June 25, 2006

The World Cup

I have a few moments to update, so I'll talk about something that I absolutely love, the World Cup. The World Cup is greater in my mind, than any other sports event because, even more than the Olympics, the world is drawn together with an intensity of passion unequalled by anything else. It makes possible the feeling of being connected in jubilation or dejection with literally tens of millions instantaneously, a feat of such enormous humanism and humaneness that I truly cannot understand how anyone could possibly dislike or even ignore such an incredible experience.

But every Cup year, it seems, a favorite activity resurfaces--explaining America's lack of interest in soccer. There are a few common answers, and I'll try to give some of them here:

1) America is ADD. They can't take the sort of concentration needed for watching soccer.

Interestingly enough, though, this objection conflicts with the next:

2) Soccer doesn't have enough real action to keep the attention of an average American. [This also goes under the name of "not enough scoring"]

If soccer truly doesn't have enough action to keep our attention, then it should fit in perfectly with the ADD tendencies we have of letting our concentration shift from the game to something else, then to another thing, and then after awhile, back to the game, where we'll find that likely nothing has changed.

3) Americans don't like watching sports that their country isn't good at. Or, to put a finer point on it, Americans don't like watching a sport that other, smaller, Third World countries are better at than America is.

Are you saying that America is xenophobic and nationalistic to the point of hollow jingoism? O, well then, I agree. And for a good example of this genuinely silly attitude toward sport, check out Joe Malchow: "I think there are some very basic explanations, like the fact that soccer is necessarily an international sport, which makes very much sense for Europe. But the United States, vasty in its land and in its people, and separated by a sea, can sustain its three chief sports by competing within itself. This quantity and quality of competition—-in which the rest of the world doesn’t seem to want to take part anyway, and that’s just fine—-satisfies." Nevermind the fact that Great Britain has its own very successful Premiership league, or Japan its own baseball league, or even that both baseball and basketball in America can no longer really be called "satisfied" by "competing within itself," given that they are now and increasingly will be dominated by non-American players. No! American sports are not globalized, and sports in other countries are never localized! That would violate our national character!

Joe also points to a different post, which is actually worse than his own commentary, and which states,
Goals are indeed a rare commodity in soccer, so much so that soccer is, essentially, a zero sum game. The “pie” of goals not only is meager, it never grows. So it is fought over with an intensity that is almost never found in American sports. This isn’t boring, but it is deeply unsatisfying to Americans.

My theory is that Americans have neither the belief system nor the temperment for such a sisyphean sport as soccer. We are a society of doers, achievers, and builders. Our country is dynamic, constantly growing, and becoming ever bigger, richer, and stronger. We do not subscribe to a “zero sum” mentality. We do not labor for the sake of laboring. And we like our sports teams to score. Scoring is a tangible accomplishment that can be identified, quantified, tabulated, compared, analyzed, and, above all else, increased.
This is stupid, because it mischaracterizes soccer as a zero-sum game when it is nothing of the sort. It is a game of incrementalist strategy, and it is America's inability to think in the terms of incrementalist strategy—a character trait which I find to be often a deficiency and only sometimes a benefit—that helps kill soccer's popularity in America. Soccer is Risk, and America wants to play Sorry! Soccer isn't sisyphean, it's martial, but unfortunately, even that metaphor doesn't work, since most Americans think of war less tactically than heroically, less about field maps and broad strategies than about monument-ready moments of glory and triumph.

Americans don't like soccer because the victories on the field--at the end of the game or in it--are subtle and not really about individuals. They're small, and they don't coalesce very quickly or regularly. ESPN's slogan for the World Cup is "One game changes everything." I'm not even sure I'd go that far in my claims about the dynamics of soccer, but I would bet that Americans think even that claim is too dull--"One game changes everything? What about one swing, one pass, one shot? That's what sports are about!"

What vulgar puerility.

Secondarily, I think most Americans cannot understand the division which takes place in most fans between the watching of the game and the playing of it. As this blogger that Joe quotes from says, "We do not labor for the sake of laboring." Soccer players don't labor for the sake of laboring; that's a totally ludicrous claim and shows an absolute lack of experience playing. Rather, what this illustrates is the automatic identification with the players of a game that Americans do reflexively and that American sports depends upon for their popularity. You are "in the game" as a fan of American sport, but I don't think you are as a soccer fan. You can totally watch a game literally as a work of art, truly disinterested in whether the ball goes in the net or not.

