By Larry Thornberry
It’s never as bad an experience, and I don’t have to assume an undignified position. But the quadrennial World Cup has this in common with my annual exam by my urologist: at some point I’m sure to ask, “Good grief, isn’t this over yet?”
It’s not that I begrudge America’s small band of true soccerphiles the chance to enjoy a game they like on a large stage. (These folks are well represented by my friend Wlady Pleszczynski, whose appreciation of fútbol is opposite my harrumphs.) But I’m mildly annoyed by the flogging and over-coverage of a sport few Americans know or care much about.
The dreamy prediction by the soccerati that futbol will soon break out as a major American sport has been making the rounds since Pelé was a pup. It hasn’t happened and won’t unless Barack Obama succeeds in his efforts to erase the southern border of the U.S. and shoehorn every Central American into the lower 48. Sure, non-Spanish-speaking folks like soccer too. But how central soccer will be in America’s sports future will depend to a large degree on how Spanish that future is. The gradual increase in interest in soccer here closely tracks immigration, legal and otherwise, from south of the border.
Most people who play, watch, and/or care about sports usually stick with the ones they learned early on. I was marinated at a young age in baseball and boxing, the sports my dad and his blue-collar mates down at the plant knew and loved. I later learned basketball and football (as opposed to fútbol). A late addition to my sports lineup has been hockey, a game absent from my Southern upbringing.
Most American men, and some fine women, engage with one or more of these five sports (not forgetting the tennis and golf aficionados amongst the Izod set). For sportsaholics who like all five, there simply isn’t room for yet another entry.
Were there but world enough and time, sport No. 6 for me wouldn’t be soccer. Mr. Nice Guy musings that you like what you learn first aside, please allow me some measured and totally objective observations: Soccer is slow, low scoring, low on action, and, as we learned during this year’s Cup, features an alarming undercurrent of cannibalism. Besides, the matches last a day and a half, a long time to attend to any game that finishes nil-nil. Soccer has an offside rule that is as mysterious as the infield fly rule and makes less sense.
Soccer is the metric system of sports. It charms Lexus leftists who’ve visited Europe and should stay there. (Precincts with high densities of soccer fans correspond to those with high sales of bidets.) The most fascinating action produced by the sport are the fights in the stands between rival fans, brought on, my guess is, by boredom, because all these testosterone-besotted and beer-soaked young men are shoved together in tight quarters with nothing to do but watch fútbol. Perhaps TV cameras should focus on these fights rather than on the wiry guys leisurely kicking a ball around a big, green cow pasture.
This World Cup year, coming as it did after the politicization of the sports media, my annoyance escalated to irritation. The drones at ESPN (Every Sport Political Now), and their imitators at national broadcast outlets and newspapers down to the River City Daily Bugle, covered the Cup extravagantly and took to nagging Americans to like soccer, for no other reason than that the rest of the world likes it. It’s suggested, by the crowd that treats the arrival of the first openly gay player in the NFL as a fabulous cultural event, that anyone who doesn’t appreciate soccer is a mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, nativist yahoo.
These scoldings aren’t really about soccer, nor even about sport. They’re about cultural politics, about how elites look down on Joe and Jill Americano and like to strike moral poses at their expense. These are the same scoundrels who hector us about global warming and want us to watch women’s basketball. They needn’t be taken seriously. But they can sure get up a guy’s nose.
With all the nagging, the extravagant coverage, and the once-in-four-years chance for patriots to pull for an American team, Cup TV ratings increased by about 20 percent over 2010 (at least until the U.S. was eliminated), and at least a few sports bars overflowed with twenty-somethings drinking beer, flirting with each other, and possibly watching soccer on the conveniently located big-screens. There was even a front-page story with photos in my local Tampa Tribune about companies whose employees spent part of the work-day watching Cup matches. Advanced as evidence that soccer is coming on in America, this in fact just confirms that some people would rather watch a sporting event on TV than work.
Not an impressive haul considering the entire American elite was acting as a hallelujah chorus for “the beautiful game.” After the Cup concluded, Major League Soccer in America has done no better in attendance or TV ratings than it did last year. Soccer is still a niche sport in El Norte. Roger Goodell needn’t worry that his NFL will be kicked off of page one of America’s sports sections any time soon—at least not for another four years, when the nagging will begin again.
