The Language of the Game

How to Understand Soccer


By Laurent Dubois

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Essential reading for soccer fans as the 2022 World Cup approaches, this lively and lyrical book is "an ideal guide to the world's most popular sport" (Simon Kuper, coauthor of Soccernomics).

Soccer is not only the world's most popular game; it's also one of the most widely shared forms of global culture. The Language of the Game is a passionate and engaging introduction to soccer's history, tactics, and human drama. Profiling soccer's full cast of characters—goalies and position players, referees and managers, commentators and fans—historian and soccer scholar Laurent Dubois describes how the game's low scores, relentless motion, and spectacular individual performances combine to turn each match into a unique and unpredictable story. He also shows how soccer's global reach makes it an unparalleled theater for nationalism, international conflict, and human interconnectedness, with close attention to both men's and women's soccer.

Filled with perceptive insights and stories both legendary and little known, The Language of the Game is a rewarding read for anyone seeking to understand soccer better—newcomers and passionate followers alike.




What is soccer?

It is a game you play on a rectangle of ground bracketed by two goals, one at either end. That shape is everywhere. Fly into almost any city in the world and look down, and you will see it—probably with people running back and forth, whether it is morning, midday, or night.

Many other soccer games are played in improvised spaces: a bit of grass in a park in Brooklyn or Rome, a courtyard in a housing project, a stretch of rocky dirt in a shantytown in Buenos Aires or Kinshasa, a rooftop in Tokyo, a black sand beach at the end of the road in Grand’Rivière, Martinique.

Soccer is possibility. In Chile there is an expression, rayando la cancha, which means “marking the field.” It is what you do to transform a place into a soccer pitch, an action so common in Chile that the expression can be used to describe any kind of beginning.1

All you need is a ball. If you don’t have one, you can make one. And even if you don’t have one, you can play. That is what a group of boys do in the film Timbuktu, by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, when the Islamist group that has taken over their town bans the sport and takes away their ball. In one of the most beautiful sequences I have seen in any film, the boys play the game anyway. They dribble and tackle. Take a penalty kick. Score a goal. Celebrate.

The ball is unnecessary, in the end, because soccer, more than anything, is an idea.

Soccer is life. In her account of traveling the world looking for pickup soccer games to join, former US collegiate soccer star and filmmaker Gwendolyn Oxenham writes of visiting a park in Rio de Janeiro. There, waiters gather after their restaurants close. They start playing at midnight and often keep going until dawn, delighting in the movement and creativity that defines Brazilian futebol. “I wash the dishes, I sweep the floors, I put the chairs up on the table,” one player tells her, “and then I come here to play, to live.” Oxenham understands. “For as long as I can remember,” she writes, “futebol has been how I come all the way alive.”2

Soccer comes from a specific place and time: the schools and universities of nineteenth-century Great Britain. The Laws of the Game, which still govern how soccer is played, were first set down in 1863. Because of the country’s dominant global presence—not only through the British Empire but also through the British merchants and companies based outside the colonies—the game was soon on the move. It spread quickly. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was being played in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and throughout much of Africa, even in areas outside the British Empire’s sphere of influence. The game has shown a remarkable capacity to flourish nearly everywhere it has taken root. Played in Senegal, it seems as completely Senegalese as any other form of local culture. Soccer is absolutely German. It is absolutely Argentinean. It is absolutely Haitian. And, of course, it is perhaps above all absolutely Brazilian. In fact, the English often have to remind the rest of us that they were the ones who invented it. As perpetually beleaguered English fans know, at least when it comes to global competition, having invented the game hasn’t given them much of an advantage.

