Sunday, July 14, 2019

It Could Happen...

They say that here in the United States, soccer is the game of the future, and it always will be. I can attest to that as I've heard all my life optimistic soccer (or football if you prefer)  fans say, usually during and immediately following a World Cup that this is the year their game will finally climb up the ranks to equal or even supplant some of the major sports in this country in terms of popularity.

Clearly that hasn't happened. Today, decades after my childhood, most Americans are as indifferent to the "beautiful game" as ever. Case in point: last Sunday, the final game of a major international tournament took place. One of the teams in that championship match was the U.S. National team. The final game was played right here at Soldier Field in Chicago. Despite this major event taking place right under my nose, I didn't know about the game until two days before kickoff, when I read about it in a Spanish language newspaper. They did fill up the 61,500 seat stadium demanding top dollar for a ticket. One might think the U.S. team would have enjoyed home field advantage for that game but it was estimated that eighty percent of the fans in attendance in Chicago, U.S.A. were rooting for the visiting team,  Mexico. In typical soccer fashion, the final score was one-nil, El Tri (Mexico).

Earlier that day in Lyon, France, the final game of another major soccer tournament took place, the Women's World Cup. Unlike the CONCACAF Copa Oro whose final in Chicago determined the men's soccer championship of North America, the woman's tournament was promoted up the wazoo in this country seemingly for months.

If you Google the following: "why isn't soccer popular in the U.S." you'll find among the ten or so reasons that keep coming up the fact that we suck at the game. To be clear, U.S. men suck at soccer at least at the international level, while the U.S. women are the class of the world. Sadly much of the reason for that is because in countries where men's soccer is popular, there is usually little interest in the women's game and in some countries, women are discouraged from playing at all. Not so here in the U.S. where young girls and boys often learn to play the game together in organized leagues, and much effort has been put forward in recent years to ensure that high school and collegiate women's sports programs are adequately supported and funded. Clearly there is still work to do to level the playing field between the sexes, but at least in this one respect, our country is ahead of most others when it comes to women's sports.

During and after the brilliant run of the U.S. footballers which led to their championship win against the Netherlands in a fantastic match last Sunday, demands have been made that women players be paid the same as men. Fair is fair after all and I think we all can at least theoretically get behind the notion of equal pay for equal work. On the other hand, the issue is complicated by the fact that compensation for workers in all fields (at least in our capitalist economy) is market driven, and the sad truth is that what we are paid for the work we do, depends in large part not upon any intrinsic value it might have, but upon what someone else is willing to pay us. This is especially true in fields that concern themselves with selling a product.

For example. let's say we have two authors working on books. One author, a biologist, is compiling a life's work into a book on the life cycle of an obscure rain forest insect. It is a magnificent study, beautifully researched, exquisitely written, and the book becomes the definitive source on its subject. About one thousand copies are sold, far exceeding the author's wildest dreams. The other author is a journalist who writes a scurrilous book on the comings and goings in the White House. The writing in that book is sophomoric and the information presented between the covers is dubious at best, yet the book becomes an instant best seller. Millions of copies are sold and the book's success leads to the publication of a sequel. Despite the amount of work put into each book, it should come as no surprise which author earns more money, the fairness of it all simply never enters into the equation.

As far as compensation for U.S. women soccer players goes, there are two conflicting forces. One bone of contention is the discrepancy in the amount of prize money awarded to championship men's and women's teams by FIFA, the international governing body of the game of soccer. Now FIFA happens to be one of the most intransigent, corrupt, good ol' boy networks imaginable and believe me, I have no love lost for them. However, the popularity of and revenue generated by men's soccer around the world is exponentially higher than that generated by women's soccer. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that the monetary compensation for winning the game's most cherished award should reflect that difference.

On the other hand, judging by the public response in this country to the two championship games played last Sunday each featuring the U.S. national team, there can be no question that it is our women who have a far greater impact on promoting and generating interest in the game of soccer in the United States than the men. One might argue that the comparison isn't fair because the men arguably work just as hard as the women and they face much greater competition. But again, the market is about the bottom line, not about fairness. Therefore to me it makes perfect sense that the governing body of soccer in the United States, the USSF, should ensure that members of the  U.S. Women's soccer team are compensated at the national level the same as the men, if not more, reflecting the contribution they make as ambassadors for the game of soccer in this country.

Of course the proof in the pudding will be what happens to the game not once every four years during the World Cup, but the time in between. Now's the time for the USSF to strike while the coals are hot to promote the game of women's soccer in this country, especially going all out to support women's professional leagues and collegiate soccer.  Personally I don't see why this cannot be a successful venture, maybe not to the point of competing with the top four spectator sports in the country, but to at least be able to hold its own if not soar in a very competitive market.

The truth is that women's soccer is a different game from the game played by the men, and by that I mean better. If you look at those lists that say why the game isn't popular in this country, one thing that always comes up, is that there's not enough scoring in soccer. Truth be told, scoring in women's games is not significantly higher than in the men's but there is a difference. Like many high level professional sports, soccer has been subject to intense analytical research that helps determine winning strategies. While these strategies prove to be successful in what they attempt to accomplish, a consequence is they make games a lot less fun to watch. In the case of soccer, research has determined that a more conservative approach to the game leads to more wins. As a result, much of the men's game today is played at midfield where teams control the ball and wait for their opponent to make a mistake. By contrast, the women, at least from what I've seen, tend to take a much more north-south approach, moving the ball up the field to create scoring chances rather than wait for opportunities to present themselves. This makes for a much more exciting game.

