Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Wait 'Til Next Quadrennium!

Soccer enthusiasts like to say one of their sport's charms is its accessibility. The fundamentals are self-evident, allowing a new fan to grasp much of the game without a lengthy learning period.

The enthusiasts are right, which was bad news for the US men's national team yesterday. There were no subtleties needed to explain its wretched 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic in its opening World Cup match. A spectator could've been watching his or her first soccer match, or indeed, their first organized sports event of any kind, and understood one team was playing its sport superbly, while the other was laying an egg of historic dinosaur fossil dimensions.

Hey, it happens. The Czech-US dynamic is duplicated on a million playing fields of a dozen different sports around the world each day. If anyone knows why this happens, call me. Call Pat Riley first, though. He needs an answer by 9 p.m. EDT.
A first game loss in the World Cup is an almost certain guarantee of a first round departure, meaning the US' cup ended about three minutes after it began. While sad, this is hardly startling. Big events wouldn't be big if they didn't offer outsized rewards and penalties to the contestants. a full 50 percent of the 32 World Cup finalists will suffer the same fate.

No, the true bad news about the US team's stinkeroo is how it will inevitably lead to the resurgence in another American sport that's far more popular than soccer, namely, arguing about soccer.

American soccer arguments aren't about players, coaches, or teams. We argue about the value of the whole damn game. This debate is especially intense among members of my former community of sports journalists, who should know better, but don't.

Soccer is the most popular team sport in the world everywhere but here in the USA, where's it comes in around fifth or sixth. For reasons that have escaped me for going on 40 years, this plain fact is supposed to be either an official Good or Bad Thing about American sports. The US defeat will send soccer's detractors into fits of smug sarcasm, and plunge enthusiasts into rage and despair at another squandered opportunity for the game to take its rightful place in the sports hierarchy, or at least to pass hockey, for God's sake.

As anyone who's ever met one knows, American soccer fans aren't really fans, they're missionaries, carrying a creed into a hostile land, and forever ready to preach their irritating gospel. Here's my hint to this crowd. Drop the defensive attitude. If you're following the world's most popular sport, act like it. If a neighbor or co-worker has little or no interest in the game, don't keep telling him why he should. Go watch a game and leave him alone.

Soccer's problem in America has never changed. It's a low-scoring sport, and Americans, including this one, like high-scoring stick-and-ball games. The four major professional sports leagues constantly cater to this preference, tinkering with their rules and equipment to favor offense at the expense of defense on an almost annual basis.

My PR advice for soccer fans is to turn this negative into a positive. Soccer may lack scoring, but as a result, the sport also has a refreshing lack of statistics. There's no VORP in soccer, no OBP, yards after catch, offensive efficiency ratings or plus-minus ratios. The typical soccer box score can be printed on a business card.

Americans are really ready for such a game. What Ben Hogan called the "paralysis of analysis" is threatening to strangle baseball, for example. Soccer has no nerd fans emerging from the basements to write snotty essays as to how they've discovered a revolutionary formula that can calculate baseball's vital elements to the ninth number to the right of the decimal point. They're going to be the next Bill James, except James can really write well, and they can't. The formula in question is invariably a math-laden equivalent to the statement, "that Albert Pujols is some hitter."

What I like best about soccer is I can just watch it. There's no scorecard to keep, no records to compile. I just sit there and take it in, like a movie. Since that experience is why one watches ANY game in the first place, soccer lets the overinformed fan touch base with his sensual side. It's sort of like the way a week on a vegatarian diet sharpens the palate when one returns to meat-eating.

Now for the other side of the soccer debate. The game's foes are, if anything, more irritating than its friends. When the topic comes up, their faces assume a permanent sneer. Soccer can't merely be ignored, it must be hated and ridiculed. How peculiar. How distasteful.

Soccer hate rests on two principles. One is that since the rest of the world loves the game, and we don't, the game itself's at fault. Americans are never wrong, after all. If some podunk land like Ivory Coast is better at soccer than we are, it can't be worth playing.

This combination of arrogance and ignorance is why we're so beloved around the globe these days. It leads seamlessly into the other major beef of the soccer haters-that the game is somehow effete and unmanly.

First of all, that's bold talk for a nation that's currently hiring mercenaries to torture its suspected enemies, but let's take this down to a homelier level. It's a lie. Soccer is grueling. Players are infinitely more fit than many well known American athletes in other games. It has no David Wells' or guys whose only skill is to have grown to be seven feet tall. Baseball beat writers are unfortunately prone to sneering at many sports besides soccer as "not real". Guys, you're full of it. The average major leaguer would perish midway through his first practice with a World Cup soccer team.

Boston morning sports talk hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan are especially fond of the "soccer is for sissies" meme. Yours truly didn't just get off the Greyhound in the big city this morning. Obviously John and Gerry's rap is mostly schtick. The schtick would probably more effective if the two of 'em weren't famed for their sycophantic coverage of the blood-and-guts, hell-for-leather bonecrushers of the PGA Tour.

Dear soccer missionaries: Give it up. Soccer will or won't become more popular here. Yelling won't effect the process a whit.

Dear soccer haters: Give it up faster. If soccer is doomed to failure in the USA, why beat a dead horse? If it's not, you risk looking extremely stupid.

Ooops! Gotta run. France vs. Switzerland just started. You can throw out the wine lists when those traditional rivals get together. I almost forgot to mention my favorite part of World Cup 2006. Here on the East Coast, all the games take place during the day!


At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Well stated. I've been a soccer evangelist for years before realizing that people like to slam their door on Jehovah's Witnesses. So it goes. I love soccer for the same reasons you've mentioned and have enjoyed the World Cup so far. But I'm not burdening people with it or calling them ignorant for being, well, ignorant of the tournament's goings-on.

Nicely argued. I really enjoy the blog.


Post a Comment

<< Home