Football, Futbol and War

By John Liang / December 5, 2008 at 5:00 AM

It’s Army-Navy game weekend, which in wartime brings the reminder that many of the student-athletes and fans in attendance will be going to war in the not-too-distant future.

And they’ll be heading to countries where most fans follow another kind of football, which seems as good an excuse as any to go back to an The Armed Forces Journal article from a few years back. It addresses the crucial question of whether warfare in the current age more resembles the fluid tactics of soccer than the solid lines of American football:

In contrast to American football, where long, blitzkrieg-style passes from a single quarterback to a single receiver are common, soccer employs tactics of multiple, quick and short passes among three, four or even five players in coordination to distract and confuse the opposing team. Like a pinball in a machine, the ball is passed from one attacking player to another quickly without any centralized plan. This style of soccer attack is ideally suited to guerrilla and terrorist warfare because it requires improvisation among the players rather than detailed advance planning. It also enjoys the advantages of surprise, since the defender cannot predict which player will receive the ball. The defending team can be surprised by such an attack and defeated even if it has numerical superiority.

That article stirred up quite a bit of debate in the following months after it was published, as The New York Times Magazine noted:

Throughout 2004, rebuttal articles appeared touting ''the football advantage'' over what was sometimes sniffily referred to as soccer's ''more continental nuances.'' They argued that the ''gridiron approach'' keeps American casualties down and is generally superior as a war-fighting strategy. But according to John Roos, editor of The Armed Forces Journal, ''the military is trying for a more mobile, flexible force in Iraq, so at least for now it's leaning more toward the soccer side.''

Maybe, then, more pomp and circumstance should be showered on the annual Army-Navy soccer encounter. On Nov. 7, the Army men's soccer team beat Navy 1-0 in a game televised live on Fox Soccer Channel. And two days later, the Army women's soccer team beat Navy by the same score in double overtime.

Perhaps the idea is beginning to sink in: This year, the Marine Corps was a presenting sponsor of ESPN's weekly Thursday-night Major League Soccer broadcast, as well as the network’s telecasts of games featuring the U.S. Men's National Team.