Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Beautiful Game

One of the highlights so far of this year's World Cup was the match between the U.S.A. and Algeria. Very late into the game it was still a nil-nil standoff and the outlook for the Americans looked very bleak indeed as a draw would mean the end of the tournament for the Yanks.

I followed the match on an internet blog. In between the blogger's accounts of the action, readers were invited to supply their own comments. One comment read: "Five minutes until I stop caring about soccer for another four years."

Then, in the 92nd minute of the game, the American star Brandon Donovan scored a thrilling goal, leading his team to a brilliant victory. I added the comment: "Well I guess that guy will be caring for at least another 90 minutes."

Every four years, the whole world tunes in to what is certainly the most significant sporting event on the planet. During this time we in the U.S. have our own quadrennial ritual of going out of our way to comment on how we can't understand what the whole fuss is about.

Of course Americans have avid supporters of the game we call soccer. They say that the day is right around the corner when soccer will be as popular in the States as football, baseball, hockey, and basketball.

I've heard this sentiment my entire life.

I've lived through several professional Chicago professional soccer clubs, been to see all of them let's see, there were the Spurs and the Mustangs back in the sixties. They both folded after a year or two. Then there was the Chicago Sting with their star, the inimitable Karl-Heintz Graniza whose engaging personality made him the public voice of the team. On the TV news with his cartoon-like German accent, he'd begin his reports after being introduced by the sportscaster Johnnie Morris with a jovial "Senk yoo Chonnie."

"Zee Schtink" as Graniza called the team, actually lasted quite a while both as an indoor (a hybrid game closer to hockey than true soccer) and outdoor team. The Sting even won a few championships which drew about 100 people to each of their downtown rallies. Eventually they too went the way of their predecessors. Now we have the Chicago Fire that seems to have built up a small but loyal following. They made a good business decision a couple of years ago to build a their own stadium in the burbs where they come much closer to filling its 20,000 seats than they could the 50,000 plus as Soldier Field.

As a lover of the game I can give soccer supporters the exact date when their game will be at the same level of popularity here as the top four American sports. That day will be The Twelfth of Never.

