not well known to the world. America’s fleeting moments at the 1930 and 1950 World Cups were followed by a deafening silence for forty years, America gone from the world’s stage until after the fall of the Berlin wall. Since 1990, though, the United States has appeared at every World Cup, one of a handful of teams to do so — so certain ideas about how the team plays have surely developed around the world, right?
I’ve lived in America too long now to offer a genuinely outsider perspective on the US, to give you a simple stereotype of their style: once you’ve lived and breathed inside a country’s soccer bubble, it’s hard to step outside it. But the English media seemed to offer a fairly consistent view of the American style of play ahead of the England game last week: the Americans were respected as hard-working, physical, doughty. However, there seemed to be a certain unease about commentators reaching for those conclusions, perhaps because some of the best-known Americans abroad have been wildly distinctive in their personas and styles: Alexi Lalas to Brian McBride to Landon Donovan is one hell of a stream of different styles to be the best known international representatives of your country. Not to mention Freddy Adu, or goalkeepers (if anything, American soccer is simply known as the home of Good Goalkeeping: many English observers assume Tim Howard is better known in the U.S. than any other soccer player).
So that’s all a little confusing. Which is perhaps why Jesse Pennington at the New York Times’ Goal blog has a grander vision for the American style of play’s future than as a nation emulating David Batty:
When Landon Donovan rifled a shot right at and over the Slovenian keeper — in the soccer equivalent of chicken — I couldn’t help thinking as I played the goal over and over that, well, it seemed like such an American thing to do.
A striker, or winger, operates as a kind of maverick on the field and certainly has the option to attack the keeper directly. But the law of angles dictates that this path yields the least fruit. With such proximity, the keeper cuts off the angle almost entirely, reducing the scoring opportunity to something out of the N.H.L., where the window for a goal is minuscule and shrinking. That is why a striker, if he has the ball at the edge of the field to the right or left of the goal, will typically pass the ball into the box, dumping it off like a Jason Kidd alley-oop in the hope that a member of his squadron is there to pummel it home on a wider target. Countless soccer drills embed this impulse until it becomes rote. Players use a shake, a wiggle to buy a fraction of time, and then pass into the middle. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this is what the Spanish, the English, or the Dutch will do. Furthermore, a forward is also taught to shoot low. Donovan ignored that too.That’s why it seemed like such a quintessentially American moment. The orthodoxy of the game was shredded, in one blissful and bold moment, in favor of cowboy logic. A kind of American impatience with custom and formality brought forth a different sensibility, a bit more roguish one. Think Indiana Jones blatantly disregarding politesse by scoffing at (and then shooting) the scimitar-wielding thug in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Think Han Solo blasting down Greedo in the “Star Wars” canteen before the green dude knows what hit him.
This was probably a bad World Cup to make the argument that Landon’s shot from an angle was something only an American would do, that otherwise “Players use a shake, a wiggle to buy a fraction of time, and then pass into the middle.” Maicon from a silly angle (yeah, OK, we can argue that one), Luis Fabiano. Still, I suppose it’s conceivable that the kinda rough idea that Americans play a powerful, physical game could morph into a cowboy-motif if they shoot straight often enough.
Most likely, a stereotype about the American style of play will develop internationally, as the United States keeps appearing at World Cups and probably, soon enough, goes far enough in the tournament that the world pays attention to it for long enough to make a judgment: exiting at the group stage, second round or even quarter-finals doesn’t provide enough focus on any team for enough casual observations, resentments or jealousies to generate casual, common viewpoints around the world. Whatever the American style of play is, the world has yet to tell the United States about it.