Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On soccer

Soccer is the world'’s most popular sport. The usual reasons given to account for this are: the game is simple, the game is cheap, the game can be played anywhere. If for some reason you are assigned to write an essay that explains why soccer is the game played around the globe, use these three points as the foundation of your argument and you will have a good essay. If you are assigned to write an essay that explains why soccer is the game watched around the world, use these three points as the foundation of your argument and you will have a bad essay.

Part of the problem lies in the assignment. In North America, soccer is widely played but rarely viewed, analyzed, and scrutinized as intensely as it is in Europe, South America, and Africa. "Soccer in the suburbs serves mostly as bridge between Barney and Nintendo," Jeffrey Toobin writes in The New Yorker, "it's a pleasant diversion." After Sunday'’s World Cup final, which is expected to be the most watched event in human history, many people, not just in North America but all over the world, will not watch another professional soccer game until 2010, when the next World Cup starts in South Africa.

And yet plenty of people, most of them male, will watch hundreds, even thousands of games over the next four years. And they won't be watching these games because they are simple, cheap, and can be played anywhere. "The ball is the round. The game lasts 90 minutes. That's a fact. Everything else is pure theory." So says a strange man at the beginning of a strange and terrific German film called Run Lola Run, a line borrowed from Sepp Herberger, who coached Germany to their 1954 World Cup victory. The strange man and Herberger are right, but miss the larger point about the game from a fan's perspective: it's the theory that makes it interesting.

Because soccer cannot be statistically analyzed in the same way as baseball, football, or even basketball, the debates surrounding it are more philosophical. Is attacking soccer better than defensive soccer if a defensive style is more likely to win games? If you put too many stars on the field, does your chance of winning actually decrease? What's the best time to make a substitution? These debates are endless, but they continue to rage anyway.

The best soccer commentators debate and discuss their chosen sport with poetic eloquence. On Sunday, this year's World Cup will end. The final in Berlin will see a dynamic and hard-working Italian side playing against the classy and experienced French. When discussing soccer, "“dynamic"” and "“classy"” are perfectly apt words for describing a team. When discussing soccer, we may use "side"” in place of "team." When talking about soccer, we may call soccer "“football."

History and global politics tie in as well, especially at the World Cup, where colonies face their former rulers and countries that once waged war on each other do battle on the pitch. Much of the language used by commentators is warlike: "strike," "attack," "defend," "resistance." Pele called soccer the beautiful game, but often it is anything but. A nil-nil draw can be like the First World War: lots of battles with little territory lost or gained and a lot of beat up bodies at the end.

Goals come rarely and we could argue that this is one of the reasons the sport isn't popular in the States: Americans are used to having all of their urges gratified instantly. It's the same thing in film. In America, we want action and payoffs. In Europe, the story is what's in between. The same thing applies to soccer.

I watched more games this World Cup than ever before, after watching more club play and Champions League games than ever before. You might think that I could use a break from the game, but you'd be wrong. I want more. More, more, more. Because although the game might not always be beautiful, it's always fascinating.

4 Comments:

Blogger snoop said...

i don't know why everyone has moved onto blogger...it was so 4 years ago. but i enjoy reading your rants nevertheless and am so excited/envious/curious for/of/about you/your life. plz wave hello to the ocean for me. and you owe me an email. there's something amazing about getting a letter, even tho it is an email, from a friend on the other side of the country. it keeps me company at work.

6:39 PM  
Blogger M-C said...

Sorry I missed this post at the time. That's a problem with moving blogs.

It is truly an inspirational game. Though I'd make a few points about things that have lessened the meaning of the world cup.

1) With Europe's richest clubs having the best players in the world, a Ronaldino, Messi and Puyol can all play for the same team for years.

Can we then expect national teams to have a true rivalry when playing against their friends? There was way too much hugging and laughing going on during games. In one sense it was touching to see the french and italians playing a good-spirited match (save for the infamous moment in extra time) but on the other hand, I want to know that these guys are as serious about winning for their country as they are when they're getting paid.

So there's another debate at the domestic level. I think there should be some kind of cap put on foreign players or a minimum cap for domestics. An English club like Arsenal fielding a completely non-English starting 11 is ridiculous.

The other thing that must be addressed at all levels of soccer is players telling referees to show cards. The refs need to crack down on players trying to influence their decision by giving them cards. They're there to play, not referee the game.

5:11 PM  
Blogger clifford d said...

half thought, but come on, that's the circumstances surrounding most international level competions of most any sport, when all countries draw the majority of their players from the same elite professional league.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:42 PM  

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