There are loads of reasons for this, here are seven:
  • We already have enough sports. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, automobile racing, boxing, professional wrestling, horse racing, beach volleyball and a host of others all command more attention in the U.S. than soccer. On the bright side, it's still more popular than cricket and hurling.
  • There's too little scoring. This is the mantra of soccer detractors of all stripes. It is especially true at the highest levels of the game where there is relative parity between teams. Defensive schemes have become so sophisticated and the players are so good, that coaches have discovered that the way to win at this most rarefied of levels is to put most of a team's eggs in the defensive basket. Even Brazil long known for its offensive flair and style has become defense oriented.
  • Soccer is too foreign. Americans are notoriously xenophobic. Soccer is something you stumble upon while channel-surfing. It is broadcast mostly in Spanish with a guy shouting "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!!!" all too infrequently.
  • Soccer is TV unfriendly. Soccer actually translates well to the little screen unlike baseball or hockey. But baseball with its natural breaks between innings, pitching changes and so forth, is the perfect game for American TV. A soccer match consists of two uninterrupted halves 45 minutes apiece with only very brief stoppages of the clock for injuries or substitutions. At halftime, viewers get up for a drink and a pee, then return right before the second half kickoff. There's simply no good time to show commercials, and the networks are loathe to televise it.
  • There's too much flopping. With the exception of cricket where players are expected to correct umpires who mistakenly rule in their favor, a certain amount of gamesmanship exists in all professional sports. Most sports are filled with players who have mastered tricks that fool the officials. And no sport in the world is filled with such masters of deception, who perform their skulduggery with such aplomb and drama as soccer. It is not at all uncommon to see a player after an alleged foul fall to the ground, writhing in agony, to be carried off the field on a stretcher one minute, then perform tremendous displays of athleticism the next. This kind of shameless flopping, effective as may be, is simply unacceptable to American sports fans who value stoic machismo, players who can play through any adversity without as much as a grimace. There is no crying in baseball after all.
  • Soccer is not stats driven. American sports fans are obsessed with statistics. Baseball and football players are constantly evaluated statistically on attributes such as speed, power, and the ability to throw a pass, or to hit and catch a ball. Two of the most significant attributes that soccer players are judged by are style and creativity, clearly things not easily measured in numbers. A baseball game can be de-constructed pitch by pitch. Each pitch in itself can supply dozens of different statistics. There are baseball fans who are content without ever actually seeing a game, they simply pour over the stats in the morning paper. The same can be said for football. Soccer is different. A soccer match cannot be dissected play by play. The flow of a game is quite akin to a musical performance whose whole is not the equal to the sum of its parts. You can describe a game, but can never reconstruct it. A soccer match simply has to be seen to be fully understood and appreciated. Here lies the notion of "the beautiful game", an endearment for the sport found in all the parts of the world where the game is known simply as football.
  • Soccer in the United States is viewed as an elitist sport. By contrast, in England soccer is viewed this way: "Rugby is a brutish game played by gentlemen while football (soccer) is a gentleman's game played by brutes." In the rest of the world, soccer is the game of the masses. Here in the States, with the exception of immigrant communities, soccer is the domain of the middle and upper middle classes who sign their children up for organized leagues where it is seen as a starter sport. Kids who make it up to more advanced leagues are encouraged to do so as a means for an athletic scholarship. In the rest of the world, pickup soccer is played everywhere. Unlike other sports, the game requires no special equipment and can be improvised at a moment's notice, even a bundle of rags can be substituted for a ball if necessary.The game is played informally in parks, in the streets, alleys, and out in the fields, by children of all ages, most of them with the dream of one day becoming the next Zidane, Kaká, or Lionel Messi.
A sport is an acquired taste. Broken down to its components, any competitive game when you come to think of it is pretty ridiculous, whether it be hitting a little ball with a club trying to get it into a hole 300 yards away, two teams bouncing a ball up and down a floor, ultimately attempting to throw it through a hoop, or even this.

My all time favorite slam/description of soccer is: "What sets human beings apart from the other animals is that after millions of years of evolution we have developed hands that, with the help of the opposable thumb, have given us dexterity that has enabled us to build buildings, write books, create great works of art, in short, all the things necessary in order for civilization to exist. Soccer is a game where you can't use your hands."

In short, Americans simply have no passion for soccer. Most of us did not grow up with it, have a home team to root for, play it just for fun, or have a father, mother or mentor to teach the love of the game. Sports as much as anything are integral parts of a nation's culture. That's why no American should feel bad that we lost to Ghana in the World Cup. While Ghana's population is less than one tenth of the United States, and its GDP a is tiny fraction of ours, its passion for soccer is astronomically greater.

Every four years during the World Cup I think of my father who absolutely adored soccer. He taught me the game. He taught me that there were few things in life more beautiful than a perfect crossing pass arching through the air and landing precisely at the foot of a teammate who stops the ball without a bounce. Or a player artfully dribbling the ball past a defender. Or as we saw in person, the great Pelé not scoring a goal himself, but setting one up in miraculous fashion.

My dad played soccer with with me in our back yard, and took me to games for just about as long as he was able to get around on two feet. We bonded as a father and son over soccer probably more than anything else, with the possible exception of hockey.

Football, soccer, whatever you want to call it, is truly the one international language. If you need proof, you need to go no further than one of Chicago's parks on any given Sunday when people of all cultures gather together for pickup games. Here you will see folks that have little or nothing else in common, be it religion, politics, values, life-style, or language. They may even have an insatiable hatred for each other's culture and homeland. But once they're together on the same pitch, everybody is just another footballer.

That's why soccer to me will always be The Beautiful Game.

Go Ghana!

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