Trompler Foundation Archives

The Bedeviling Game

As a American and a soccer fan, I am constantly wracked by the problem of American indifference to soccer.  This problem only seems to matter to anyone else once every four years, when the American sports media rouse themselves to notice that the rest of the world isn’t hanging onto every micro-drama of the NBA and NHL finals but is instead re-consecrating its faith in the global pageant of theomachy known as the World Cup.

Even when the U.S. team performs well (or well relative to informed expectations), American interest in the tournament over which millions worldwide obsess, exult, and murder is routinely feeble.  Articles appear either defending or decrying American indifference to the World Cup and soccer in general, all with some theory to explain why a culture absurdly successful at embracing and assimilating all others has failed to digest soccer.  I, personally, am given many occasions in which I am expected to explain why Americans don’t care about the World Cup and why they should.  In hope of better arming myself for these encounters, I have surveyed the Conventional Wisdom and established some premises.  I did not, however, conclude where I had hoped I might.

Not all articles featured genuine efforts at explanation; many disdainers of soccer take refuge in America’s willful ignorance of foreign matters and resort to myopic humor.  Similarly, many rabid soccer fans find themselves unable to precisely articulate why they go without sleep to watch a tournament frequently removed by several time zones; "you either get it or you don’t" is their unhelpful conclusion.

Then there are the crackpot theories, often put forth, one suspects, merely to provoke outrage; I have read that the sports media have conspired not to widely broadcast soccer lest it ruin Major League Baseball (which seems to retain the ability to threaten to ruin itself on cue).  I have also read that the rest of the world doesn’t really like soccer and would happily switch to baseball or (American) football if they could only afford the equipment.

The most common charge leveled against soccer by Americans is that it is boring.  Long before the "Death of Irony," this canard was unabashedly circulated by people who also happen to passionately follow baseball.  This argument is neither inarticulate nor disingenuous, but it does fail to recognize that all sports require an investment of time to appreciate the drama and beauty of refined skill married to rare talent.

The articles which most drew my interest were those purporting to minimize the author’s personal opinion (there is no such thing as a disinterested article on soccer; even those most assured of other sports’ superiority cannot seem to help "stooping" to bash it) and to find cogent, supportable explanations for the paucity of soccer passion in America.  Such articles fell into two rough categories:  those predicting an "inevitable" transformation of American culture to admit soccer and laying out the process by which this will occur, and those confident of soccer’s "un-Americanness" and demonstrating the insuperable obstacles to soccer’s ascendance.

In the "inevitable" camp, frequent mention is made of the ubiquity of youth soccer programs in the U.S.  One argument here is that one will more likely follow a sport that one has played oneself.  I am aware of plenty of anecdotal evidence both in support of and in refutation of that argument, but in the end it just doesn’t jibe with my experience of why serious fans follow the sports they do.  If anything, the intimate familiarity that comes with participation in a sport may serve to demystify and deglamorize it when watching others practice it.

A more salient point can be found in the dominance of the U.S. in women’s soccer.  As has been conclusively shown, this is the direct result of the effect of Title IX on women’s college athletics.  Like MLS, WUSA is not yet a profitable enterprise.  I doubt that women’s soccer suffers any more than any other women’s sport in attracting fans, but it is unique in that its star players, already having had to overcome great adversity to achieve their place, are asked to lend their prestige to promote their male counterparts.  Soccer detractors assert that this very dominance by the women’s game diminishes soccer’s attraction both to fans and to male players.  This is spurious; attempts at establishing men’s soccer have been tried and failed long before Title IX or WUSA.  The U.S. will likely remain the premier power in women’s soccer for a generation, but I suspect that U.S. men’s soccer will have to succeed (whether defined by a "successful" MLS or a "respectable" U.S. World Cup performance) on its own.

