Kicking the Soccer Habit
John Tierney, The New York Times/Candide's Notebooks, June 24, 2006
When the American team walked off the field Thursday, knocked out of the World Cup by referees' bad calls, I felt patriotic remorse mixed with selfish relief. No more soccer games to watch: free at last!
I realize I'm not the first American to notice that soccer can be boring, but for most of my life I couldn't admit it. I was one of those proselytizers for the "beautiful game" who bemoaned Americans' parochialism.
I became a fútbol fanatic at the age of 7, when my family moved to Chile and I started playing five hours a day. Then, in 1962, Pelé and other greats came to play in the World Cup. School was let out for a month so we could watch their practices and games. I thought I was hooked for good.
Upon returning to the U.S., I couldn't understand why kids weren't playing soccer. Except for basketball, the other organized sports were a bore. Most players in football leagues had a better chance of getting hurt than of touching the ball.
The worst form of child abuse was Little League. Instead of happily exhausting yourself running around a soccer field, you stood for hours waiting for something to happen — like striking out or dropping a fly ball as adults screamed at you. Then you went home knowing that someone had carefully recorded every mistake for posterity.
So when pro soccer finally came to America, I dragged my friends to the games. As youth soccer became more popular than Little League, I rejoiced and waited for America to catch up with the rest of the world.
But that hasn't happened. Only 4 percent of Americans in a recent Pew poll named soccer as their favorite sport to watch. Baseball was named by 13 percent, basketball by 14 percent and football by 34 percent. Even among young adults, who grew up playing soccer, football is preferred over soccer by a 5-to-1 margin.
Instead of us copying the rest of the world, the rest of the world could learn from us. Maybe they love soccer because they haven't been given better alternatives.
We know that soccer is a joy for kids to play because everybody gets a shot at the ball, the action doesn't stop and nobody pays much attention to the coaches. But that communal free-form game isn't necessarily a joy to watch, especially when nobody's scoring.
Foreigners complain about the continual delays in football and baseball games, but American couch potatoes savor the suspense as well as the chance to see instant replays and debate the next move. They love football above all because it's the perfect game for armchair warriors: the action stops so generals can rearrange defenses and decide whether to order a flanking maneuver or an artillery strike.
With American sports, you see tight close-ups of individual mini-dramas like the center driving to the hoop, the pitcher dueling the batter, the fullback breaking through the line. With soccer, the action is so diffuse that it doesn't fit on the screen, even when the camera is showing the usual panoramic shot featuring players the size of dust mites.
Yes, there are flashes of brilliant improvisation from stars like Ronaldinho, but I've come to think of soccer as a version of the Iliad without the Trojan horse maneuver or the heroic showdowns. You watch the armies going back and forth, but no one breaks through because they keep so many soldiers back on defense.
You can barely pick out Achilles or Hector because they're trapped in the crowd. Occasionally one of them hurls a spear, but it falls harmlessly. When Achilles manages to break through the other line into the open, a referee promptly declares him offside.
After a long, inconclusive afternoon, the ref settles the battle by giving one of them a penalty shot — Hector, of course, since refs favor the home team. Achilles is ordered to take off his armor and stand still so Hector can throw a spear through him from five feet away.
Do I sound bitter? Maybe I wouldn't be so down on soccer if the ref on Thursday had capriciously given the winning penalty kick to the U.S. instead of to Ghana. But what really changed my mind was watching the World Cup for the first time with a TiVo recorder. I finally recognized what my inner fan wanted to do during those long scoreless stretches: hit the fast-forward button.