The best game of the tournament so far was the Argentina/Mexico game--not because of the high drama of going into extra time or anything of that sort, but because it was played in a beautiful way--openly, with a controlled yet frenetic quality, featuring outrageous feats of ball handling and constant, perpetual dashes and runs--the Latin American way, in other words. If the game had been 8-7, it couldn't have been any better--the goals didn't matter, except for the fact that each one was utterly, unbelievably gorgeous in its execution.

But that's the way the spectator feels--it doesn't matter what the score is, as long as the ball moves around beautifully. For the players, beauty is only a means to an end. The score is what matters for them. The fans simply chose to do, to react, to observe, with different criteria in mind, and that, in my mind, is why Americans can't appreciate soccer--because they can't chose to have criteria of beauty in mind other than the beauty of the bottom line. Again, vulgar puerility.


  1. "we like our sports teams to score."

    I would also like to add that this is just wrong. As a hardcore watcher of baseball, the American Pastime, I can easily say that baseball is never more intense than when two top pitchers take the mound and hold the game scoreless as long as possible. Aside from the last four games of the 2004 ALCS, the most fun and most excitement I've felt watching a game was back in 2000 when Pedro and Clemens went head to head, both pitched complete games, and gave up only one run-scoring hit between them (thank you, Trot Nixon). The final score was 2-0 - surprisingly similar to a soccer score.

    Sure watching a slugfest can be fun, but for shear excitement, baseball fans love a pitcher's duel much more than a high-scoring runaway. Of course, I could be way off base, as I love watching teams that play small ball (a rarity these days, but give me an old-school Darren Lewis bunt, and I'll be just as happy as I would be with an Ortiz homer), and love watching World Cup soccer even more than that. I checked it out with my brother, though (he's as all-American as they come), and he agrees that there's nothing quite like a top pitching match-up.

  2. Joe strikes me as more the type to have taken his requisite swim test wearing a black turtleneck than as the type to understand sports. I can understand wanting to refute his political arguments on their own terms , because Malchow at least reads political things and digests them somewhat. But sports...?

    I don't know why Americans don't dig soccer the way they dig other sports. It seems strange, considering the stereotype of the suburban "soccer mom," the fact that lots of American kids play soccer, and the fact that American fans get excited about the Olympics every couple of years--including sports historically dominated by other countries, like hockey and skiing. For whatever reason, the country hasn't latched onto the sport the way it has to others. As you rightly note, none of the traditional explanations (or any of Joe's odd ones) seems satisfactory.

    To respond to Betsy's comment, though, I think that "we love our sports teams to score" isn't as off-base as she suggests. Casual sports fans like offense and violence. In football, they enjoy long passes, one-handed diving catches, and violent tackles. In hockey, it's goals, hits and fights. In basketball, it's dunks and 3-pointers. Et cetera. It's only the more serious fans (though there are many of them) who enjoy defensive showdowns. In baseball, pitcher's duels are amazing in the playoffs, but boring as hell during the regular season (in my opinion, but I'm only a casual fan) unless one of the pitchers is chasing a record or racking up strikeouts (which is kind of like "scoring").

    The no-scoring objection seems to me to have something to it. In baseball, even in a 1-0 pitching duel, there will usually be a fair number of hits. And, on average, there's always the possibility that one team will break the game open and quickly pile up 5-20 runs. In basketball, even the most defensive games have a total of more than 100 points. In football, even in defensive duels, there will be goal-line stands, long passes, hits, and the constant possibility that the game could break open. In hockey, even a 0-0 game will typically include 60-80 shots on goal.

    In soccer, by contrast, there's a lot of messing around at midfield, scoring chances take longer to develop, and there are a lot fewer shots on goal. I suppose this makes sense, since a goaltender can't be expected to stop 40+ shots fired at a goal the size of a 3-car garage, but I think that the idea that soccer has fewer instances of things that look like offense may have something to do with the reason why Americans haven't latched onto the sport.

  3. I suppose the last part of my comment was a long-winded way of agreeing with Andrew's comment that

    most Americans think of war less tactically than heroically, less about field maps and broad strategies than about monument-ready moments of glory and triumph.

    Americans don't like soccer because the victories on the field--at the end of the game or in it--are subtle and not really about individuals. They're small, and they don't coalesce very quickly or regularly.