By Wlady Pleszczynski
This is going to be as easy as a penalty kick. Of course, if you’re not a fan I can’t help you. I don’t mean a fan of soccer itself, just of any major sport. Openness to one leaves one open to all. Growing up in southern California, I quickly became a fan of baseball (the Dodgers) and soon enough of football (the Rams, USC) and basketball (the Lakers and UCLA). Soccer I don’t know when I first heard of. A 1967 documentary whose name I’ve just now had to look up—Goal! The World Cup 1966—introduced me to Pelé and the great tournament itself, but more delightfully to such very English-sounding soccer names as Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton. There was a world out there.
My sense of it expanded soon enough when I found myself in Poland for a summer, cut off from Major League baseball and American sports pages. Soccer came to a rescue of sorts. Poland’s national team played a “friendly” against Norway. It was nationally televised and my introduction to the host country’s great star Wlodzimierz Lubanski. (My wife still swoons at his mention.) Poland won easily, and I was impressed.
Five years later Polish soccer peaked, the team qualifying for the 1974 World Cup and preventing England from advancement thanks to the two sides’ epic 1-1 tie in Wembley Stadium on October 17, 1973. That’s when I learned the phrase “A Tie Worthy of Victory!” (It sounded more dramatic in the original Polish: Remis Godny Zwyciestwa!) In the Cup itself Poland surged to the finals and defeated Brazil for third place. The country shut down not because of anything the communists did.
A few years after that I found myself deeper behind the Iron Curtain, summer-studying in Kiev. Sports there were barely visible, until I caught wind in late August of an upcoming soccer game in town, featuring the storied Kiev Dynamo against the Moscow Army team. Imagine such a match-up today. But back then it was a rather desultory affair. The stadium was at least half empty and thanks to the usual front row of KGB troops on all sides even deader than that. Ah, but the results: 5-0 Kiev, with Oleg Blokhin scoring three of the goals. You haven’t heard of him? Even before 1977 he was regarded as the finest Soviet player, a European player of the year, and a member of Pelé’s all-world team. He later became independent Ukraine’s head coach. It’s always more than a game.
And it’s hardly the kinder and gentler sport of our social planners. In the 1970s I remember the emergence of Kyle Rote, Jr. as the face of American professional soccer. As the son of an NFL star and a golden boy in his own right he was perfectly positioned to represent the new alternative to America’s most punishing sport. It never really got going, starting in my California hometown of Santa Barbara, where Rote often came calling. The city’s professional team folded at midseason. Co-ed elementary school soccer had a better chance of survival. I mention this only because it all seemed such a far cry from actual soccer. To my mind nothing captured it more than a not so friendly “friendly” in Hamburg between West Germany and Brazil in April 1978, in which the opening minutes consisted of nothing more than each side taking out the other at the shins at midfield. Until the referee restored control, that was soccer left to its own devices.
It’s been slow going, but American soccer has grown up some since that naïve era. Not that the tough play required at the international level has become any easier as competition only intensifies as it becomes more widespread. At the same time, technology makes access to live soccer that much more available—and in the U.S. it helps that advertisers and broadcasters have found a way to televise games without having to insist on two-minute warnings or even streaming ads.
The quadrennial World Cup is an amazing selling point, a well-organized, efficiently run month-long pageant involving countries from most every continent and countless players and at least some teams of unmatched competitiveness and skills. There’s of course the setting—sold out stadiums under majestic sky for a game that showcases the uses of space on and above the field below. There are the players’ unique set of skills—of foot, leg, knee, and head, for starters—and seemingly effortless stamina. Even American skeptics appear to give credit to those attributes. (Ever notice how any NBA player immediately receives extra recognition when someone notes he’s a former soccer player?)
And then there’s the scoring—supposedly always not enough of it in non-fans’ eyes, but all the reason to respect it in soccer itself. A single goal can make all the difference, as Germany demonstrated in the World Cup finale last summer. And too many goals in a game cheapens their effect, as Germany also demonstrated in the Cup’s semifinal last summer. It wasn’t Germany’s fault it played perfect soccer that day—simply Brazil’s, for being such an unworthy opponent. Implicit here is soccer’s profound understanding that glory in this world has to be earned, not given away, penalty kicks notwithstanding.