It is left to the "un-American" camp to delineate the significant barriers to entry into the market for American sports dollars.  Despite the facts that the MLS season overlaps with the MLB season and that soccer appears to share with baseball a certain pastoral languor, soccer's primary rival in the U.S., historically and economically, has been American football (hereafter "football").  Football and soccer (and rugby) started out as outdoor autumn college sports in the 20s and 30s.  The competition for national attention available via radio and then television, supplemented by the post-war boost in educational funding, was swiftly won by football.  This one-time convergence of the introduction of a new medium (television) and financing (state-underwritten college athletics) has given football an advantage that persists to this day.

A friend of mine and a fellow advocate of wider American acceptance of soccer has a theory of perception that reinforces soccer’s economic disadvantage.  This perception is of soccer as a prep-school sport, as a sport of privilege.  Everywhere else in the world, soccer is the working man’s sport and for young men it is a route out of poverty.  In the U.S., football has traditionally filled this role.  Ironically, given football’s large amount of equipment and specialization of players, developing football players is much more expensive than developing soccer players.  In the American sports ecology, the niche for a sport requiring a low investment in equipment and enjoying a culture of street games and class mobility is filled by basketball.  With their entrenched high school and college development programs, football and basketball leave little room for soccer to emerge as an alternative for ambitious, talented young athletes in America.

As I contemplated why college football became a career path and college soccer became a dilettantes’ game, I was reminded of American complaints about soccer that it is too low-scoring and that there are too many draws.  I began to make observations about the philosophies defined by the rules of the different sports and inhabited by the fans who follow them.  I tentatively reached the conclusion that soccer might be a bit "un-American" after all.

My theory turns on the celebrated American notion of perfectibility.  When you meet a challenge, you keep your cool, work the problem, and cover every contingency.  This is the confidence that every problem has a knowable solution and that success in life will go to those who study most thoroughly and work most diligently.  This is the philosophy behind Henry Ford, Operation Overlord, the S.A.T., and Apollo 11.  It is also the philosophy of Vince Lombardi.  The rules of football are explicitly designed to reward the team that has best trained its players (all 45!) to perform in their specialized positions and execute a complex game plan compiled from hundreds of detailed plays.  There is room in football for talent, heroics, and even genius, but they are far outweighed by preparation and teamwork, the virtues that have defined the American Century.

Soccer, by contrast, tolerates imprecision to a degree would appall football fans.  Referees make influential calls without the "benefit" of instant replay, substitutes are not permitted for injury or ejection, and the precise amount of time left in game periods is known only to the referee.  More frustratingly, well-executed plays in soccer often have no result; a successful penetration of the defense, requiring a dozen or more feats of skill and talent, may be for naught as the shot goes wide or hits the post.  To the outrage of football fans, this "failure" will be applauded by soccer fans in recognition of the role played by luck.  The fan of a defeated football team may examine his team’s statistics and note the discrepancy between third-down conversions and points scored, but only with an eye towards improving future performance.  The soccer fan, however, will rewatch "successful" attacks that barely missed the goal and, despite the fact that his team didn’t win, dwell on the fact that they "created more chances;" that is, they did all they could in a fickle universe.

This difference in philosophy also applies to the way football and soccer approach ties.  College football permits ties (ostensibly out of concern over injury and fatigue to young players), but it also permits the two-point conversion to decrease the likelihood that roughly equal success at scoring will result in precisely equal scores.  Soccer tables award three points for a win and one point each to teams that draw; in the long European soccer seasons (36-44 matches), this method produces valid rankings.  When MLS was established in 1996, it was felt that Americans wouldn’t accept ties so frequently, and so they adopted the deservedly-reviled shootout, elsewhere reserved only for single-elimination tournaments such as the second round of the World Cup, to resolve all ties.  Even the most devout soccer fans regard the shootout as a kludge, a distasteful artifact of single-elimination (most annual national and regional tournaments employ home-and-away aggregate scoring for the lower brackets and use single-elimination only for the final), so the MLS all-shootout policy did little to attract new American fans and only alienated the base of pre-MLS American soccer fans.  The punishing nature of football prohibits a season long enough to admit ties and yield decisive ranking (let alone the twice-weekly playing requirements of participating in league matches as well as national and regional tournaments met by soccer clubs), but football teams have deeper personnel charts (only ¼ of the team plays at a time) and unlimited substitution.

