The Many Cultural Faces of Soccer, Football, Sakk? (??? ?), and Futebol

In Front Page, Special Ones, The Breakdown by Aaron WestLeave a Comment

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You may think you understand the world, only to travel to another place, look at a toilet seat and realize that you actually know very little. True story.

The more I travel, the more I realize that everything I understand is only based on my own personal paradigm, which influences absolutely everything I do, think, and care about. I had this revelation while sitting on a toilet in Japan and staring down at a multitude of buttons. There was a seat warmer, the option for various water pressure while flushing, it could play music, and you could choose the level of odor neutralization you wanted it to produce. These were just the options I could understand. There were more.
Japanese people take pride in an unbelievable attention to detail–whether using the toilet, competing in a soccer game, or eating at a restaurant. During my recent adventure participating in the International Women’s Club Championship, it was clear how various cultural elements play out on the soccer field. Playing in Tokyo as a guest player for Arsenal Ladies with players from England, Japan, Scotland and Ireland–coached by a Spaniard–against both Japanese and Brazilian competition, offered a wealth of material to analyze. A great indication of cultural differences is how people celebrate success.

The Americans Expect It

Growing up in the U.S., in particular Northern New Jersey, I was blessed to have coaches from all around the world. I was exposed to those from England, Turkey, Russia, Holland, Peru, and Argentina, to name a few. Although I absorbed a variety of styles, the U.S. youth system and American mentality values the ability to individually take over the game, impose your personal strengths, and be the difference-maker. Winning is often rewarded regardless of how it is achieved. There are many wonderful elements to American culture and mentality, on and off the soccer field. We produce some of the most extraordinary talent and have a culture of winning and dominating that is deeply ingrained in our roots. Individual heroes are worshipped and success is both celebrated and expected. My travels as a professional player, though, have opened my eyes to the fact that what I thought was a universal norm is actually only my American outlook.

The English Bleed For It

From my first training session with Arsenal, I could tell that these women have a unique tactical understanding and a confidence in that understanding that is still missing from the American game. Their communication was forceful and precise in a way I had never experienced, and especially relevant to me in a holding midfielder role. The discussions in huddles were very specific and insightful. This knowledge runs deep–from the players in their 30s to the 17-year-olds along on the trip to gain experience. Not all of the players had graduated from high school plus four years of higher education like we are used to in the U.S., but when it came to knowledge of tactical nuances and football culture, I was taken aback by the intelligence and confidence with which it was delivered. There is also a cultural implication of representing a club that comes from a deeply rooted tradition. I had never played with a club that has a reputation or history like Arsenal, so the “religion” of English football, and how it seeps into the approach on the playing field, was new to me.

The Japanese Share It

Perhaps more than anywhere else I have personally witnessed, Japanese sakk? (soccer) is indicative of its culture. I was raised to try to stand out, prove my individual worth, whereas in Japan it is all about the collective effort. Although the Japanese Women’s National Team players, two of whom play for Arsenal Ladies, are basically celebrities in Japan, they are also hands down the most kind and humble people I have ever met and continually insisted, “we are just normal players.” In Japan, technical efficiency is of utmost importance in development, as is the collective tactical approach and working to all be on the same page. They do not find it boring or aggravating to do the repetitive drill work that I know many Americans would find a complete burden. But on the flip side, there are not many Japanese players who can individually take over the game in a big moment and do this consistently.

As American players, we are more obsessed with the one magical moment, as opposed to the repetition of the mundane aspects of training necessary to achieve mastery. In Japan, winning comes as the by-product of a successful system–the proper execution of techniques and tactics. From a young age, the focus is devoted to this system, and success naturally follows. Individual praise is always deflected and attributed to the group.

The Brazilians Celebrate It

In the championship game of the tournament, we faced the Brazilian team, São José. I thought about what I know about Brazilian culture and how it manifests itself on their futebol field. Brazilian people like to have fun. They see the sport as an artistic expression of passion and also a matter of pride. A Brazilian defender will clear the ball with a bicycle kick, because it looks spectacular and will get a cheer, regardless of if it makes the most sense or is the most practical and efficient method to get the job done. The Brazilian team we played brought their passion and individual flair onto the field. Their style is intuitive and unpredictable, honed through free play in the streets or on the beach. They beat us 2-0 and in traditional Brazilian style, danced and partied on the field as if they had won the World Cup.

I Appreciate It

Although I was disappointed that we did not win the tournament, I feel extremely gratified by the experience. I got to know some great new friends, learned more than I could have imagined, and enjoyed every moment. I am very grateful to Arsenal Ladies for including me and making me feel incredibly welcome and to our Japanese liaisons and all the people we encountered in Japan who made our time there special.

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Aaron West

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