Bill Shankly, the legendary former manager of Liverpool Football Club, was once asked if soccer was a life and death matter. His answer: “Listen, it’s more important than that.” And so it is for the entire world. The entire world, that is, except the United States.
There’s no getting around it–America has never taken to the world’s most popular sport, and this year’s World Cup was no different. A Rasmussen Poll revealed only 6 percent of Americans followed this quadrennial rite of summer “very closely.” Indeed, twice as many Americans watched the national spelling bee as took in America’s opening match against the Czech Republic.
Soccer’s failure to catch on in this otherwise sports-crazed country has long been a subject of debate. As I see it, there are three main reasons why.
First, there’s “flopping”–the appalling, if comical, act where a player falls to the ground and clutches his knee with pained expression after the slightest bit of contact with an opponent, all in the hopes of winning a penalty kick or getting his counterpart sent off. Sure American sports have their floppers. The NBA had Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman, and you’ll occasionally see an NFL kicker recoil a bit too dramatically from an opposing player’s attempted block. But in soccer, flopping has become something of an institution, which may be, as ESPN’s Bill Simmons warns, “the one thing that will keep soccer from ever, ever, ever becoming a bon a fide force in this country.”
A second problem is the penalty shoot-out. If two teams play to a tie, each selects five players to alternatively attempt to kick the ball past the goalie at pointblank range. The team that steers the most balls through the goal wins the match.
The penalty shoot-out is the soccer equivalent of deciding the NBA finals with a free-throw contest or settling the Masters by moving off the course and over to the putt-putt green.
Most infuriating is that soccer league games, and even the early round tournament matches, don’t include the shoot-out. It’s only when the games become really important that this arbitrary tiebreaker comes into play. This year, three of the final seven games, including the final, were decided by shoot-outs.
America’s most common criticism of soccer is that there’s not enough scoring and that too much game time goes by without much happening. National Review Online‘s Geoffrey Norman likened taking in a soccer match to watching a game of chess.
While there is some substance to the “not enough scoring” argument (From the quarterfinals on, the 1954 World Cup averaged 6.1 goals a game. This year the average was 1.9 goals a game.), there are at least as many reasons for America to like soccer as to dismiss it.
Leaving aside soccer’s non-stop action (and no commercials!), virtually every soccer analyst acknowledges that America could be the best. This year, the U.S. ranked fifth in the world, and we’ve been in the top 10 for years. Now imagine if our top young athletes–instead of playing football, baseball and basketball–all grew up aspiring to be world class soccer stars, as kids from virtually every other country do. Ghana wouldn’t stand a chance!
Even more, soccer can be a powerful diplomatic tool, a global common language that calms tensions in the world. This year, both Angola and Ivory Coast called off civil wars to concentrate on the World Cup. What better way to enhance the prestige and standing of America than to take part in the global game.
Some writers have gone to ridiculous lengths to explain America’s coolness towards soccer. In the Weekly Standard, Richard Lessner and Frank Cannon philosophized that, “a game about nothing in which scoring is purely incidental holds scant interest for Americans who still believe the world makes sense, that life has a larger meaning and structure, that being is not an end in itself.” Others chastise our views on soccer as American parochialism at it worst, and bemoan short attention-spanned Americans inability to appreciate “The Beautiful Game.”
But all the hyperbole is misspent, because in the end it’s not hatred that defines American sentiment toward the world’s most popular game but, rather, indifference. For the game that enthralls the rest of the world will, for now, remain something less than a “life and death matter” in America.
Daniel Allott writes from Washington, D.C.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire