“Are You Ready For Some Futbol?!?”

TNR’s world cup blog

Jonathan Last:

It’s happening again.

The most puzzling part of anti-American soccer obsession is that it’s not like Americans don’t like the game of soccer. We all play it at the youth level and–for the most part–have a good time. It’s just that we graduate up to other sports and don’t have much of an appetite for soccer played at the elite level.

And what’s wrong with that? Our interest level in soccer is the mirror image of our interest level in football, which, comparatively few people play at the youth level, but which has great popularity at the professional level.

But the thing is, you never hear football–or baseball, or ultimate frisbee, or tennis, or cycling, or hockey, or curling–or any other kind of fans railing against people who don’t share their passion as if there’s something morally and politically wrong with them. Why is it that soccer fans care so much about what American’s don’t care about?

We’ll never know.

Will at The League:

But despite the thoroughly artificial media blitz surrounding the World Cup and the obnoxious social signaling that goes into American soccer fandom, I’m really looking forward to the tournament. So I thought I’d take a stab at explaining how soccer differs from American sports and why I find its distinctiveness so enjoyable.

Lumping team sports together is a chancy business, but I think there is one important commonality between football, baseball and, to a lesser extent, basketball that distinguishes them from soccer. All three American sports are characterized by short, action-packed intervals followed or preceded by pauses – an inbounds pass that leads to an easy dunk; a pitch that results in a strike that ends an inning; an end-zone reception immediately following a thirty second pause. This is not to say there aren’t fluid sequences in American sports – witness fast-break basketball or baseball’s hallowed triple play. But American teams usually see action in short, frenetic bursts instead of the slower build-up of a good soccer match.

To an outsider, the notion that a two hour football game only consists of 11 minutes of televised action must seem absurd. At its best, however, the pauses accentuate tension and allow for more elaborate plays, more back-and-forth adjustments between the teams’ respective coaches, and a level of athletic execution that would be impossible in a less controlled, faster-paced environment. For the most part, this is a trade-off I can accept. To take another example from American sports, good pitching duels include plenty of pregnant pauses. I don’t think this detracts from the action so much as it heightens the tension of athletic competition.

Soccer has fewer pauses, fewer substitutions, and no timeouts. As a consequence, the manager (coach) has very little opportunity to pause or direct in-game play. Soccer also tends to be more spontaneous, more dynamic, and less scripted. While physical contact or bad execution will sometimes slow the game down to an unbearable pace, the rules of soccer allow for a level of fluidity that would be impossible in an American context (transition-oriented basketball is the only exception I can think of, but that’s  still broken up by frequent timeouts, inbound passes, and the tempo of the opposing team). The build-up to the first Dutch goal in the 1974 World Cup final is a classic example of soccer’s distinctive style – despite a slow start, the Dutch control the ball for over a minute before Johan Cruyf streaks through the defense to draw a penalty kick.

Maybe the contrast between the short, frenetic play of American athletes and the fluid build-up of a European soccer match offers some insight into our respective cultural psyches. But I suspect a more fluid style of play already appeals to American sports audiences. Fast-paced, transition-oriented basketball was the calling card of Magic Johnson and the Showtime-era Lakers. A quarterback-directed hurry-up offense is often the most exciting part of a football match. So if you like fast-paced team competition, give soccer a try. But if the World Cup isn’t your thing, I won’t hold it against you.

Daniel Gross at Slate:

Being a soccer fan at World Cup time in America is a little like being Jewish in December in a small town in the Midwest. You sense that something big is going on around you, but you’re not really a part of it. And the thing you’re celebrating and enjoying is either ignored or misunderstood by your friends, peers, and neighbors. It can be a lonely time. But the World Cup is much bigger than Christmas. After all, only a couple of billion people in the world celebrate Christmas; the World Cup is likely to garner the attention of a much larger audience. Yet in the world’s largest and most important sports competition, the American team, and the American audience, is a marginal, bit player. And for those of us who love the game of soccer and the World Cup, and for the few of us who followed the ups and downs of Landon Donovan’s career, these next couple weeks are likely to be bittersweet.

[...]

Oh, sure, you can find other enthusiasts. A few Slate colleagues pass around YouTube links to the latest sick goal. Urban hipsters are obliged to show some interest in the game, the same way they do in CSAs, and facial hair (for men) and yoga (for women). On the Internet, there’s the high-brow crew over at the New Republic, (which features an ad for a book from Cornell University press on Spartak Moscow), the fine blogs No Short Corners and Yanks Abroad, and a rising volume of press coverage. But there’s nothing like the volume and sophistication of stuff our frères at Slate.fr are doing. If you want to follow the game, wince with every missed shot, and question coach Bob Bradley’s personnel choices, you’ll have to venture into the fever swamps of BigSoccer.com. There you will find some people who live and die with status updates of defender Oguchi Onyewu’s knee. But they’re only avatars.