There are good reasons for soccer’s universal appeal. It is a simple game, easy to learn and grasp. A few instructions, a finger pointed at the goal, and off you go. It is democratic in this sense, and also in the way that it accommodates all kinds of body shapes and sizes. In fact many great soccer players are of slight or short physique. “I love the way that small men can destroy big men,” writes the novelist Nick Hornby, an ardent fan of the English club Arsenal. “Strength and intelligence have to combine” to make a great player.3

There are a surprising number of small goalies, for instance. Their ability to see and move, and the size of their personalities, is more important than their physical size. If you put Lionel Messi, often considered the best forward in the world, in a suit, he’d look at home in a cubicle in some office park working as an accountant. One of the greatest strikers of all time, the Brazilian Manuel Francisco dos Santos, known as Garrincha, had bowed legs—an inheritance from disease and hunger suffered in his youth. As a result, he moved, and dribbled, in an unusual way. That was part of his brilliance, enabling him to constantly outsmart defenders. In his autobiography, the great Argentinean player Diego Maradona recalls how the president of the Italian soccer club Juventus once declared that with his physique he’d never go anywhere in the sport. “Football is so beautiful,” Maradona writes, “so unlike anything else, that it finds a way to fit everyone in. Even dwarves like me.”4

There is one major check on this openness to diverse body types. Soccer’s global institutions, along with the soccer industry and media, are dominated by men. Sexism shapes the practice and representation of soccer everywhere, and in turn soccer’s gender divisions often play into and confirm stereotypes. Women’s soccer struggles to gain equal recognition and financial support. The policies and practices that have excluded women depend on the idea that soccer is fundamentally male and that women are interlopers, or at least newcomers, in the sport.

This is an illusion. In fact, women have played soccer as long as men. In the early twentieth century, women’s soccer was hugely successful in England, drawing massive crowds to stadiums. Then, in 1921, the English Football Association banned women from using its fields and stadiums, essentially driving women’s soccer underground. There were similar decisions made in other countries. But, in the face of concerted opposition, women never stopped playing. In 1970, the first Women’s World Cup was organized independently in Italy. The next year, the Women’s World Cup was played in Mexico City, in the Azteca stadium, where Brazil had famously won the men’s World Cup the year before. Footage and photographs from the women’s games show a packed stadium. The 1971 Women’s World Cup has been almost totally forgotten, even though the crowd appears to have been larger than that at the 1999 Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California—usually cited as the women’s soccer game that drew the largest live crowd in history. These are reminders, however, that soccer is—and has always been—a women’s sport.

Soccer is a language, probably the most universal language on the planet. It is spoken more widely than English, Arabic, or Chinese and practiced more widely than any religion. In 1954, the French soccer journalist Jean Eskenazi wrote an essay on the “universality” of the game. It is, he declared, “the only denominator common to all people, the only universal Esperanto… a world language, whose grammar is unchanging from the North Pole to the Equator.” Although mutually intelligible everywhere it is played, it is still delightfully varied, “spoken in each corner of the globe with a particular accent.” The Swedish writer Fredrik Ekelund similarly calls the game the “Esperanto of the feet.” The novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote a book of letters about the 2014 men’s World Cup with Ekelund, offers a vivid example of how this language works. Picked up once by a German truck driver while he was hitchhiking, Knausgaard found he had no common language with which to pass the time during the long ride. Then, he began saying the names of soccer players. He started with a Norwegian footballer, Rune Bratseth, and the German recognized him, “brightening up and repeating it several times.” Knausgaard continues, “Then he said a name, so I said Ja! Ja!” These names, keys to a broader set of shared memories and experiences and feelings, were a thread of connection.5

Every soccer game is a story. But it is not easy to capture it in words. Why, wonders the Mexican novelist and journalist Juan Villoro, has there never been “a great football novel”? The answer, he suggests, may be that every game is already “its own epic, its own tragedy, its own comedy,” all at once. The works of literature that do try to narrate soccer, including many remarkable short stories, often do so by piecing together fragments of story, attempting to capture the way moments on the pitch somehow condense the drama of life. Knausgaard imagines a piece of writing about just one game, one that would concentrate “on only these ninety minutes, chart all the incidents, all the moves, also all the names and not just follow them on the pitch but in life, their stories before the game, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends, what happened after the game, the following years, the career that finished, life in a satellite town outside some Colombian or Iranian city.” In any given game, he suggests, is a whole world. The ninety minutes are “inexhaustible.” Perhaps David Kilpatrick had the right idea when he decided he would write a short poem in response to every game in the 2014 men’s World Cup, considering “each game itself a text to be read.” He sat in front of his television, pen in hand, producing sixty-four poems, at turns humorous, tragic, elegiac.6

