America and soccer: The unfamiliar sport

Why doesn’t America accept the World Cup Soccer tournament as other nations?

According to taxpayer-funded NPR and its partner, liberal magazine rag The Nation, it’s because we’re all a bunch of racists and because the U.S. Teams aren’t any good at it.  So sayeth Dave Zirin:

Every World Cup, it arrives like clockwork. As sure as the ultimate soccer spectacle brings guaranteed adrenaline and agony to fans across the United States, it also drives the right-wing noise machine utterly insane.

“It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us,” yipped the Prom King of new right, Glenn Beck. “It doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.”

. . .

Dear Lord, where do we begin? First of all, I always find it amusing when folks like Beck say, “We don’t like soccer” when it is by far the most popular youth sport in the United States. It’s like saying, “You know what else American kids hate? Ice cream!” Young people love soccer not because of some kind of commie-nazi plot conjured by Saul Alinsky to sap us of our precious juices, but because it’s – heaven forefend – fun.

Wow.  Where do i begin? First of all, just because more kids play soccer these days doesn’t mean they enjoy it or understand it, but that’s not all.  I played soccer for three years growing up and I couldn’t begin to tell you what the rules are.  I made quite a fool of myself one day about ten years ago when I was sitting in Arrowhead Stadium watching the Kansas City Wizards play the LA Galaxy.  I was trying to explain the game to my then-girlfriend.  Two German immigrants sitting nearby were making fun of my lack of understanding–something I’d never have known had my date not been fluent in German.

What I think is really going on here is that Zirin just isn’t happy that American’s don’t accept his sport.  Despite decades of soccer moms (like my own) driving their kids to practice two days a week and to games on Saturday, we just haven’t accepted soccer.  We stick with our traditional American sports like baseball and football and this drives him absolutely bonkers.

When I was a kid, I wanted to play football.  I got stuck in soccer because 1) my brother played it and it cut down on the extra driving mom had to do and 2) mom thought it was safer than football.  Interestingly, I never had a serious injury playing football.  The only really bad one was a strained thumb trying to block a Tight End, but I was back at it after a week’s recuperation.  I was sent to the hospital four times in three seasons playing soccer: I sprained an ankle (twice), broke a toe and fractured a vertebrae.  So much for “safer”.

The biggest reason Americans don’t accept soccer is that we don’t understand it.  The fact is, most Americans who are interested in sports understand baseball, basketball, football, and many even get hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.  But when it comes to the soccer field we’re left scratching our heads and asking questions.

“Why don’t they stop the clock during penalties?”

“Why don’t they just wear cups like football players?”

“Why is this game going into overtime when it’s not tied?”

“What the heck is a yellow card and what does it mean?”

The list goes on.  Even with the lesser-understood hockey and NASCAR, most Americans can watch and appreciate these sports without knowing the rules in detail or even liking them.  The object of the game and in particular what is going on during this instant is usually fairly obvious to us.  Not-so with soccer.

Worse, the people who DO understand soccer (oh, I’m sorry, fútbol) don’t much care to explain it.  Ask any knowledgeable hockey fan what icing is, and they’re almost universally glad to explain it in detail.  The same goes with baseball and the infield-fly rule or NASCAR and the intricacies of pit road etiquette or restrictor plates.  Soccer fans, on the other hand, don’t seem to want to explain anything.  Many of them remain aloof, secure in their elitism about their favored sport.  It seems many would rather continue to think those of us not “in the know” as idiots than try to explain anything.  Even worse, there’s no John Madden character drawing lines on our TV screen to explain what just happened and why the crowd is cheering when seemingly nothing consequential has occurred.

Granted, this mentality doesn’t cover everybody who enjoys soccer.  It’s simply a generalization based upon my personal experience with soccer fans.

But Zirin isn’t content to just tell us that we’re troglodytes for not appreciating his favored sport.  Rather, he must re-write history:

Beck’s wingnut godfather, G. Gordon Liddy also said on his radio program,

‘Whatever happened to American exceptionalism? This game … originated with the South American Indians and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior.”

. . .

As for Liddy, let’s be clear. There is not in fact hard anthropological evidence that early soccer games were played with a human head. Interestingly, though, there is an oft-told legend that the sport took root in England in the 8th century because the King’s army playfully kicked around the detached cranium of the conquered Prince of Denmark. Notice that this tall-tale is about Europe not “South American Indians”. I think we’re seeing a theme here.

Actually, there is some evidence of a nominally soccer-like sport played by Native Americans wherein the ball was actually a human cranium.  The evidence is largely anecdotal, but some of it is actual depictions of the sport by the cultures that played it.  The game’s similarity with soccer is largely in that it was played on a large field between two teams of about a dozen individuals each. Players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands and arms and tried to put the ball in a goal.  Like many Americans, Liddy was probably misinformed by the multitude of “multicultural” history books that described the game as “similar to soccer”.

Soccer- and rugby-like sports have actually been played for around 3,000 years in various parts of the world from Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe and throughout the Americas.  The modern game, while played in the United States, simply never caught on like football or baseball.  It was one of those sports that people who wanted to stay active but didn’t like or couldn’t play the “big name” sports would play.  So while Liddy might be wrong, Zirin is being–at best–disingenuous.

Part of our aversion to the sport could be the fact that the sport isn’t played like any other sport we’re used to seeing.  Like the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup is only played once every four years.  Other, smaller competitions take place in the interim.  Also, the World Cup is played between nominally amorphous national teams, not established local clubs like football, baseball and, yes, Major League Soccer.  In our minds, this seems to work for irregular sports like the Triathalon and the dozens of other sports that largely see great fame only during the Olympics, but for a game like soccer, we feel we should be able to follow our local club to a national (or international) championship.

After all, Americans accept and enjoy the various international Tennis and Golf tournaments.  We’re more than happy to watch “odd” sports like curling, rugby, gymnastics and figure skating.  At least in these sports the yearly competitions make sense to us, and the fans and commenters are more than happy to explain to us what we’re seeing when we get confused.

But Zirin sees something different in American’s who don’t care for the sport:

In other words, Beck rejects soccer because his idealized “real America” – in all its monochromatic glory – rejects it as well. To be clear, I know a lot of folks who can’t stand soccer. It’s simply a matter of taste. But for Beck it’s a lot more than, “Gee. It’s kind of boring.” Instead it’s, “Look out whitey! Felipe Melo’s gonna get your mama!”

Many Americans understand, play and enjoy soccer.  But taken as a whole, Americans are just more interested in other sports.   Waiting four years to follow an all-star team of sorts in a sport that most of us don’t understand well and few of us watch anyway?  That just doesn’t seem to fit our American way of viewing sports.  But to Zirin, it has to be about race, not culture.  It has to be because Beck is a closet racist who hates anyone who isn’t “monochromatic”.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that most Americans simply do not watch, understand or like soccer.

It’s unfamiliar.  It’s irregular.  It doesn’t fit our American culture.  So no, we don’t want the World Cup.  And there’s nothing wrong or inherently racist about that.