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Television and the Form of the Soccer Match

Television is not ruining the game of soccer. That said, it is important to understand the effect that watching a soccer match on a television has on a spectator’s cognition, as a match on a screen is fundamentally different from a match taking place in front of the spectator’s eyes. At worst, the effect can create an unbearable narrative that is pressed upon the viewers against their will (Favre, Beckham). At best, TV can allow the audience a much more nuanced look at the game, complete with close-ups of players that leave no emotion neglected.

Soccer, and sport as a whole, has often been compared to theater. Theatrical productions “…do not consist of images, the perceptions they offer to the eye and the ear are inscribed in a true space (not a photographed one), the same one as that occupied by the public during the performance; everything the audience hear and see is actively produced in their presence, by human beings or props which are themselves present.” Once the human beings and props are filtered through a lens, the experience of the spectator has completely changed. For example: climate. Whereas many people would be happy to watch Rosenborg in a December Champions League match from the warmth of their home, their experience of watching the match is undeniably different from those who go to the stadium.

The ball at the far sidelineThere are two key cinematography elements in play when looking at the manipulation of soccer on television: The shot itself, and the edits between shots. The framing of the shot is the most obvious difference to the view of a spectator in attendance. The viewer at home is limited to what the camera allows her to see. The standard shot allows the viewer to see roughly 20 yards on either side of the ball left to right, and will zoom in and out depending on if the ball is on the near or far sideline. If a person unfamiliar with the sport were to sit down and watch a soccer match The ball at the near sidelineon television, he could be unaware of the existence of the goalkeeper (and the goal itself, for that matter) until the ball happened to reach that end of the field. While cropping out portions of the field can be detrimental to anything that happens off the ball (the Zidane headbutt, for instance), the payoff is that the audience is allowed a closer look at the area surrounding the ball.

The medium shot is a zoomed-in frame that allows the viewer to see, in general, two or more actors (players, coaches, referees, et al) in the frame, generally from the waist up. Like the standard shot, the medium shot feels “comfortable” to the audience because “it replicates our human experience of proximity without intimacy.” In a sporting context, that is to say that the audience is able to see Michael Ballack chase after Tom Henning Øvrebø from a safe distance, while still allowing them the closeness to see what exactly is going on.

Compare this to a live match, in which Ballack and Øvrebø may eventually gain the attendee’s attention, but are competing with so much pandemonium—in the stands and on the field—that they would be far easier to miss. DVR capabilities further enhance the viewer’s experience by allowing Ballack’s maniacal ravings to be rewound and watched again.

Close-up shots, often used during stoppages of play and during penalty kick shootouts, are the most formative of shots and work the hardest to create meaning for the television viewer. This is an effect which is impossible to replicate at a live soccer match (at least barring a pitch invasion). When focusing on a character’s face, the close-up allows the viewer two similar, but categorically different experiences. The close-up provides an exclusive look at the character’s facial expressions and therefore at his emotions, but it also forces the viewer to relate to this character, either in a positive or negative way. The camera, then, is forcing the viewer to make a decision regarding their feelings toward that player.

Apart from framing, the angle that the camera uses on a particular shot can be of great import, especially in relation to coaches. Low-angle shots, consisting of placing the camera below the object, are used to project fear, power, and respect onto the object they are displaying. Often we will see low-angle medium shots of living legends like Ferguson and Wenger, but perhaps only an eye-level close-up of Alan Pardew in his first match, showing the different between the respected and those yet to earn the respect. The television viewer, however, may conclude from Pardew’s furrowed brow that Newcastle never really should have gotten rid of Hughton after all. Such minutiae, which add context, real or false, to the events happening on the pitch, are often lost at a live match.

The final aspect of the shot itself that requires attention is the speed of the shot. In soccer, this mechanism comes into play only during slow-motion replays of important events that have been selected as relevant to the viewer’s understanding of the match. These replays are intrinsically tied to memory. Watching in slow motion as Zidane calculates Roberto Carlos’ moon-shot of a cross and then slices the ball into the top corner (and from the reverse angle, and then slowed down more, and then…) dramatically increases the odds that this goal will be remembered.

An individual shot means very little standing on its own, as the editing of the shots is what ultimately creates the plot for the match. Due to their brevity, crosscuts are the main type of edit used. This permits the viewer to catch a quick glimpse of a stretching substitute, cowering fan, or attractive woman in the audience before quickly returning to the action on the field. These “snapshots”, to borrow a phrase from Christopher Sullivan, represent an effort to replicate for the viewer the feeling of being at the match, and can be compared to the wandering eyes of a fan in the crowd during a stoppage in play. The fade is the other form of edit between shots, but this is almost exclusively used during replays. The fade is usually a soft, slower change which will allows the mind to view the replay as something akin to a dream sequence, the events of which can be immortalized in the viewer’s psyche, and consequently uploaded to YouTube for the rest of the world to share (see Zidane, above).

There are moments that make television viewers feel like they are watching a soccer match from the stands. Perhaps a ball rolls out of play, but the camera lingers on a nearby player for a period of time, allowing the viewer a candid moment with the player. That said, the television production is at its best when it allows the audience to see things that would have been missed out on at an attended match. Cristiano’s wink, for all the typhoon of fury it aroused, might as well not even have happened without television’s ability to pick out these moments and make them serve as context for the game or often even as synecdoches of the game itself. Television both distorts and enhances the viewing experience, and, when considering modern soccer, it would be missing the point to insist on one of those over the other.

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Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier

One shot = one uninterrupted run of the camera.

Richard Barsam, Looking At Movies

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Television and the Form of the Soccer Match

by Sean Rubio · February 17, 2011

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