Soccer never stops. The clock never stops ticking, for any reason—there are no time-outs, no pauses. There is just halftime, and then a break before and between overtime periods, if they occur. The only concession to the fact that time may have been lost because of injury or intentional time wasting on the part of a team is the referee’s right to add time to the end of the game, but it is almost never more than five minutes. Soccer time is very different from what we experience in basketball or American football—where the clock starts and stops constantly, making the actual time it takes to watch any game unpredictable—as well as from baseball, which has no clock at all. This is one of the defining features of the game. Although you never know what will happen in a soccer match, you can be sure about how long it will take: ninety minutes, usually a little more, or 120 if things go into overtime, and a little longer if there is a penalty kick shoot-out.

Soccer’s rules have changed little since they were set down in the nineteenth century. It’s true that a few people have offered intriguing alternatives to the way it is structured. In the 1960s Asger Jorn, a Danish Situationist artist inspired by Marxist ideas, decided there was no reason to limit soccer games to only two teams in perpetual opposition. Why not open things up a bit? He created “three-sided football,” sometimes more pointedly called “Anarchist Football.” It is played on a hexagon with three teams and three goals. There is no referee—no state to legislate what happens—and the game turns into a complex swirl of temporary alliances and understandings. Two teams can go against one, collaborating at least for a time, but also change tactics and friends as the situation warrants. And the winner of the game is not the team that scores the most goals, but the one that, through collaboration and alliance with other teams, manages to suffer the fewest goals against them. The game has a regular following in Europe, with matches organized in England and France, and a nascent set of leagues in the United States too.

For now, though, soccer remains a dialectic, never-ending struggle between two teams. “In a football match,” the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre writes—with delicious understatement—“everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.” Imagine how wonderful it would be if there weren’t any defense: so much easier to dribble a ball gracefully across the pitch, pass to your teammates, and score a beautiful goal. There also, of course, would be no drama—and therefore no point. It is the back-and-forth between offense and defense, which generations of players and coaches have tried to figure out how to control, that makes soccer beautifully unpredictable and therefore endlessly fascinating.7

Soccer is, as we often hear, the “beautiful game.” What makes it so? A “beautiful play,” writes literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “is an epiphany of form” that happens through the “sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies” in a particular place, at a particular moment. Such moments are delightful precisely because they are unpredicted and unknown even for the “players who perform them, because they must be achieved against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” The fact that such a play has to overcome intense and carefully deployed opposition, whose goal is to “destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos,” is what makes it feel like a kind of miracle. “There are few experiences,” admits Gumbrecht, “that make my heart beat faster than a beautiful play.” It is also evanescent, as is the feeling it produces. Although you can watch a replay of an amazing moment in soccer, that never really captures the epiphany and awe that accompany its first unfolding. That is one of the reasons we return again and again to the game, hoping to catch a glimpse of beauty that we never can predict, or even imagine, before it happens.8

Soccer is sensual. It is about the pleasure of watching athletes’ bodies, their faces, their motion, admiring and commenting on their hairstyles and tattoos. When we talk and write about soccer, we evoke—more often unconsciously than consciously—its sensuality, its role as a source of pleasure. “The goal is soccer’s orgasm,” notes the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, probably the sport’s most eloquent and poetic chronicler. The ball goes into the goal, inciting shouts of ecstatic joy. The sexual metaphor is, on one level, obvious: it is about male penetration. Yet what this metaphor actually means to those who play and those who watch is anything but simple. And goals, in any case, are very rare, a fleeting exception within the game. Soccer may be the most tantric of sports. Some of the greatest and most riveting games end 0–0. Perhaps what is truly sensual about soccer is that it is about interplay, relationships, motion between people, all tied up with our deepest and most mysterious emotions.9

In soccer, there are simply no guarantees. A team can seem to be doing everything right—have a coach nicknamed “the Professor” who recruits the best players in the world, approach their training scientifically, mobilize the best doctors and studies, analyze and perfect tactics endlessly, bring in team psychologists, energize a devoted fan base in a beautiful stadium at the heart of a global capital—and still never quite live up to expectations. Even after all that, on a bad day, the team can seem like a collection of players who have no idea what they are doing on the pitch.

