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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cup Blogging

It seems like a blog isn't a blog these days without a little World Cup blogging, so I'll give you my take. But first, the results of a quick EEBO keyword search for "football," in keeping with our interest in early modern sports and their discontents:

from Henry Burton's Divine tragedie lately acted, or A collection of sundry memorable examples of Gods judgements upon Sabbath-breakers, and other like libertines, in their unlawfull sports... (1636), which is basically an "I told you so" collection of anecdotes like these:
On Ian. 25. 1634. being the Lords day, in the time of the last great Frost 14. younge men presuming to play at football upon the yce on the river Trent, neere to Ganisborrow, comming alltogether in a scuffle, the yce suddainly brake, and they were all drowned.


At Wicks a Towne betwixt Colchester and Harwich in Essex, upon Whitsunday last in the afternoone two fellowes meeting at the football, the one killed the other.
Now, ice football really isn't a very good idea, and anyone who's read Bill Buford's great book Among the Thugs can tell you that it's not unusual for people to kill each other over football, whether it's Whitsunday or not. But perhaps the much-vaunted "football gods" have been around longer than the World Cup.

Anyway, on to the Cup, and to the U.S.'s particularly dismal showing. George Bush is partly to blame, I think, since the rampant anti-Americanism he's created does not serve us well in international sports competitions. The U.S. squad is more closely watched than most, and don't get the benefit of any doubts: viz., the truly atrocious red card on Mastroeni in the Italy game (a game that I thought the U.S. would have won had they played the second half a man up; for the record, I thought sending off Pope was borderline but reasonable, since the ref only gave a yellow card on the actual play); and the ridiculous penalty kick awarded in the Ghana game on what replays pretty clearly showed was a non-foul by Iguchi, who's hands were at his side and who got his head on the ball in a shoulder-to-shoulder play. So here's another thing we can blame Bush for. But in the end, the U.S. problem, as it's always been, is scoring enough goals. One goal in the World Cup is not going to get you through, no matter what else happens. The U.S. simply does not have any world-class playmakers (the service into the box was horrendous in all three games) or scorers (the first- and last-touches are continual problems). The rah-rah-ing American commentators, who always feel it's their mission to make soccer more popular in the U.S., have been constantly telling us that so-and-so is the great American playmaker--Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride, etc. etc.--but so far none of them has really shown that they are the equal of the best player on any other team. I haven't seen a World Cup match since the recent streak starting in 1990 where the U.S. has had the best player on the pitch: that's a problem. Eventually, I think they'll get there, since the U.S. simply has so many people in it, and since the kiddies seem to like soccer.

I do wish the ESPN/ABC crew would stop trying to pump up the popularity of the game here; it doesn't work, and it's a bit embarrassing. Just broadcast the game with some respect for the game and its American fans. You can't force people to like soccer, it has to develop naturally. And I don't think it's simply that we aren't very good at the game.

Which brings me to my main question: why don't Americans like soccer more, when everyone else in the world does? Certainly part of it is the lack of success we've had; but I think that's not the major factor, despite what all the soccer poobahs seem to think. After all, the U.S. hasn't traditionally had much success at a lot of Olympic sports, but Americans love the Olympics, even when Americans aren't doing too well. And plenty of other countries love football even though their teams aren't very good.

I can think of three aspects of the game that run completely contrary to U.S. sporting culture and that I think prevent more Americans from enjoying it. I say this as a huge fan of international soccer (I can't get into the MLS at all); the World Cup is my second-favorite sporting event (after what is clearly the greatest of them all, the NCAA college basketball tournament). But these aspects of soccer even piss me off:
  1. the "wimp" factor: football is incredibly demanding physically (I played the game terribly in high school)--certainly more so than basketball (which I played slightly less terribly in high school), and it's definitely a contact sport. But the constant drama from the players every time they're fouled just goes against everything Americans are taught to love about sports. Americans like to see football players beating the hell out of each other while playing with broken wrists; Curt Shilling's bloody sock; hockey players taking ten stitches in between periods; and yes, Brian McBride getting right back on the pitch after bleeding all over the side of his face. We don't really like to see someone squirming on the ground in fake pain for two minutes after getting tapped in the shin guard, in an attempt to draw what to Americans will always seem an "illegitimate" foul. Which brings us to point number...
  2. the refereeing: I think generally the refs do a pretty good job in soccer, considering that there's only one of them out there (plus the assistants) covering a massive amount of space. They sure can run. But they really need some help. It's just too much area to cover and still make the right call (compare it to NBA basketball, where you have 3 refs covering a space that is tiny by comparison). American sports culture demands that the right call be made every time, and Americans get upset when calls change the game. In soccer, a single call tends to have an incredibly disproportionate effect on the outcome, compared to any major US sport. And unlike U.S. culture, the sports culture of other nations seems relatively tolerant of this: hence all the mystical talk about the "soccer gods," or the loving treatment of Maradona's "hand of God" play. You just don't get that kind of reaction to bad calls in the U.S. Instead, you get demands to institute instant replay to get the calls right. It's no accident that every major U.S. sport except baseball now uses instant replay: baseball is the U.S. sport that's closest to football in the reverence for tradition and "humanity" over technology.
  3. Finally, many commentators think that low scoring per se is a problem for American fans. I don't think so: we can get into low scoring baseball and football games; hockey is very much like soccer in the amount of scoring, the tension it produces, and the wild celebrations after a single goal (not that Americans love hockey, but it's more popular than soccer). The problem, I think, is the time-wasting strategy that many teams employ once they go up a goal--or even worse, when they're simply playing for a draw. Soccer is like college basketball was before they instituted the shot clock; the four corners offense that North Carolina patented and that other teams adopted started to destroy the game for most fans ("purists" will always be the minority exception). American sports culture just doesn't value the idea of not trying to score, and especially of rewarding teams so highly for doing so. You've got the shot clock in basketball; in football, few teams still employ the "ground game" strategy, and generally try to run out the clock only in the last couple minutes; baseball has no clock; and in hockey, it's impossible to stall in any meaningful way.
These issues are all connected and create a football zeitgeist that is just at odds with American sports culture. If Americans had invented the game, for instance, surely there would be an analogue of the back-court violations: you can't pass the ball backwards across midfield, and you have to advance the ball over midfield within a certain amount of time of gaining control. And the ratio of points for a win compared to a draw would be increased, or else teams would just play sudden-death overtime until someone scored. Actually, these two rules might be all you'd need to do to change the game enough to interest American fans. Not that there's any chance of that happening, since the rest of the world doesn't particularly care about interesting American fans (and many are probably actively opposed to doing so, I imagine). And, as I say, I don't really care about interesting American fans. I love the game, and I'm excited to watch the knock-out rounds even with the U.S. going out (hell, they would have played only one more game anyway); my second allegiance is to England. But I have to say that I can understand why most Americans can't get into soccer, and I'm kind of tired of all the patronizing sentiments about how we just don't "understand" the "beauty" of the game, or just are sore losers, or would like the game more if every goal were worth 7 points.

