Magical Skills and Goals
Daniel Witkin on the politics and proliferation of the soccer highlight video

Perplexed followers of the World Cup, attempting to make sense of the various teams and players, may take to the internet, where they might encounter an evolution of the old sports highlight package, pitched between cool analysis and fevered partisanship, individual and collective loyalties, amateurism and artistry. These videos, helpful introductions to the many stars of global soccer, often enlivened by digital effects and terrible music, may in turn provoke more questions than they answer: What is this? Who makes these? Why are there so many of them? To answer these questions is also to make sense of the tremendous changes that have come over the sport in the present century and what they say about the inner lives of people who devote countless, irreplaceable hours of their mortal lives to the business of watching a bunch of strangers kick a ball around a big field.

Unlike American sports, global soccer holds few pretensions to meritocracy. Stateside fans can take for granted systems and regulations—from salary caps to player drafts—designed to ensure a certain degree of parity. Soccer, on the other hand, is not a respite from an unfair world but an unapologetic reflection of it. This is not just due to a much more Darwinian competitive environment, in which the strong feed on the weak in more ways than one, but also a longstanding interpenetration of politics into the sport. The rise of Real Madrid, for instance, was facilitated by General Franco, while Stalin was willing to put his finger on the scale for Dinamo Moscow.

While FIFA has rightly been pilloried for awarding the present World Cup to Qatar, this is only part of the much larger story of the political instrumentalization of the game that has accompanied its integration into globalized capitalism. Putin-allied Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea in 2003 was followed by Abu Dhabi’s takeover of Manchester City in 2008 and the 2011 acquisition of Paris Saint-Germain by Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. (Personally sanctioned following the invasion of Ukraine, Abramovich was forced to sell last year.) These moves, deemed “sportswashing,” have been harshly decried, but they have also been undeniably successful image-laundering operations. In the 14 years since Manchester City became a jewel in the UAE’s crown, it and Chelsea have combined for no fewer than nine titles—and that’s in the Premier League, widely regarded as the most contested of the continent’s biggest domestic competitions. In France, the petroleum-boosted PSG has won Ligue 1 in eight of the last ten seasons. It’s unsurprising, then, that this strategy should inspire imitation, and by even bigger players. Just last year, Newcastle United was acquired by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

It is within this climate that the soccer highlight video has proliferated. Whether 90 seconds or 10-plus minutes, these little portraits of players are essential for fans who try to keep up with the game in all its inexhaustible intricacies. Soccer fans—not unlike cinephiles, or for that matter seemingly anyone else who comments upon anything on the internet—are completely neurotic, and this little genre is a godsend for those wishing to keep up with the worldwide developments in the sport yet dismayed that the 24-hour clock renders it literally impossible to watch any more than 16 out of the hundreds of matches happening on a given day. They also have an aesthetic of their own, with their own characteristic music, montage, and mise-en-scène, at once stylized and unselfconscious. In this way, they shed light upon both their ostensible subject, footballers ranging from the completely unknown to already legendary, and the inner lives of their makers and viewers, people who have, against reason, tethered their emotional lot to a blatantly corrupt, vulgarly materialistic, beautifully simple and wildly complicated game. They are, in an oddly pure sense, documents of desire.

Perhaps the first thing that sticks out about these videos is just how many of them there are. Type any player’s name into YouTube and you’ll be faced with a parade of clips, ranging in views from the dozens to the millions. As with much of social media’s attention economy, raw productivity takes precedence over refinement and volume is incentivized. Accordingly, the videos tend to be a bit slapdash and standardized, down to the repeated naming conventions: “Robinho – Humiliating Everyone,” “Ricardo Quaresma – Humiliating Everyone,” “Jesús ‘Tecatito’ Corona – Humiliating Everyone.” These are sometimes explicitly tethered to the transfer market—in which one team can sign a player from a different team provided that an agreement is reached between all three parties—bringing all the teams of the world together in a sort of monetary food chain: “Christopher Nkunku 2022 – Welcome to Manchester United,” Christopher Nkunku – Welcome to Real Madrid?” “Christopher Nkunku – Welcome to Liverpool!”

Yet as with much in the annals of the moving image, mass production need not be opposed to self-expression. Even within the confines of the form, the largely anonymous makers do have a good deal of tools for flexing their creativity. Many of these emanate from Final Cut and the Adobe Editing Suite, color changes and tinting, stylized transitions, and the kind of prefab special effects spotlighted by Tim and Eric. The music is often limited to royalty-free tracks, leading to a pronounced tendency towards a kind of somber techno/hip-hop, with extremely generic lyrics about grinding, winning, and the rest of the eternal lonely struggle against the Haters. This music, which I imagine corresponds somehow to the emotional existence of a maudlin European club kid, is the worst type of music I that have ever heard. When combined with wonder goals and animated flame effects, however, the cumulative effect is poetic in its silliness.

While all sports contain an element of artistry, in soccer aesthetics are afforded a special primacy. Strategy and style are in many cases one and the same, often associated with iconoclastic auteur-managers from Helenio Herrera and Rinus Michels to Arrigo Sacchi and Marcelo Bielsa. The idea of the sport as a form of audiovisual entertainment has been written into the branding for many of the game’s most successful outfits, as in the Jogo Bonito of the Brazilian national team, the “heavy metal football” developed by Jürgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, or FC Bayern Munich’s onetime moniker, FC Hollywood. This applied not only to the more systematic approaches of teams and coaches but also to the skillsets of individual players, elevating little achievements of elegant footwork or improvisational problem solving. One of the most famous moments in the sport, for instance, is the “invention” of the Cruyff turn at the 1974 World Cup, when Johan Cruyff, star of the high-powered Netherlands, faked a pass with the right foot before pulling the ball behind his left, leaving a hapless Swedish defender tottering in his wake. Cruyff’s maneuver neither produced nor prevented a goal, but the technical acumen needed to pull it off and the audacity to do so on the sport’s biggest stage became the stuff of legend, and his name is still associated with the much-imitated move to this day (appropriately, the Dutchman titled his autobiography My Turn).