Soccer is corrupt. There is money to be made, and prestige to be had, being associated with the sport. Its governing institutions the world over have attracted people who are cynical and morally bankrupt, who have found ways to profit through backroom deals and payoffs between soccer federations and media conglomerates. Soccer is also, increasingly, a world of deep inequality. Most professional players, particularly women, are paid very little. Young players, notably those from Africa and Latin America, are often deeply exploited by unscrupulous youth academies, agents, and teams. The most visible players, those who make huge fortunes, are a tiny minority, though their success is a magnet for all others who put everything on the line to succeed.

The citizens of the global country that is soccer, fans and players, have little sway over the administrative and financial institutions that increasingly control the game. Those institutions trap us, in a way, because they know we will keep coming back, drawn by the sport we love. There are forms of resistance against the federations and leagues, and some efforts to create alternative structures for the game, freed from greed and corruption. Yet for now we largely surrender, perhaps unaware of our power and what we stand to lose if we don’t ultimately find a way to keep control of the game.

Soccer is a good place for thinking. “You run but the ball is nowhere near you,” writes Juan Villoro. “You stop, you do up your bootlaces, you shout things no one hears, you spit on the ground, you exchange a harsh look with an opposing player, you remember you forgot to lock the terrace door.” In fact, he continues, for the “majority of the game”—and, by extension, the majority of a life in the sport—“the football player is no more than the possibility of a footballer,” spending “long stretches in this strange state, being-nowhere-near-the-ball.”10

Soccer is boring. Sometimes, more often than many of us will admit, you will watch a game and it is simply awful. The team is out of sync with itself, the referee is making bad calls, people are arguing stupidly, nothing is happening. The game stretches out, a desert devoid of interest. You wonder why you are wasting your time when you could be doing any number of more reasonable things—spending time with non–soccer loving family and friends, baking, learning to juggle or ride a unicycle, taking a stroll through the woods. And then, a surprise! A player suddenly awakens, moves, alights. You sit up. Is something beautiful or interesting going to happen? Too often, the moment passes. Often enough, though, the context changes, the feel changes, and suddenly the game becomes what it can be: beautiful and riveting. The interplay between the boring and the fascinating is, among many other things, what makes soccer so much like life.

Soccer is powerful. Whether in the form of an impromptu pickup game in a local park or a World Cup game watched by hundreds of millions across the globe, soccer can have something of the miraculous about it. It creates strong solidarities and produces memories—of exhilaration in victory or trauma in defeat—that sear themselves into our minds. Recalling his experiences playing on teams that brought together different ethnic groups in Zanzibar in the 1940s, one player explained what it meant to have Arabs, Africans, and migrants from the nearby Comoros islands all together: “You can’t hate me while I’m playing with you in the same club. You love me because I’m playing with you. You learn to appreciate me like a brother.” Multiplied exponentially, and across the globe, these types of experiences have made it so that ball games—soccer most of all—are now, as Gumbrecht writes, “the central sports fascination of our time—a fascination so existentially important for many of us that we have a hard time imagining our world without it.”11

In the United States, soccer is suburban. On any given Saturday, minivans and SUVs crisscross the arteries of suburbs across the country, ferrying boys and girls to youth leagues, depositing them on the pitch, and leaving the soccer moms and dads on the sidelines to chat or yell at their confused kids about tactics and the importance of passing the ball. I was one of those kids, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, in the 1970s. Like many other children, I loved soccer. My family had emigrated to the United States from Belgium, and we spoke French at home. Like other immigrant children, part of my job was to figure out and navigate American culture. On the field, I made friends—some of them immigrants like me. I remember the occasional victories that I celebrated wildly and also moments of peace on the field. After practice or a game, I would come home dusty, tired, and a little elated.