Enough soccer blogging...

  • At 6/22/2006 01:01:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Turning the issue around, I also think the it's worth noting the distinctiveness of the U.S. sports culture. In Europe and much of the rest of the world, soccer is the pre-eminent team sport in places without a lot of other team sports and where individual sports are more avidly followed (Tour de France, anyone?). Yes, Americans like the Olympics, but they don't really care about track and field the rest of the year; not so, in Europe (the hurdler Edwin Moses used to complain about this). Soccer, therefore, doesn't face nearly the competition that it does here for the interest of fans. You root for your local soccer club because that's pretty much your only option.

    In the U.S., on the other hand, four other team sports preceded soccer in the competition for fan loyalty and enthusiasm: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. The sporting culture here is already, as it were, a crowded field, especially when we factor in the "first-mover advantage" that comes with securing a fan base. It's hard to care deeply about three teams in three different sports, much less five.

    So although basketball is growing in popularity in much of the world, I doubt it will ever really compete with soccer for the loyalty of most fans. And in the U.S., even though the popularity of soccer is growing, it will never supercede that of the other big sports, even hockey.


  • At 6/23/2006 03:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Agreed on almost all points (the histrionics of the "injured player" are pretty hard to take), except perhaps Hieronimo's number #3. I agree that low scoring isn't the problem (Americans watch fucking golf more than they watch soccer, and you're hoping for the lowest score possible there), but I see relatively few moments in soccer where teams try to ride out the score, mostly because scores can change really rapidly, precisely because scoring is so low. You don't try to play keep away when you're up 1-0, because your opponents might intercept and score. You don't play keep away when it's 1-1 and you're hoping for a tie, either, for the same reason. You try to get comfortably out ahead, which means at least two goals in front. And if you're two goals in front, you're pretty much pummeling your opponents, which means... you don't need to play keep away.

    I'd also point out that points #1 and #2 are actually the same, or at least inextricably interlinked. The success of Maradona's "mano de Dios" both during and after the match depended on the soccer fan's love of dissimulation--the referee didn't see it, so he got away with something, he tricked the referee, and that is something to be admired. In short, dissimulation (histrionics, fooling the ref) is part of the game, and Americans will have a hard time with that now and forever in the future.

    By the way, the blog does two annoying things--it frequently asks me for verification twice, and when I click to read the comments on a post, it automatically jumps the window that opens down to the posting area--as if I wouldn't want to read other people's comments.


  • At 6/23/2006 11:16:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi Aldo,

    Yes, all the points are interrelated, I think--as your comment on #3 shows, it's risky also because of #2, the disproportionate impact of one bad call. But I do think teams often "pack it in" and play 11 men behind the ball when they have a 1-0 lead, at least in the second half. Other teams, like Italy, just play a very defensive style and look for the occasional counter-attack to score.

    You're dead right about the dissimulation factor. I think that's a real problem for Americans. We're fine with "well, he didn't see it, so that's the breaks, and it usually evens out in the end"--no one expects a pro athlete to tell the ref "actually I touched the ball last, so it should be their ball"--but that's due to referee error, not deliberate deception conjoined with ridiculous (and, in the American sports culture, emasculating) histrionics. The exception again, interestingly, is baseball, where it's always been winked at and tolerated with a wry smile for a pitcher to throw a spitball (the only reason Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame, and he always came right up to the line of admitting he was cheating). Not true for batters (corked bats) or steroids, but ok for spitballs for some reason.

    As for the blog issues you're having: can't do anything about the captcha problem (that's Blogger's automatic commenting system), but it only asks me twice when 1) I've entered the captcha incorrectly; 2) "timed out" by having the window open too long, I think; 3) used an html tag that's not allowable. Sometimes the captchas are difficult to make out, so maybe you've inadvertantly entered it wrong?

    As for wanting to read the comments, I find it easier to use the permalinks rather than clicking the "marginal notes" item (which is when one wants to leave a comment, and again is Blogger's standard system that I can't alter). The title of a post is a permalink to the top of the entire post, while the timestamp in the post footer is a permalink that takes you straight to the beginning of the comments area.

    Hope this helps!


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