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Soccer and Human Exceptionalism


As national soccer teams battle it out around the United States in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) Gold Cup competition underway this month, it’s a good occasion for thinking about human uniqueness.

We’ve already talked about the intricacy of the human body and how much it requires to function. Take a look at Dr. Howard Glicksman’s 81-part series for more on that. But high performance sports adds yet another layer of complexity, especially soccer. That’s my personal favorite, and I’m not alone. About a billion people watched the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  That’s around 1/7th of the world’s population.

Specific rules define the game. Players use goals and a ball of a certain size. There is a set amount of time for the competition, and only a certain number of players may be present on the field at any given moment. Except for the goalie, no one may touch the ball with his arms — just his feet, chest, or head. Managing to get the ball into the opposing team’s goal, while working within the rules, is the agreed-upon condition for winning.

High performance requires specific skills and conditioning. The physique of a professional soccer player looks very different than that of a professional boxer. To compete well, one must master dribbling and various kinds of kicks, from a light pass to corner kicks that drop the ball right in front of the goal. Furthermore, each position (forward, midfield, defense, and goalie) requires specific strategy. All require endurance — soccer relies not only on running but on quick sprints. There are also the dynamics of a team — communication and agreed-upon strategy are necessities.

Yet soccer itself is unnecessary for survival. These layers upon layers of specified complexity in intricate pastimes are not found in animal societies. Like visual arts, music, and literature, team sports like soccer display human exceptionalism.

So go, watch the CONCACAF Gold Cup, or better yet, get out there and try a sport yourself. Exercise those unique human abilities.

Photo: Final match, CONCACAF, 2016, by Los ruidos del deporte (Final CONCACAF) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.