“Soccer,” a friend once told me, “resembles nothing more than a Sunday school picnic run amok.”
Now, now, I chided at the time. There must be something to it. See how popular it is. If my friend reads this, I apologize. You were right. Imagine Zidane, the French guy with the hard head. He butts an opponent, knocks him down, gets thrown out of the final game, but nonetheless is awarded the “Golden Ball” as the World Cup’s outstanding player. Like a boxer who has been knocked out in the eighth round being given the heavyweight belt anyway. If that doesn’t convince you, try this: French President Jacques Chirac calls Zidane “a genius of world football.”
Millions of Americans are a little confused by the term, “football,” when the reference is to soccer. To them, if a ball on the ground is kicked that is a fifteen-yard penalty. But let’s see if we can make N-F-L football a little more like the other world’s soccer. Cut down on scoring. Scoring is no fun. Make a first down requisite a gain of 25 yards, and allow but two downs in which to achieve it. Lots of scoreless ties here. The game will be decided by a series of field goal attempts when time has expired, all from the 50-yard line. Now, that’s more like it. Who cares when we get home?
That other popular sport, N-B-A basketball. Let’s put ten men on a team and require all field goal attempts to be made from mid-court. After the regulation time is up, the game will be decided by free throws. First team to miss one loses. No such thing as multiple fouls before ejection; one personal foul and you are out, to await the plaudits of the President of France. Oui, Shaquille?
There is of course a reason for the popularity of soccer in the lower and middle grades in America. Any child with a mother who drives, or knows someone whose mother drives, can play. Non-contact. Lots of running. No big uniform or equipment expense. An endless season. And endless opportunities for socializing among parents arrayed in folding chairs on the sidelines. The bloodless nature of the play is reflected in the benign attitude on the sidelines. Ever hear of an irate Dad punching out a soccer referee?
The democratic nature of the game is emphasized by the increasing specialization besetting the “other” sports such as football and basketball. Some high school teams now have lines averaging 300 pounds from tackle-to-tackle. Anybody less than 6′ 2″ had best be content with racking up the basketballs for the tall lads who play. Size matters. (Take this the right way.) Hockey requires a thousand dollars worth of equipment, a parental willingness to search for ice time in the wee hours of morning, and a benevolent dentist.
Attempts to make professional soccer an all-American pastime have thus far failed. The maniacs of Manchester have no counterparts on these shores. Police blotters remain empty after games and America is largely immersed in the team’s search for a decent quarterback who can move and throw and stay out of jail.