We Still Won’t Be Calling It Football

UPSET in the international sports world, as the USA beats Spain 2-0 in the semifinals of the Confederation Cup.

NYT Story:

When the final whistle blew and the United States had collected one of its greatest soccer victories, defeating Spain, the No. 1 team in the world, the American players ran and jumped into one another’s arms and waved towels. Some removed their jerseys in celebration, and though the temperature was near freezing in the Southern Hemisphere winter, no one seemed to notice as they basked in the warmth of a startling victory.

Wednesday’s 2-0 win in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, built on goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey and by a disciplined and impenetrable defense, halted Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak and gave the European champions their first defeat since November 15, 2006.

Spencer Ackerman:

Although I consider soccer fandom to be highly correlated with a propensity to fire me under bullshit pretexts, Americans of all stripes can come together to celebrate our stunning 2-0 upset victory over Spain. Fuck you, Spain! I hope it hurts. Especially after reading this eloquent story about Federico Garcia Lorca and the inability of Spaniards to reconcile themselves with the brutality of the Franco era. Now hurry up and indict some of our former senior officials.

Bill Kline at Sports Talk

Jay Mariotti at Fanhouse:

They may have our attention now, but to sustain mainstream interest and respect in their own country, the Americans must carry excellence over a long period. Beating Spain won’t change a sports culture wrapped around football, baseball and basketball, with a little Tiger Woods, hockey, tennis and NASCAR involved incrementally. There must be a Square One for soccer after years of failure in trying to build a superpower in this country. Might this be it? Might this spur a boom in which Major League Soccer attracts better and deeper talent, more teenaged kids adopt the sport and America becomes as immersed in the world game like fanatics in other countries? Uh, I don’t think so.

But if Team USA rises to a prominent level on the world stage and stays there, a growth spurt is inevitable. In 2002, the Americans beat Mexico and advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals. Little else has happened since, before Wednesday. “There will ups and downs in any cycle,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “I think this tournament makes that point very clearly. Tonight was a very big up.”

Paul Mirengoff at Powerline

Ole Ole

Left Midfield at Global Futbol

One of the questions that fans of Team USA will be considering in the aftermath of the victory against Spain is whether this is a sign of things to come. Will the US be able to build on the performance and result and compete with Brazil (as long as they do not slip against South Africa) in the final on Sunday? And will the US be able to get to the quarter finals at the World Cup next year (a fair target for a team ranked 14th in the World)?

The answer to both questions is, I think, yes. However, for the US to be successful, particularly at the World Cup next year, they need to continue to develop the fighting qualities on show against Spain, bring in a bit more flair (Freddy Adu and Benny F?) and, at the coaching side of the spectrum, change things using substitutes and tactical shifts.

UPDATE: Via Matt Y, Gary Schmitt

As someone who didn’t play soccer growing up, but had a dad who did and whose own kids played as well, I can say unquestionably that it is the sport in which the team that dominates loses more often than any other major sport I know of. Or, to put it more bluntly, the team that deserves to win doesn’t. For some soccer-loving friends, this is perfectly okay. Indeed, they will argue that it’s a healthy, conservative reminder of how justice does not always prevail in life.

Well, hooey on that. And, thankfully, Americans are not buying it. In spite of the fact that one can drive by an open field on Saturdays and usually see it filled with young boys and girls playing soccer, the game’s popularity has not moved anywhere toward being a major sport here in the United States. It’s grown for sure but not close to where folks once expected it to be given the number of youth that have played the game over the past two decades.

For sure, there may be a number of reasons that is the case but my suspicion is that the so-called “beautiful game” is not so beautiful to American sensibilities. We like, as good small “d” democrats, our underdogs for sure but we also still expect folks in the end to get their just desert. And, in sports, that means excellence should prevail. Of course, the fact that is often not the case when it comes to soccer may be precisely the reason the sport is so popular in the countries of Latin America and Europe.

Alex Massie rebuts:

Well, sure, soccer isn’t threatening the NFL’s supremacy but it’s worth remembering that the 2006 World Cup final drew a bigger television audience in the United States than did baseball’s World Series that year.

For that matter, Schmitt’s contention that soccer favours the underdog “more than any other major sport” is in fact hooey itself. It’s baseball that does that. For instance, West Bromwich Albion, the worst team in the English premiership last season, won just 21% of their matches. But in baseball, even the worst team (hello, Washington Nationals!) can expect to win approximately 30% of their games, while the best teams in baseball will be defeated 40% of the time. That’s because, for all its many splendid qualities, the outcome of a single baseball game owes more to luck than is the case for a given contest in just about any other sport. That’s one reason why the World Series is played over seven games and, for that matter, why the regular season lasts 162 games: it’s designed to minimise randomness and the role of blind chance in the game.

Actually, now that I think of it, it’s perfectly possible to reach the NFL play-offs with a 10-6 record – ie, despite losing 37.5% of your games.

And if we are to talk about sporting meritocracy, we might consider the Darwinian competition enshrined in european sports leages that provide for promotion and relegation and contrast that to the cosy, anti-competitive cartels that run American sports and in which money is diverted from the richest and most successful to the weakest and the mismanaged. (Hello, LA Clippers!).

Matt:

It is worth saying that as best one can tell the degree of competitive balance involved in different sports seems related to the relative scarcity of high-level performers. Soccer and baseball are both sports in which relatively normal sized people can excel if they practice a lot and develop the skills. In other words, there are a lot of people who could be excellent soccer or baseball players. And since these are both popular sports, lots of kids learn them and attempt to excel at them. So pro clubs have a relatively high supply of good players from which to choose and the gaps in team quality get relatively small.

Basketball, the sport with the least competitive balance, is very different. There are instances of guys who are six feet tall (or even shorter) succeeding in the NBA, but they’re very rare. At the majority of the positions you need to be much taller than average, and you need multiple people who are outrageously tall. Ask yourself how many people taller than 6′9″ you’ve met in your life and then ask yourself how many people taller than 6′9″ are employed by a typical NBA team. The result is that you get a huge disparity in the quality of big men available to different teams and consequently huge disparities in team quality. Meanwhile, aside from the USA the other region of the world where basketball really caught on relatively early was Communist-dominated Eastern Europe.

UPDATE #2: Max Bergmann in Huffington Post

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One response to “We Still Won’t Be Calling It Football

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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