The highlight videos that proliferate on YouTube tend to be edited in this spirit, searching out tantalizing morsels of skill. Thanks to modern television presentation and widely available editing equipment, a moment can be repeated, dissected, or slowed for the delectation of the viewer. They have their share of goals and assists, but a similar level of loving attention is also given to fouls. These occur in moments when a player has, through some deft movement, managed to evade his defender and create space through which to attack, leaving the latter no choice but to hack him down, even at the risk of a yellow card. The foul in such cases is not merely an unseemly error on the part of the careless defender but an indication of the ball carrier’s superiority, an admission on the opponent’s part that he has been bested. These innumerable little victories and defeats ultimately constitute a good deal of competitive interest for a sport in which many matches end in draws. Still, it can feel odd that even in these celebrations of a player’s talent, so much of the evidence culminates with the protagonist unceremoniously plopped on his backside.

The editing has an effect beyond the simple organization of these moments. To put it in cinematic terms, soccer offers perhaps the closest thing one will find on television to an exercise in pure mise-en-scène. While an NFL game is cut for Hollywood-like dramatization, a soccer match is by comparison a near-Bazinian idyll. The editing is minimized, made as unobtrusive as possible to allow viewers to take in as much of the pitch and movement as they can, relying on their own powers of observation to “read” the game (with some blunt assistance from the announcers). Again, this is a function of the peculiar, low-scoring nature of the sport. In the relative absence of scoring moments, the focus moves from decisive rupture to continuity, the manipulation and domination of space through movement and rhythm, with goals serving as punctuation more than culmination. (This brings us to the third and most fortunate characteristic distinguishing the sport from its American counterparts: the miraculous absence of in-game commercials.) Even instant replays are restricted to the limited stoppages in play: goals, near goals, and, of course, those telltale fouls.

In contrast to this traditional treatment of time and space, the highlight video is an associative montage, with moments organized to depict players in a certain way. This necessarily gives them a pronouncedly rhetorical construction, reflected in many of their titles: “This Is Why Federico Valverde Is So Special! 2022,” “Alexander Isak Deserves More Respect in 2021/21,” or “Jadon Sancho Is Too GOOD for Man United!” In a sense, they constitute the fan’s version of scouting, which is such a pivotal part of the sport’s greater power struggle that it only makes sense for enthusiasts to want to experience it for themselves. However, while a professional scout, one presumes, must be rigorously objective, giving at least as much attention to shortcomings and limitations as to ability or achievement, the creators of highlight videos are under no such obligation. What they offer instead is something much more fantastical. It’s not for nothing that one of the most common promises in their formulaic, extravagant names is “Magical Skills.”

It’s the distorting effect of editing upon the natural flow of the game that gives these videos their heady enchantment. The team sport par excellence, soccer is an extremely difficult game for an individual player to make his mark on. On average, a player will have a total of 60 to 90 seconds on the ball in a given match; and while someone often does end up doing something to swing the match in their allotted time, even the best players spend most of the game performing tasks that are much more workmanlike and speculative. The mark of greatness is not just to perform incredible feats of athleticism and technique, but to do so consistently, week in and week out. It’s this last piece that is the most evasive, something that even the most preternaturally gifted players strive for and exceedingly few succeed in cultivating. But that’s in the “real world” of 90-minute games; things are different on YouTube. Here, those years of discipline and strain are not excised so much as provisionally filled in, and every player is elevated to a string of brilliant and decisive moments. Not only are the goals and assists carefully gathered, but actions are liberated from their context in the name of what might have been. Did the attacker bludgeon his shot into the bleachers, thereby squandering an ingenious pass? The cut will arrive at the moment of greatest promise, and the viewer’s imagination will provide what the striker could not.

There is something vaguely democratizing in all of this. While the system currently funnels more and more of the top talent to a small number of financial juggernauts, these videos bring an image of stardom to the fans of any and every franchise, from the state-backed clubs to teams still dreaming of promotion to the highest level. Sport fandom, for all its vicissitudes, is an incurably optimistic pastime, in which the agony of defeat is merely a painful prelude to ever more thrilling victories (the more painful, the more thrilling!). While standard TV highlight packages are merely expository, those online are resolutely oriented towards the future; their role is not merely to convey whatever happened to take place in last night’s game, but rather to project what could happen. They gleefully trade in potential, and as one digs deeper, one finds more and more obscure videos about increasingly unformed prodigies, making the wildest claims of all. Here, the genre of the soccer highlight video reaches its surreal apotheosis, as preposterously gifted children, the future messiahs of the game, make utter fools of their opponents (also children) in low-quality videos of youth leagues.

The fantasy at the core of these videos is a rather utopian one. In showing us the skillset of players throughout the world, forever on the cusp of glory and, who knows, perhaps ready to be delivered to the doorstep of your own beloved club via the mysterious machinations of the transfer market, they inadvertently show something else: a world of universal self-actualization. Here, a person’s best moments are brought together, and through some editorial alchemy cohere into something greater than the sum of their parts. In these videos, the extremely difficult and often attritional game of soccer is broken down and subjected to the mastery of individuals. It is, of course, a distortion, but as with so much in both sport and art, it’s a distortion in search of a higher truth. Given the sport’s immense popularity, we might use them to hazard a guess as to what hundreds of millions of people truly want: magical skills with which to humiliate everyone.