Part One: I Have No Idea What I Am Doing
So my first few seconds of playing FIFA 14 were rather embarrassing. As soon as I got the ball, I kicked it into the crowd and turned it over. Needless to say, fans of the Moscow Cool Soccer Kids were not impressed. I quickly realized that I couldn’t just start up a game and mash buttons to beat the AI. This wasn’t a fighting game. I had to know what all the buttons actually did. Fortunately, FIFA 14 does actually include a controller diagram in the menus. Considering the lack of an instruction manual or a tutorial, I was a little afraid that I would even have to learn the controls through context cues.
Most of the controls in FIFA 14 were self-explanatory enough that I could play the game without feeling completely incompetent. I didn’t know why there were two kinds of passes, or why you would ever use the one that kicks the ball into the air where just about anyone can pick it off. “Contain” on defense didn’t make much sense to me, especially in the context of “teammate contain”, unless there was some system in the game for your teammates flying off the handle and getting thrown out of the game. But the only controls I really needed to play the game at first were as follows: X to pass, circle to shoot, R2 to spring, L2 to slow down and corner, and square to slide tackle. That was enough to get me through my first few exhibition games. Or, as they are called in soccer, “friendlies.”
Of course I should qualify what I mean when I say that I “got through” the games. I played them. I finished them. Two ended 0-0. I lost the next 1-0. I didn’t score once. And the culprit, as far as I am concerned?
I’ve heard soccer fans complain about the officials before, though I figured it was just like any other sport. Those of us watching at home have the benefit of a dozen angles, slow motion, and a comfortable seat on a couch that doesn’t include 30,000 people screaming at us to make the right decision. Fans of every sport hate the officials. It’s almost universal. But my first few games of FIFA 14 gave me a particular distaste for soccer officials.
Admittedly, some of this was my fault. On defense, I fell in love with the slide tackle because it was hilarious just diving to the ground and taking dudes out by kicking their feet out from under them. It was like the dive kick in fighting games. When all else fails, just dive kick your opponents over and over again. Right? It seems like a terribly effective way of ending my opponent’s offensive drive–or “attack” as I have come to call it.
However, this is against the rules. Most of the time. I still can’t quite place why this was sometimes a free kick, sometimes a yellow card, and sometimes…nothing?
From what I can tell, this is more like a feature of soccer than a bug. My first clue was that, in the game settings, I was allowed to choose the referee as part of the difficulty settings. Along with the name of the referee, the game gives a description of his lenience on fouls and cards. The idea that the rules might be enforced differently from game to game isn’t entirely alien to me. After all, I’m a baseball fan. I’ve watched games with Angel Hernandez behind the plate (though I don’t think even Angel Hernandez really watches those games) and I’ve heard folks argue vehemently that “the human element” of balls-and-strikes calls are a vital part of the sport. And, similarly, MLB The Show has had variable strike zones for years as a setting.
Something about this seems different to me, but maybe that’s because I’m only starting to understand soccer. I realize that every other sports video game also has a slider for the enforcement of penalties, but surfacing it in the way that FIFA does gives it a weight or legitimacy that surprises me. You would think that FIFA would not embrace the fact that its rules are enforced in an arbitrary manner, though the announcers gave me some idea of why it might be important when I played a game with a lenient ref.
When playing with a ref who didn’t call a lot of fouls, the game moved a lot faster (because I am still at the stage where I’m fouling guys 10+ times a game). The announcers talked about how the ref would see the offending plays, but hold off on calling them based on the result of the play. I thought that was at least an interesting concept–that if there was no significant change in the game because of a minor rule violation, it was far better to allow the game to continue than it was to stop play.
Beyond the inconsistency of the refs, the rule against slide tackling was common sense. I was supposed to aim for the ball, which was completely legal, and not the feet of the attacker. That didn’t stop me, though, because more often than not it worked. Defense was actually the least of my problems. Even though I was racking up a few yellow cards a game, I was keeping my opponents away from the goal with a certain amount of reliability.
No, the real problem I was having was on the attack. I would get the ball, dribble towards my opponent’s goal, passing as necessary, and then just as the play was starting to develop the whistle would blow. The play would stop, and suddenly the game would take the ball away from me.
The announcers, in their infuriating British way, would tell met that one of my players was “offsides.” And then they’d show me something like this:
I’ve heard the term “offsides” before, both in hockey and American football. In hockey, there is a specific line painted into the ice that a player on offense cannot cross before the puck. In American football, a player cannot cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. But what the hell was going on in these soccer games? Whatever it was, it was ruining my offensive game.
Now, I know that the answer is just a few clicks away. All I have to do is put it into Google, and I’m sure there are dozens of explanations of the soccer offsides rule that are simple enough even for an American like me to understand. But I won’t do that.
Instead, I just kept playing and committing offsides violations until I could make a fair guess at the rule.
Based on about half a dozen screenshots like the one above, it seems that an offsides violation is passing the ball on attack to a player who is closer to the goal than any of the players on the opposing team. At first, it seemed so counter-intuitive to me that I almost refused to believe it. In football and basketball, if a player on offense breaks away from the entire defensive team and gets out ahead of them, passing that guy the ball is absolutely what you want to do.
Soccer wants none of that. Passing to the guy who isn’t being covered and has a straight shot at the goal isn’t just bad strategy, it gets the ball taken away from you. No, the only way to get to the goal is to run up to it like a man. Or trick the defense into moving back. Or something like that.
The result of the offsides rule, at least in FIFA, is that the ball tends to stay in the middle of the field. Often times, like you see above, the defenders form something of a line about 2/3 of the way to the goal. I can’t sneak anyone behind them to take a pass because of the offsides rule, so I have to shuffle the ball around until a hole opens up that I can run through.
Without the offsides rule, I suppose a team could just have a guy who was good at shooting sit near the goal throughout the game, which would suck, but it would also essentially put that team down a man on all other parts of the field. There’s a reason you don’t see basketball teams pulling that shit. Also, the defensive team could, of course, assign someone (or multiple people) to cover that particularly good shooter. This would extend the field of play from goal-to-goal, which would mean less turnovers. Maybe that would be less fun to watch?
I don’t know how eliminating offsides and playing a bit more like basketball would affect the rest of the game. My gut tells me that it would be more exciting and games would be higher scoring. Maybe it would have more appeal in America, where we have more flavors of Mountain Dew than viable political parties. But soccer has been around for over a hundred years so many people smarter than me about soccer–which is just about everyone–have undoubtedly given this a lot of thought. Those people have decided to keep the offsides rule, so I’ll defer to them even if I feel like soccer is missing the equivalent of the deep touchdown pass, or the fast break in basketball.
Maybe I just don’t get it. There’s still a lot about soccer I’m figuring out. In the next post, I will discuss something that was surely on the mind of every United States fan after the Portugal game:
NEXT TIME: the magic and majesty that is the soccer game clock.