Following the U.S. national team in the World Cup is a somewhat solitary endeavor in part because the scheduling doesn’t lend itself to social or family watching. Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup is not scheduled or televised according to U.S. preferences—the last time the quadrennial tournament was staged in the Western hemisphere was 1994. To watch the United States’ opening game in the 2002 World Cup, I had to go to the Irish pub across from my New York apartment at 4 a.m. This year the schedule is only slightly better: this Saturday against England at 2:30 p.m. ET, Friday, June 18, against Slovenia at 10 a.m. ET, then Wednesday, June 23, at 10 a.m. ET, against Algeria. Yes, pubs and sports bars will be showing the games. But how many people will leave work, or take the day off, or skip the Little League game or pool party, to sit indoors and watch a soccer match? My guess is that when the U.S. plays England, the bars in New York and Los Angeles will be like Condé Nast in the 1990s—overrun with Brits.

I won’t be there. On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be at a family gathering, one at which I’m confident nobody will be checking scores or talking about the potentially epic matchup with England. I’ll have to tape it and watch it later, most likely alone. At least I’m confident none of my close friends or family members will call, e-mail, or text me with scores or updates, and that I can safely listen to the radio without the result intruding. On the other hand, I might have to shut off my Twitter feed. I follow a few foreigners.

Matthew Philbin at Newsbusters:

Time magazine is leading the “Ole’s” for soccer this year, putting the World Cup on its cover and dedicating 10 articles to the sport in its June 14 issue.

One of those articles proclaimed in the headline, “Yes, Soccer Is America’s Game.” Author Bill Saporito argued that “soccer has become a big and growing sport.”

“What’s changed is that this sport and this World Cup matter to Americans,” Saporito asserted. “These fans have already made the transition from soccer pioneers to soccer-literate and are gradually heading down the road to soccer-passionate.”

Soccer is even in the White House, Saporito pointed out. President George W. Bush was a former co-owner of a baseball team. And although President Obama played basketball, his daughters play little league soccer, and current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs played soccer in high school and college.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on June 3, host Joe Scarborough noted the importance of the World Cup to other countries, but explained that Americans just don’t understand “what a huge sport this is.” Still, he said hopefully, “It is a growing sport in America as well, isn’t it?”

Growing, but not “huge” by any standard. The final game of the 2006 World Cup drew 16.9 million viewers in the United States. While that number may seem respectable, it pales in comparison with the 106 million viewers that tuned in to watch the 2010 Super Bowl. The final 2009 World Series game drew 22.3 million viewers, and 48.1 million tuned in to watch Duke beat Butler in the 2010 NCAA men’s college basketball championship.

A look at game attendance figures is instructive, as well. According to Major League Soccer’s MLS Daily, as of June 7, 2010, the highest drawing pro soccer team, the Seattle Sounders, averaged 36,146 attendees over seven home games. Conversely, the Seattle Mariners baseball team has averaged 25,314 over 32 home games.

The Mariners are dead last in the American League West division, and 24th in the league in batting average, 30th in home runs, 27th in RBIs and 25th in number of hits. In short, they’re horrible. With a record of 4-5-3, the Sounders aren’t very good either, but they play in a very liberal city, are currently benefiting from World Cup year interest in their sport, and they play a schedule that allows far fewer opportunities for fans to attend.

Another number is Hollywood box office. John Horn of The Los Angeles Times contemplated on June 6 about Hollywood’s lack of a mainstream movie about soccer. In “Why is There No Great Hollywood Soccer Movie?” Horn pointed out that each sport has its own hit movie except soccer.

Robert Costa at The Corner:

When it comes to soccer, I’ll quote Churchill: America, it seems, still has “sublime disinterestedness.”

Michael Agovino at The Atlantic:

During this World Cup, I know there will be kids like me from the Bronx—a soccer wasteland in 1980s; a wasteland period, to some—watching this strange new game and devouring it. Where is Valladolid? Vigo? Bilbao? Cameroon? El Salvador? Algeria? Why does Algeria wear green, Italy blue? Why is it Glasgow Celtic and not the Celtics? Where’s this team Flamengo? Or Corinthians? Why is that skinny man with the beard named Socrates?

They’ll be some curious 14-year-old or 12-year-old or 10-year-old (kids seem so much smarter these days) and maybe they’ll start by bugging their parents for a Kaizer Chiefs jersey. Then, better still, they’ll get the atlas off the shelf, or more likely online, and trace their finger on the computer screen and look for Polokwane and Bloemfontein and Tshwane. Maybe it will take them to the photography of David Goldblatt or to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim (no room for him at the concert last night I suppose), or of the late Lion of Soweto himself, Mahlathini. (Don’t laugh, my first encounter with Joan Miro and Antoni Tapies were from 1982 World Cup posters.) Maybe they’ll learn that the “word,” long ago, was “Johannesburg!”

And they’ll ask questions—why is this stadium named for Peter Mokaba, that one for Moses Mabhida, and who is Nelson Mandela? And they’ll learn and they’ll be obsessed for life.

And that makes me do one thing: smile. Now, may the games begin.

UPDATE: Dave Zirin at NPR

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

James Fallows

UPDATE #2: Daniel Drezner

UPDATE #3: Stefan Fatsis at Slate

Jonathan Chait at TNR

UPDATE #4: Marc Thiessen at Enterprise Blog

Matt Yglesias on Thiessen

UPDATE $5: Bryan Curtis and Eve Fairbanks at Bloggingheads

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Are You Ready For Some Futbol?!?”

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

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