I know. You have heard it before. You heard it in 2010, 2002, and especially in 1994. It’s a notion that swells every four years as soccer’s best players boot up for the World Cup, and America’s gaze shifts ever so slightly from the box scores of last night’s baseball game to team USA’s quest to escape the group stages. It is the sentiment that soccer is almost there and it will soon be popular in America. It seems that it just gets repeated without every quite becoming a reality, but now in 2012, with only the modest bump provided by the US Women’s run in the Olympics, it is time to make the case that soccer really should be popular in America.
In the spirit of complete transparency, I should admit that I am a recent soccer convert. I only played soccer as an elementary schooler, switching over to football once my parents allowed it, and continued to play football into college (where I was terrible and didn’t even last a full season). My sports world revolved around college football and the NFL, and the occasional playoff run by my hometown baseball and hockey teams. Soccer was nowhere in my sports pantheon.
All of that changed in 2010 when ESPN put every World Cup game online. As an office drone with minimal oversight, I found myself putting on the games in the background most of my work days throughout the tournament. I was even in Mexico for my honeymoon during the latter stages and got swept up in country’s World Cup fever. I saw Landon Donovan resurrect team USA against Algeria and that was it. I started doing some research into the Premier League, adopted Liverpool as my team, joined a local soccer club, started playing weekly indoor soccer, and became a (relatively sane) fanatic.
Soccer fandom is no longer limited to insufferable anglophiles, or the preppy former travel-team players. Soccer fans are mostly like me, former football/baseball guys that fell in love with the beautiful game. But what exactly led me to forsake my traditional sporting interests and throw myself completely in to this new world of soccer? Should other people do the same? I believe that there are four simple reasons why soccer really should be of interest to Americans.
It’s not boring, really.
This is the most common misconception about the sport that was probably cemented by the Sportscenter/highlight culture. It is easier to cut a clip of a home run or long touchdown pass than it is to highlight the endless six yard passes of tiki taka. But it could not be further from the truth. Soccer gets a bad rap because it often seems like players continually make back pass after back pass, never pressing or moving forward in any real way, but really anything can happen on even the simplest of passes.
If you weren’t aware of the basic strategies of (american) football, you might wonder why teams give the ball to the running back who then immediately slams into the middle of a whole pile of defenders and falls forward for a yard. Why not just throw the ball deep? That is how you score points, right? But knowing that inside running plays are used to set up play action passes and counter-sweeps that can go for big yards is the whole reason that fans suffer through another dive stopped for no gain. They know that there is a strategy that will (hopefully) pay dividends down the line.
The same is true in soccer. ESPN’s premier soccer commentator Sir Ian Dark often uses the expression that an attacker is trying to “pick the lock” of the defense, and I think that is the most accurate description of a proper attacking philosophy. Teams have to tinker and pull back when the defense adjusts to a particular strategy, and often the best way to counter that is to hoof it backwards, switch fields of play, and start the build-up from a different part of the pitch. A good team picks their spots, lest they be left exposed to a quick counterattack. If you see a couple of center-backs passing it back and forth a couple of times while proceeding nowhere, you can bet the midfielders and the forwards are off the screen jostling for position, or a winger may be timing a run up the outside waiting for a delivery. But either way, there is a strategy to it.
Even if the pace seems labored, one thing that soccer has on most other sports is that the action is literally non-stop. In a typical NFL broadcast, the actual play takes up eleven minutes of a three hour broadcast. Eleven minutes! Seventy five percent of a broadcast shows players in a huddle or just standing at the line of scrimmage. And honestly, does Big Papi need to adjust his gloves after every pitch? What could possibly be more entertaining than a sporting event that does not stop for either commercials or injuries.
Now, I know what you are going to say… that soccer players are prima donnas that feign injury and act like they have been shot by a sniper anytime a defender brushes past them. That it is hard to respect these guys when even Donovan McNabb once played a football game with a broken leg. But before you snicker, witness the gruesome possibilities of the game and ask yourself if it is really any different from basketball?
And remember that most of these “injuries” happen towards the end of the 90 minutes when most players have run ten to twelve miles, some of them at dead sprints. Everyone could use a water break. It’s an essential part of the action when players can’t rely on TV time outs to catch their breath.
But the real reason that soccer is so damn entertaining is that players are capable of doing absurd things at any moment. One moment a player looks boxed in by the defense ready to make a safe backpass, and the next, he is launching a wonder volley off the inside of the goalpost.