Americans demand clear winners, and in football they have created a system which minimizes the effects of such "impurities" as injury, fatigue, referee error, wealth disparities, crowd noise (!), and, of course, luck.  This reflects the American belief in justice as a human construct, limited in perfectibility only by our determination.  Soccer culture is a crucible of faith, punishing the hubris of both players and fans, and occasionally blessing the unlikeliest of teams.  Halfway through the 2002 World Cup, several favorites are facing elimination and defending champion France has been sent packing without scoring a single goal.  Articles are thick with explanations such as the longer European season and the unfamiliar Asian climate, but longtime soccer fans know the truth:  in soccer, particularly in high-pressure tournaments like the World Cup, shit happens.  This sentiment is not unknown to Americans, but they prefer not to see too much of it in their sport.

As an American and a soccer fan, I am bedeviled by this sport that flouts the virtues I admire.  My role models have all been sober men and women who believed that, given where to stand, they could move the earth.  I have followed football chronically since the age of six, never expecting to play, but feeling as at home in its methodical campaigns as in my studies of the American contribution to World War II, in which I also felt no personal participation.  I played soccer at age nine, and while I ultimately rejected athleticism for myself, prior to this rejection was a bafflement at how to approach the "fundamentals" of soccer.  Dexterous ball-control was not on offer, and whether a tackle was legitimate seemed intolerably subjective; speed and endurance were the only visible virtues.  While I retained my facility for evaluating football games, soccer matches were mysterious theatre.

I admit that my return to soccer as an adult was partially a reaction against the solipsism that is responsible for American ignorance of much of the world.  Out of this reaction is borne the hope that soccer might someday be widely accepted by Americans, as a refutation of that ignorance.  But there is a darker, more primal current to my attraction to soccer:  a nigh-religious default on my obligation to understand the universe.  When a soccer fan gives himself over to a team, his soul becomes the plaything of demigods and Fates; truly divine beauty can lift him to rapture, and without warning he can be cast into pits of ignominious despair.  He does not honestly evaluate his team’s place in the cosmos and hope for a fair result; he gathers with others of his tribe and watches his team attack and defend, with no earthly knowledge of their chances, and is saved or damned by the outcome.  He is pre-Rational.

Subjecting oneself to such experiences seems to me to be more than a matter of acquired taste, such as appreciating aged Camembert or Bergman films.  American optimism has achieved so much, but at times the naïveté becomes stale and rancid; the saturnine outlook that comes from weathering a season of soccer is often the only mature response to a world fraught with injustice and misfortune.  But if I believe, as I do, that the U.S. has the potential to win a World Cup, should I not be encouraging every sporting American to do everything necessary to bring it about?  In identifying soccer’s incompatibility with what I perceive to be the American character, am I not simply giving more ammunition to soccer’s professional detractors (a group I roundly despise)?  Such is my quandary.  I want the U.S. to win a World Cup, and I want American soccer players to find equitable reward, professionally and financially, in playing in the U.S.  This requires greater support for college and professional soccer, but I cannot represent to my fellow Americans that, once they "understood" soccer, they would (all) enjoy it as much as they enjoy football or basketball.

There may be a World Cup championship in America’s future, and MLS (or one of its successors) may someday turn a profit (or at least become as "viable" as the NFL).  If such things come to pass, it will be due in part to patient preparation and tireless education by soccer supporters.  I am resigned, however, to the fact that such achievments will almost certainly have much more to do with dumb, inscrutable luck.

Copyright © 2002 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.