For most of the kids who play this way, including me, soccer is mainly a youthful pastime that gives way to informal play in amateur leagues or pickup games later in life. The best players to come out of these youth leagues can be recruited into selective club teams that offer higher-level training and more intense competition. The most talented go to college on athletic scholarships and, in some cases, are recruited to play in national training academies that feed the US national team.

The Bethesda Soccer Club, in the area where I grew up, was founded in 1979 to train talented local players and put them in competition with other high-level teams in the region. In 2017 alone, thirty-five players who had come through its program were heading off to play at colleges and universities on athletic scholarships. One member of the Bethesda Soccer Club was Lizandro Claros Saravia, who had arrived in the United States from El Salvador as a child in 2009. His immigration status had been unclear for much of his life. He had been categorized as a refugee, and though technically vulnerable to deportation, had been allowed to remain in the country with the understanding that he would make scheduled visits to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Playing with Bethesda, he earned a scholarship to attend Louisburg College in North Carolina. However, in August 2017, he reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he was planning to attend college and he was immediately arrested by officials operating under new guidelines from the Trump administration. He was deported a few days later. The move infuriated his former Bethesda teammates, who rallied with his family in front of the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. “We’re disgusted with the government,” one declared. “This is about so much more than soccer now,” another explained. “We want our friend back.”12

Soccer is an immigrant. It is Nadia Nadim, whose family fled Afghanistan when her father was killed by the Taliban. After a harrowing ride in the back of a truck across Europe she ended up in rural Denmark. Next door to the center for refugees where she grew up was a soccer training complex, with more green fields than she had ever seen before. As she and her friends watched the games from the nearby woods, they discovered something: there were soccer balls stuck in many of the trees, lobbed up there from errant passes. If you shook the trees, the balls fell down. Nadim and her friends, writes Oxenham, ran around the woods “shaking the trees, a fantastic gleeful scavenger hunt.” They threw the newer balls back over the fence onto the fields, but Nadim kept several of the deflated, older ones, filled them with air, and every morning took the kids from the center and went out to the fields to play. They got good at juggling the balls: Nadim set a record of fifty-eight times one day. Her mother found her an old, used pair of cleats in a local store. To soften their stiff leather, Nadim slept with them and soaked them in water. Nadim eventually worked up the courage to ask one of the Danish coaches next door if she could play too. The coach put the unknown player in as a defender, but during her first game she kept running up the field and scored three goals. Today, she is the star forward of the Danish national team, playing in international competitions for her country and professionally in the United States and England.13

Soccer is Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian who scored one of the most famous international goals in US soccer history. In 1950, the US Soccer Federation scrambled to put together a team to participate in the World Cup to be held that year in Brazil. The core of the team was players from St. Louis along with a star from Pennsylvania, Walter Bahr, but the US Federation felt the team needed a few additional players. Scouts found two recruits playing in professional clubs in Brooklyn. One, Joseph Andre Maca, had played professionally in Belgium before World War II, then joined the resistance to the German occupation and, after US troops liberated his country, migrated to New York. There he had found a home on a team called Brooklyn Hispano. The local rival team, Brookhattan, included Gaetjens, whose Belgian father lived in Haiti and who was studying accounting part-time at Columbia University, washing dishes, and playing soccer as often as he could. He had played professionally and on the national team in Haiti before coming to the United States. At the time, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) regulations concerning the nationality of players were relatively flexible. As long as a player declared they intended to become a US citizen, they could play on the US team. Maca and Gaetjens both declared they wanted to be Americans and were immediately sent to Brazil to play for the United States. They faced off against England, one of the greatest teams in the world, in the Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte. In what remains the greatest soccer upset in US history, they defeated the kings of soccer 1–0. The winning goal was a header scored by Gaetjens. He was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of jubilant Brazilian fans.14

Almost seven decades later, the US men’s national team features the Haitian American Jozy Altidore, who grew up in New Jersey. He plays alongside Clint Dempsey, who grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas, playing with many Mexican and Mexican American teammates at school and in a local adult league, as well as the young star Christian Pulisic, who grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but moved to Germany as a teenager to train in a soccer academy there. At the 2014 men’s World Cup, the German Jurgen Klinnsmann coached the US team, and in searching for talent he drew upon the unique US diaspora that results from a global network of military bases. He recruited five players to the team who were the children of African American servicemen stationed in Germany, and who had therefore been trained in that country’s excellent soccer academy system. It was these players, along with Dempsey, who scored all the goals for the team during their run in the 2014 tournament. Three years later, the US failed to qualify for the 2018 men’s World Cup, a devastating setback that has the US Soccer Federation, and many fans, reeling and wondering how and why this has happened, and what it portends for the future of the sport in the country.15

Soccer is still struggling to find its place in US sporting culture. It seems to be always arriving yet never fully at home. This is so even after decades of exponential growth in soccer, which might just be played recreationally today by more people than any other sport in the US.

There is a persistent yearning among many who love the game to earn soccer the same media attention—and investment—as American football, basketball, and baseball. People have tried to do this for decades. In the 1970s, a group of investors created the North American Soccer League with the goal of expanding professional soccer in this country. The most remarkable team in the league was the New York Cosmos, which recruited foreign stars such as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer and for a time filled Giants Stadium for league games and exhibition matches. The Cosmos folded in 1985, and the story of the team’s rise and fall is told in the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime. The film highlights the fact that money, big stadiums, and foreign stars—a recipe still being pursued by Major League Soccer (MLS), the premier professional men’s league in the United States, today—still may not be enough to guarantee soccer a place in US mainstream sports culture. Over the past decade, professional soccer has expanded steadily in this country, with certain MLS teams—notably in Portland and Seattle—garnering massive and enthusiastic fan bases that would be the envy of many teams in Europe or Latin America. The United States is also one of the centers of professional women’s soccer, with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hosting some of the best players from around the world and building up a good fan base in many parts of the country.16


  • "A collection of wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of reading about his beloved sport...If your soccer fandom needs a tuneup before the World Cup, this book will more than suffice. But the real pleasure comes in Dubois's attempt to arrive at a kind of philosophical ideal for each position he describes."—New York Times Book Review
  • "An impassioned fan's perceptive observations about the sport's history, tactics, and drama."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "Thoughtful and eye-opening...Fans and neophytes alike will appreciate this eclectic offering and its passionate view of soccer's global influence."—Library Journal
  • "An enjoyable and thought-provoking read."—Booklist
  • "When I want to explain the sublime creation that is soccer, I will hand out this gorgeous tome. Laurent Dubois comes to the game by way of politics, history, and true love. His book is eloquent, erudite and delightful company."—Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World
  • "Laurent Dubois always opens new windows onto the soccer world for me, and here he has done it again, revealing the sport's component parts through a prism of smart perspectives from around the world--including his own. I love this book."—Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated senior writer and author of Masters of Modern Soccer
  • "Laurent Dubois is a fluent writer and very smart thinker who loves soccer as a game and understands it as more than just a game. As someone who is at home in many countries, he is the ideal guide to the world's most popular sport."—Simon Kuper, coauthor of Soccernomics
  • "Laurent Dubois' The Language of the Game is a primer for beginners, a guide for the engaged, an anthology to please veterans, and a gentle meditation on the game of soccer; critical when necessary, it is, nonetheless, a treat to hear a voice in football that still speaks of awe, wonder, and pleasure."—David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round
  • "Laurent Dubois weaves together fantastic stories and eloquent insights from the game's poets to form a beautiful, communal love letter to football. The Language of the Game offers fresh awe and understanding for any fan and manages to puts into words just what is so bafflingly magical about the act of kicking a ball."—Gwendolyn Oxenham, author of Under the Lights and in the Dark

On Sale
Mar 27, 2018
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Laurent Dubois

About the Author

Laurent Dubois is a professor of romance studies and history at Duke University, where he teaches the popular course Soccer Politics. The prize-winning author of five books, including The Banjo, Haiti, and Soccer Empire, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Learn more about this author