The history is staggering
England’s Football Association (The FA) was founded during the American Civil War and continues to act as the sport’s governing body in England today. The FA runs a yearly tournament known as the FA Cup that has been handed out continuously since 1871. The English clubs have remarkable histories, most of them tracing their roots back local pub or neighborhood teams over a century ago. Liverpool has been long considered (until recently) the most successful club in English history, and it has a long and tortured history of triumph and tragedy. That includes countless trophies, and the blood of innocents. Really.
Now it’s easy to imagine the passions that can be evoked by supporters when teams are passed down through five or more generations. Take the city of Milan: AC Milan was formed by British expatriates in 1899, and internal disagreements led to a group of players defecting and founding Internazionale a few years later. Now, both Milan clubs can lay claim to being some of the most successful clubs in soccer and run one of the most intense rivalries in sport. Imagine the animosity that brews in the city between the rival supporters when they have a full one hundred years of bad blood and strife between them.
It is best compared to the pageantry and history that is college football with the Auburn/Alabama and Ohio State/Michigan rivalries, but then again, no college football team has been banned from an entire continent because of their fan’s behavior. So really, there is nothing quite like the historical weight that soccer supporters carry around with them on their sleeves and on their scarves. I don’t ever recall seeing the Swamp look quite like this:
The characters are immensely entertaining
“Why Always Me?” might seem like a reasonable question, but it is especially poignant when it is asked by a towering Italian striker with a penchant for setting off fireworks in his bathroom and driving into women’s prisons. The oversized personalities in the world of football are simply stunning. The NFL has had their share of goof balls (see: Ochocino, Chad and Owens, Terrell) but have they ever had someone declare that they want to change teams because their city doesn’t have any good restaurants? Or has the NBA had to have one of their best players put on a club-mandated diet and placed under 24 hour surveillance to make sure he isn’t sneaking off to a Burger King?
The ceiling on unintended humor is absolutely limitless when dealing with these millionaire man-children. I am just surprised that the BBC hasn’t commissioned a reality show centered on Wayne Rooney’s hair implants. Even the managers are fantastic. When former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was asked about his tactics in a particular game, he informed the press that he told his players to “fucking run about a bit.” And this is also the same man who admitted that he was practically illiterate and wrote “like a two-year-old” when he was being investigated for tax evasion.
I’m sorry, but these types of stories lack the same kind of panache in American sports. We may hear that Dwight Howard is demanding a trade, but rarely does he insult the culinary culture of an entire Metropolitan area. And why we all might suspect that Charlie Manuel is illiterate (much less capable of executing a double-switch) I don’t think he has ever told his players to go “fucking hit a bit.”
Rooting interests are limitless
It really is one of life’s great opportunities. Most often your sporting ties are bound by geography or family history, but when an American delves into the world of top-flight soccer they have the opportunity to start fresh. And really, it must be said that one of the most enjoyable experiences about declaring for a club is the process of getting to know the club and reading their history and what the culture is like. I never even knew that Liverpool FC existed for most of my life, but somehow I now feel like King Kenny and Bill Shankly are my childhood heroes. Though some Europeans might not approve, an American can have a Premier League team and a Bundesliga team, and a Serie A team (just know your priorities during continental competitions.) And I know I am not the only one who feels this way. Grantland.com, the internet’s crossroad of sports and pop-culture ran a piece last season on why it was so much fun to adopt a soccer team.
When it comes down to it, you can make a choice on something as arbitrary as having a good looking kit, or reach across the pond through Ellis Island and try to uncover some sort of family ties to a region, or you could just be like every other brainwashed twit and pick one of the teams in Manchester. It is entirely up to you.
But the best part is that unlike practically every other sport in the world, soccer revolves around a sense of nationalism. Unlike baseball or football, the best soccer in the world is played on the international level. The current Spanish team is considered by many to be the best team ever assembled, narrowly edging out the Brazilian team of the 70s. When national pride is on the line, everybody has some skin in the game. For the same reason that we love the Olympics, international soccer provides us with a nationalist, slightly jingoistic outlet. We love watching our basketball players and hockey players go for the gold medal every four years, and international soccer is chock full of games every year, not only in World Cup qualifying, but in regional Cup tournaments and countless friendlies.
So along with following your favorite club team (whoever you might choose) you have the added bonus every couple of months of watching your national team. While baseball and football have long occupied the patriotic hearts of middle America, what is more patriotic than draping yourself in the flag to watch the Americans attempt to overthrow the established soccer hierarchy by upsetting France, or England or Italy? When it is taken as a whole, no other sport in the world captures the same excitement, or passion, or thinly veiled ethnocentrism as soccer does.
So, forget the endless monotony of extra-inning baseball games or the whiplash inducing stops and starts of a football game and embrace the beautiful game. I guarantee that you won’t be sorry you did…because if you haven’t heard, it’s the next big thing in America.