Thursday, June 29, 2006

Silliness on soccer

Sean Hackbarth at The American Mind doesn't like soccer. That is fine. But during the World Cup, lots of people who don't like soccer are working overtime to explain why most of us are indifferent to a game that the rest of the world goes nuts over.

Sean links to a thumbsucker at the Weekly Standard's website written by Frank Cannon and Richard Lessner. They argue that soccer is popular elsewhere because the rest of the world is gripped in a postmodern nihilism. There is not, in the view of the authors, much scoring in soccer, so it must be a game about nothing. They go on to say that the sport is contrary to nature because you can't use your hands and, ironically echoing hand wringing soccer moms, you risk brain injury by heading the ball. Soccer, they conclude, is just not natural.

This is silliness on steroids. First, the presuppositions are all wrong. Anyone who thinks American football (always my favorite sport) is natural or in any way consistent with good care of the body has never played a down. While most of Europe (but not all) is distessingly postmodern, soccer is also wildly popular in the religious global South.

Second, the connections are all wrong. The fact that a goal is hard to score doesn't make it meaningless. To the contrary, it magnifies its worth. Although the authors think that the absence of scoring means that you can walk away for huge chunks of time, it actually means that you can never avert your eyes because you might miss it. That fact that soccer players may not use their hands (the "natural" thing) makes it all the more fascinating. This is set of skills that most of us can't even fantasize about.

David Post, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, demonstrates that soccer, contrary to being about nihilism and disaffection, is about resolve and perserverance. It's about character.

When I first discovered soccer, I, too, came up with lots of great ideas for how to get more scoring. Widen the penalty box -- make the net bigger -- etc. etc. But then it hit me. Soccer is the great team sport because it is a test of team will, and it is a test of team will precisely because it is so damned hard to score a f**king goal. You have to run down that field, time and time and time and time again, knowing full well that there's "practically no chance" anything will come of it. Again and again and again. You might have to do it for ninety minutes and get nothing, and then you have to do it again in the next game. It is exhausting, physically and, even more, mentally. But you have to keep doing it, because the moment you stop doing it -- the moment anyone on the team starts to think about not doing it -- you lose.

Character and belief and determination and will become very, very transparent in these circumstances, and soccer, more than any other sport I know of, is about these things. Scoring is incredibly difficult -- but if you let yourself believe that you can't score, you will not score. It's why you'll see soccer fans sometimes giving their team a standing ovation after a 0-0 draw -- because character and determination and belief are very transparent, and can be detected even when no goals have been scored (perhaps best, actually, when no goals have been scored).

Take that.

Sean also links to Betsy Newark who likes Jonathan Laster's (also writing at the Daily Standard)theory that the problem is the "flop and bawl." Soccer players go down in an effort to draw fouls and penalties. Laster thinks that, in American sports, we have "floppers" but no one likes them. Please. Show me an incomplete pass in the NFL where the receiver isn't flipping his wrist and waving his arms in search of a flag. Show me a charge in the NBA (or NCAA) where the defender doesn't hurl himself backwards as if he were hit by a freight train, rather than a little point guard.

But, Laster says, the problem is that players also pretend - very briefly - to be injured. Sometimes, that's true. There is a reason for that. Contrary to the conceit of many (including, again, soccer moms) that soccer is a "kinder and gentler" sport, it's actually very rough. You need to fake - or display - an injury because, unless you are hurt, you are unlikely to get a call - at least unlikely to get the yellow or red card that will really matter. What would be interference in football or hacking in basketball is business as usual on the pitch.

Laster says that we Americans like it when people play hurt. We appreciate the courage and the effort. But my guess is that people in other countries do too. In fact, like all the others, he has the potential distinctions backwards. There is a reason those writhing players get up so quickly. The rules of soccer actually dictate that you play hurt in a way the the rules of basketball and football don't.

An injured player can't leave the game and come back. If you are going to shake it off, you better do it quickly because your side will be a man down until you get your butt back out there. Thus, in the US-Italy game, when the US' Brian McBride got his face split open by an Italian elbow, he had to get it patched together as quickly as possible because no one was permitted to replace him until he was to return to the game. He was back real fast.

It's simple. Most of us don't like soccer because it was not invented here. It's ok to admit that and ok to feel that way. There is no need to dream up self serving explanations


James Wigderson said...

What if we don't like it because the sport is boring?

Rick Esenberg said...

That is ok, although it doesn't explain why no one else in the world finds it boring. That's what all the intellectual heavy lifting is about.

You can think it is boring. You would be wrong, but it is your right. As an American.

Matt said...

Hi there, sorry to butt in on this but this particular topic is close to my heart.

It has always dumbfounded me that America never took to football (soccer) in the same way in has touched the imagination of just about every country in the world. Obviously here (UK) and the rest of Europe especially, to many people it’s a way of life- or as the late great Bill Shankley said :

'Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.
I'm very disappointed with that attitude.
I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.'

What’s even more interesting is that the main American Sports – Baseball and American Football have made little impact globally, nor for that matter neither has Basketball. Moreover, Football-often referred to as ‘The Beautiful Game’ is played with a plethora of different styles, from the Physical African style, flamboyant Brazilian way to the defensive Italian game makes the World Cup the finest (as well as the largest) Sporting spectacle.

It’s a recurring joke over here that Americans would make the goals bigger etc- so I found your colleagues comments very funny.

Anonymous said...

I liked your blurb here on why soccer isn't popular in the US. I played soccer myself for all of my youth (I have since retired from the sport), so therefore I'm partial to defend it. You had a quote that stood out to me: "Most of us don't like soccer because it was not invented here". I certainly agree with that and I would like to add on to that as well. I believe that soccer isn't popular here because it wasn't invented here, but more importantly, we have never dominated the sport (on a global scale). Think about the most popular sports here in America: baseball, football, basketball...we invented all of them, and we dominate them (or at least we used to). The US cannot compete on the same scale as the rest of the world in soccer. The soccer world here gets all excited when we beat some mediocre team from like Costa Rica or Trinidad & Tobago. Remember when the US beat Columbia in the '94 Cup? The US was abuzz about that victory for quite a while...then that was quickly forgotten. So since we can't beat on the rest of the world, we simply just bash it and turn our backs to it.

And the argument that it "doesn't really count since they don't use their hands" is a very weak one. With that mentality, then Lance Armstrong's victories in the Tour de France wouldn't mean much because, let's face it, he doesn't use his hands except to steer his bike. Marathon runners and other track and field competitors would fall into this category as well, but we all know that they are tremendous athletes.