Not our cup of tea
Soccer will never thrive here, the author opines, because it's simply un-American
Updated: Saturday July 07, 2001 11:20 AM
By Frank Deford
It has long been a subject of fascination that the United States, virtually alone in the world, has rejected soccer. Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman, who have written a book called Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism (Princeton University Press), compare this phenomenon with another, more significant "American exceptionalism" -- the fact that the U.S. has never embraced socialism. Messrs. Markovits and Hellerman even provide, on two pages, a cogent catalog of reasons why socialism hasn't found acceptance here. Unfortunately, in the next couple hundred pages, they don't explain nearly as well why we don't give a hoot about soccer.
Oh, Markovits and Hellerman do a fine job of laying out how soccer missed the boat when baseball and football were establishing their hegemony here. Soccer did not get itself into schools and colleges. The sport's American organization, such as it was, proved to be inept. Soccer was stigmatized as a foreign game. Once it failed to find room in the U.S. "sport space" (schedules, newspaper coverage, etc.), its also-ran fate was sealed.
The difficulties soccer faced here in its early years, however, don't begin to explain its current plight. Baseball, after all, has never been run by a Pericles, yet it prospered from the start. Basketball was largely played by immigrants but outgrew this stigma. Ice hockey didn't really exist here till half a century after soccer had arrived, yet hockey became the half in what the authors refer to, very nicely, as the "Big Three and One-Half" of American team sports. So we must come back to the seminal possibility the authors avoid: Soccer simply may be antithetical to the U.S. temperament and sensibility. It is not for us to feel guilty that we are out of step. Rather, it is for us to feel sorry for the rest of the world that it is not lucky enough to have games as good as the ones we have.
After all, the authors ignore perhaps our greatest distinction. We don't import culture. The only two major foreign items America has accepted recently are water in bottles and the Wonder Bra, and these both relate to modern life's essentials -- water and cleavage being as vital to our society as food and shelter. No, what we Americans do is we pass along our stuff to other, impressionable peoples: movies, music, Coca-Cola, the English language, basketball, bacon double cheeseburgers and what have you.
For goodness' sake, though, soccer has had even more chances here than Hillary gave Bill. We are, to start with, chock-full of immigrants who grew up in countries in which the game is adored. Huge sums have been invested in a succession of professional leagues that have received inordinate amounts of Pollyanna publicity. Pele was brought here to troop the futbol colors. The authors detail, at length, how many American children now play soccer. (Yes, soccer is terrific exercise, almost as good as tai chi -- and nobody wants to pay to see that, either.)
See, there's the rub. If soccer had never had an opportunity here, one could argue that its time must surely come. But soccer has been jammed down our throats -- and found wanting. The leagues fray, the TV ratings barely gurgle, and soccer kids can't wait for soccer moms to pick them up at practice so they can go home and watch true-blue 'Mercan games. (Participation never equates to spectator popularity, anyway. Twice as many high school kids are on track and cross-country teams as play soccer, and the last time I looked, Yankee Stadium wasn't packed for a track meet.)
Desperately, soccer smug-nuts always fall back on accusing us American yahoos of failing to appreciate the grace and nuance of their superior game. First of all, any sport in which you hit a hard ball with your head is, ipso facto, neither graceful nor nuanced. Even ignoring that ugly idiosyncrasy, any run-of-the-mill 6-4-3 double play is more graceful than the most precious soccer maneuver. And nuance? For pete's sake, every sport has nuance. Hello. That's why Tim McCarver, John Madden and Mary Carillo have jobs. Nuance doesn't make people care. About 99.44% of NFL fans don't have the foggiest what nuances the nickel defense possesses. So what? It's third and three on the 36. Turn up the volume and crack another brewski.
The authors also make a big deal out of how many Americans saw the World Cup when it was foisted on the United States in 1994. That argument is specious too. The World Cup has no more to do with ordinary soccer than the Kentucky Derby has to do with Wednesday at Suffolk Downs when 4,500 grizzled septuagenarians drag in off the streets to box exactas. Markovits and Hellerman also salivate over the Women's World Cup of 1999, when the U.S. beat China, 0--0, at the Rose Bowl. The 90,000 attendance is stressed. What is not dealt with is the score, of which there was none -- excuse me: nil -- till we got to the pinball finale.
Why do you think the only image we have of that game is of Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt? Because there was nothing in the game to remember. Sports authors, beware: Don't read too much into one-shot anomalies. The 1980 victory of the U.S. hockey darlings over the big, bad Commie bullies is, surely, the most lionized American game ever. It did nothing whatsoever for hockey (though it did make Mike Eruzione the Brandi Chastain of 1980).
So soccer has been around these colonial precincts for something like 125 years. It has had its game of the century. It has borrowed the player of the century. It has been spoon-fed the globe's biggest tournament. It has had league after league, outdoor and in, bankrolled by well-heeled angels. It is blessed with legions of ready-made fans who immigrate here and millions of suburban children who are indoctrinated from kindergarten on. Still, it never catches on.
At a certain point, Markovits and Hellerman, you have to accept the obvious. It ain't our cup of tea. Nothing wrong with that. There's no accounting for taste. The same British sophisticates who call me a parochial rube for not appreciating soccer prefer watching snooker to basketball. Fine. But here's the nasty down-home American reality: Far from being graceful, soccer appears, in fact, awkward. You can't sweetly control a ball using feet and head any more than you can drive a car fast with your nose and knees. We value efficiency in the United States. Soccer is inefficient.
Remarkably, Markovits and Hellerman don't offer an in-depth analysis of how other American sports overcame integral problems of tedium. Football added the forward pass. Baseball souped up the old horsehide. Basketball introduced a shot clock. Soccer says bugger off, barbarians, and learn grace and nuance. We prefer offense in the United States. Soccer is defensive.
It is not only that soccer lacks scoring, either. It also has no small victories, no cumulative successes. Baseball teams build rallies. Football teams drive down the field, even if they have to settle for a field goal. Soccer is the coitus interruptus of sport. Watching TV, I'm astounded how announcers ooh and ahh over some failed play: "What a magnificent run!" Only the player did not succeed. In the end, the ball was taken from him and he stumbled back the other way. Nonetheless, analysts keep praising pretty disappointment, raving about the glory of almost. We expect satisfaction in the United States. Soccer celebrates frustration.
Soccer developed outside the U.S., and unlike most everything else in the world, it lacks our influence. In countries that care about soccer, the point is always made, ad nauseum, that soccer is not a game; it is a way of life. I'm sure that's true. That's the point that eludes Markovits and Hellerman. Ultimately, the reason that we don't care about soccer is that it is un-American. It's somebody else's way of life. So most American kids abandon interest in the game when they realize it's not consistent with what they are finding out about Americanism. The same with immigrants and their children -- as soon as they discover more appealing games that reflect American spirit, American values. It's really very simple why most of us nonsocialistic Americans will forever reject soccer.
We are not amused.
Issue date: July 2, 2001
To read your reactions to Deford's article, click here.