Friday, June 23, 2006

The Game's Afoot

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. ~J.B. Priestley, 1928

One of the failings of Americans is that we tend to extremes when it comes to what the rest of the world does. At times, we don't like anything domestic whether it be wines, artists, or cars. At other times, we look down our noses at anything that isn't born in the U.S.A. When it comes to sports, we're particularly myopic.

Baseball, football, and basketball are America's sports. Of these, only basketball was actually founded here, what with baseball having its roots in cricket and rounders, while football is an obvious descendant of rugby. We like to think baseball is a big deal around the world, but except for Japan and some of Latin America, it's not played at a very high level. Football is watched in Europe and in one whole game in Japan, but to these people it's more of a curiosity. The site of large men made even larger by high-tech plastic armor seems to fascinate them. As to the game itself, it seems to have a small following outside of the area between our left and right coasts. Basketball, on the other hand, has caught on well in the world, probably for the same reason it has done well in the U.S. You need a ball and a hoop; with just those two implements, you can play for hours on end.

Of course, there's an immense irony to the fact that we now seem unable to beat the rest of the world in the sports we championed for so many years. Well, no one beats us in football because no one plays it. That is, no one plays American football. The entire world plays football, or as we call it, for some reason, soccer.

Soccer, like basketball, requires little in the way of equipment. If you've got an open space, a ball, and something to mark where the goals are, you've got a soccer game. American kids play catch or horse; the rest of world's kids have a kickaround.

It's hard to understand why soccer didn't catch on here. Part of the reason is baseball. Baseball has been our poetic sport, our common denominator, our pastime. During World War II, GI's carried baseball gloves and taped-together balls with them, not footballs. When they met allied troops, all of whom played soccer, there was oddly no trading of places. I don't think was due to any meanness or chauvinism; for each of them, the game they played as kids was the game they loved.

It is odd, though, that soccer does have a large youth following in this country. Huge numbers of kids play in youth leagues all around the nation, but it doesn't seem to translate into a fan base. The reason for this is fuzzy, but, as usual, I have some theories.

  • Theory 1 – The kids love the game, but their parents don't get into it. The parents don't understand the game, and the kids are not likely to do a little backyard practice with Dad. Soccer is just another activity for the kids to participate in. When they're ready for “real” sports, Mom and Dad want them in football, baseball, or basketball.
  • Theory 2 – Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional league, stinks. My dad grew up playing soccer, and he was thrilled when we finally started getting some pro soccer here. But his enthusiasm dimmed when he saw the level of play. The players initially were over-the-hill foreign stars who were unknowns in this country. They never really gelled into good teams. It's been over 30 years and about four leagues since those early attempts at professional soccer, but the game still looks like it's played by guys who haven't been introduced.
  • Theory 3 – When a kid thinks about baseball, football, or basketball, he can dream about making it to the big leagues and emulating his favorite player. There's nowhere to go from youth soccer. Oh, you might play in college, if you're lucky enough to go to a school with a serious program. But, if you're a good player, your dream would be to play in Europe, where the money and the fame is, not in the anonymity of the MSL. But, there's no direct route to playing on the foreign teams, so they switch their dreams to the home sports.
  • Theory 4 – All that kids hear from so-called sports authorities in this country is that soccer is dull. Well, so are football, baseball, and basketball if you don't understand the games. Soccer is a little more subtle, and American networks really don't know how to televise it, which doesn't help any. In our sports broadcasts, we like closeups; we focus on individual players. This tendency even detracts from our own sports. For example, in baseball, fielders are shifting with every pitch, but you see little of this on ESPN, Fox, or ABC. Add to this the blocking of screen real estate with useless overlays during play, and it's a miracle if you can find the ball, much less see players at the wings breaking for the goal. If you watch European coverage of soccer, most of the time you see a broad view of the action, which is good, because a lot of the game's motion is away from the ball. Most of soccer's detractors, though, have never watched good soccer and don't intend to. It's easier to put the game down than it is to try to understand it.

The truth of the matter probably encompasses parts of all of these theories, but the ignorance factors in Theories 1 and 4 figure heavily. I listened to some boob this morning who, after giving lip service to the pending U.S.-Ghana game (we lost), went on about how dull the game is, how complex the tie breakers are, how the World Cup takes so long and how, geez, they only have it every four years. His partner sarcastically said something about how it's the most popular game in the world, as if the rest of the planet was unimportant compared to us.

Well, Noodle Brains, you see, it's the World Cup. There are 205 eligible nations, most of which you probably haven't heard of, that have spent the previous three years trying to get into the tournament. And an awful lot of them are a whole lot better at the game than we are. Yeah, yeah, the U.S. team, made up of a lot of people with rather foreign-sounding names, was highly ranked. When the chips were down, they were merely rank. While idiots like you have been sneering about what the rest of the world thinks is a great game, they've continued to be better at it than us while starting to best us at baseball and basketball. Thankfully, the rest of the world doesn't think enough of American football to play that, or we'd probably be getting beaten by Croatia at that, too.

Oh, by the way, anyone who will spend twenty minutes explaining the NFL wild-card tiebreakers, as these dimwits did every Monday morning last December, should not be complaining about the World Cup's rules. The U.S. tax code is simpler than the NFL formulas.

I like our football, baseball, and some of our basketball (the NBA can go suck eggs), but I like soccer, too. I'm not about to ignore a great game just because it's not one of our games.

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