  4. Jim Dammann10:29 PM


    Did you consider that as a lot, Americans are some of the hardest working people on the face of the earth in terms ot length of workday and economic output? Perhaps we don't have the ambition to invest in drinkig a 12 pack and act like tribal warriors just to watch a game. We have jobs to be at in the morning and prosperity to conquer.

    The mindless hooligans who bring as much notworthy attention to the stands as the action on the field is also a part of my mistrust of the game. I would not attend an event for fear of getting beaten up for cheering the wrong team. I played soccer for 6 years as a youth so I understand and have had exposure to the game ... I simply have better things to do.

    I have watched snipets of this years world cup and find it almsot as interesting as watching the americas cup on ESPN at 3 am.

    I dunno, maybe WC soccer is just not my cup of tea.


    Jim Dammann

  5. Okay, I admit to being an aberration of a sports fan, because I love watching America's cup at three in the morning Although New Zealand lost, so the time zones won't be quite so messed up this time around. But seriously, Switzerland? They don't even have a coastline, what nerve to take it away from the Kiwis.

  6. Jim Damman, you are my favorite commenter ever. please keep saying ridiculous things on my blog.

  7. Anonymous12:50 PM

    I don't think Americans "hate" soccer, the television ratings show an increase in viewers every four years. But we will never take the sport as seriously as we do baseball or football for one very simple reason.

    That god damn stretcher.

    Americans do not like divers and acting in our sports. When you see someone get carried off the field/rink/court in America, you know it's a serious injury.

    In soccer, they're back up and waved onto the field 2 seconds later. Not to mention the insane amounts of Greg Louganis wanna-bes who flop around like fish out of water every time they enter the box, hoping to draw a PK (I'm looking at you, Italy. That victory over the Socceroos was a screw-job worthy of the WWE.)

    And not to sound like Don Cherry, but it's no shock that diving and flopping have increased markedly in the NBA and NHL since Euros started crossing the pond. Screw you, Vlade Divac and Peter Forsberg.

  8. Anonymous4:01 PM

    Americans do not like sports where the scores appear to happen by accident. How many scores in soccer occur because someone kicks a ball into a large group of people and someone manages to get a head or foot on it and knock it in. Every score in soccer appears to be a mistake.

    The equivalent in American football would be every touchdown would depend on the cornerback falling down or the linebacker slipping.

  9. Anonymous4:56 PM

    I am European and I ve watched soccer since I was 8 years old. I have memories of world cup and european championships since 1982. I ve also followed the local league and my favorite team as close as I could for the past 20 years.

    In other words, I ve got cred.

    But if I may confess, for the first 10-15 years or so, it was very difficult to watch a game. It seemed, well, rather boring.

    So, if you are trying to watch soccer and you don't like it, don't worry.

    But why do I like it?

    Well, the simplest answer is that when I was growing up soccer was the thing. When people think of sports in Europe, they think soccer.

    So, really, one answer on why Americans don't like soccer is simply path dependency. People in Europe, South America and a lot of other places chose soccer, people in the US chose baseball and american football.

    Once you choose a sport during your childhood with all that entails, it's tough to get into the sport of the other continent. It's even tougher for more people to do it.

    The other dirty secret - at least for me- is that soccer is a great sport for watching highlights, following your favorite team through them and betting. Soccer highlights are ideal for ADD suffering people. Not to mention they are a great opportunity for arguing over missed chances, who was the better team (REALLY -not the one that won necessarily) and of course ref controversies.

    Indeed, that's how I spend most Sunday nights of my childhood when games weren't televised.

    Soccer also maintains the best atmosphere to watch the game - especially in a world cup.

    I do think however, that once you give soccer a chance -and really concentrate on a game- a feat which I think is the toughest challenge for the spectator of any sport, you can get a lot from the experience. A soccer match is a moving chessboard and if you really devote yourself to following the strategies and the tactics on the field, you can take out a lot out of the experience.

    Another fact about soccer, is that it can give you the occasioanl game that's nailbiting, exciting and BEAUTIFUL. And yes, that can be a 4-3 game like the Belgium-USSR in the 1986 WC or a 0-0 draw like the Netherlands-Italy Semifinal in Euro 2000.

    But, the fact remains that sometimes, games are just boring -many European fans will complain about it, don't let them tell you differently. Marginal changes in the rules that would benefit without changing the integrity of the game -like they did in the past would be welcome.

    What are these changes, I don't know.

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