This is especially true after one team scores a goal. Typically men's teams who are ahead tend to use stalling techniques to eat up the clock to prevent the other team from even touching the ball. Not so in the women's game. In the World Cup final, the U.S. scored their first goal off a penalty kick. As a one goal deficit is often insurmountable in soccer, the U.S. could have simply played keep-away from the Dutch, however they kept pressing forward. Only a couple of minutes after scoring their first goal, U.S. midfielder, Rose Lavelle, made a brilliant one-person charge up field, then split two defenders at the top of the box to bury an off-balance left-footed shot past the Dutch goal-keeper for the clincher. Even for the beautiful game this was a thing of particular beauty. Here is an article in the Guardian that favorably compares Lavelle's goal with some of the greatest goals in World Cup history, both men's and women's. Despite that two goal lead, U.S. didn't let up pressure until the final whistle.

I don't claim to be an expert on women's soccer in the least but another difference from my limited experience, is that the refs seem much more likely to keep their whistles in their pockets and let the players play the game. In a game where one score often decides the game, it's not unusual that a game can be decided by a referee's call, another oft-mentioned reason why soccer is so unpopular in the U.S.

This leads to what in my opinion is the single biggest complaint I and most Americans have with the men's game. the preponderance of players "flopping", or feigning injury in order to draw a foul. Granted, a certain amount of gamesmanship, in other words, cheating, happens in all sports, but nowhere is it as blatant or done with such impunity as in men's soccer. As I pointed out in an earlier post.
...shameless flopping, effective as it 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. 
From my limited watching of the women's game, I haven't once seen a player take a dive to draw a foul, in fact just the opposite. I saw several big-time collisions between opponents where both players ended up legitimately sprawled on the ground. In one case, blood was pouring from the forehead of a player who had to be forced off the field to receive medical attention. Ice hockey style, she was taped up and back on the pitch within a minute. Soccer, supposedly a non-contact sport is anything but, and the women play every bit as physically as the men, and then some. The only difference it they don't whine about it.

But the biggest thing women's soccer has going for it today are the athletes themselves who have appeared on the scene just at the right time. The most visible member of the U.S. team, co-captain Megan Rapinoe is a lightning rod of a public figure, people either love or hate her. She didn't exactly endear herself to Donald Trump's base when she told a reporter before the tournament: "I'm not going to the fucking White House" in response to an equally inappropriate question about what she would do IF she were invited to the White House IF her team won the championship.

Here's the opening paragraph of a recent New York Post article about her:
Arrogant, abrasive, sanctimonious, whiny, humorless, unpatriotic, self-important and immensely boring, Megan Rapinoe has made the least of her sudden ascent to fame as the captain of the World Cup-winning US women’s soccer team. With unprecedented alacrity, she has become America’s anti-sweetheart.
The article goes on to express exactly what (whatever the current president's approval rating is at the moment) percent of Americans think of her.

It compares Rapinoe unfavorably to those two paragons of virtue, Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan, practitioners of the art of, in the author's words: "performative humility", the essential ingredient of being an "athlete endorser."

Well it goes without saying that Rapinoe is not like either of those two guys. Proving he knew which side his bread was buttered on, when he refused to make an endorsement in a North Carolina election that pitted the notorious racist senator Jesse Helms against an African American Democratic challenger, the famously apolitical Air Jordan reportedly said: "Republicans buy sneakers too", referring to his lucrative contract with Nike.*

The Post author then falls into the trap as so many do, of comparing modern day controversial, outspoken athletes unfavorably to controversial athletes of the past like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali who apparently did it right in the author's estimation. Displaying a remarkable case of historical amnesia, the author of the piece, Kyle Smith either ignores, forgets or simply doesn't understand that Robinson and Ali were both hands down the most despised athletes of their day, especially by folks who believed like Smith that athletes should just play the game and keep their opinions to themselves.

Megan Rapinoe must be doing something right to have incurred such wrath from the right-wing Post. Most of what Smith says in his article is rubbish. Save for perhaps being a touch abrasive, none of the adjectives he uses in that first paragraph are at all accurate descriptions of Rapinoe, least of all, boring.

But his Robinson and Ali comparisons are unwittingly apt. As Smith's favorite president certainly knows, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Rapinoe, like Ali before her, has a genius for getting attention. Like Robinson and Ali, she represents a marginalized group, they the African American Community, she the LGBTQ community, and of course, women athletes. Like Ali through his membership in the Nation of Islam, Rapinoe not only acknowledges who she is, but actively celebrates it, greatly adding to the consternation of Kyle Smith and people who think like him. And like Robinson and Ali before her, Rapinoe is fast becoming a role model for a generation of young people on the fringes of mainstream society who are not asking to be treated like everyone else, but expect it. Naturally that is off-putting to folks like Smith who prefer the status-quo.

Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were both tremendous instruments for change in this country and people hated them for it. The same might be said for Megan Rapinoe. As such, she and her teammates who to a member actively stood behind her after her White House comment, are perfect role models for a new generation of Americans who refuse to judge others by their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, or whom they chose to love. As we have seen in this country over and over again, for all its faults and there are many, sport does have the capacity to change the world for the better. It is incumbent on those of us who are like-minded to both celebrate and support these magnificent athletes and their fellow footballers around the country by going out and watching them play. Let's ensure that the future of women's soccer in the U.S. is now.

I'm not usually jingoistic when it comes to cheering for my country at sporting events. but for the first time in a long time, I'm proud to chant out loud, USA! USA!

Congratulations Team USA on a job well done.

*It should be noted that Michael Jordan denies making that comment which has hung around his neck like the proverbial albatross for many years. He has recently spoken out publicly about social justice, especially the rash of police killings of un-armed black men, and has donated a considerable amount of money to the cause of justice for victims of police violence.

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