So you hate the very mention of soccer and will let me know in no uncertain terms in the comments that you are disgusted with me for being so much in love with a game that most Americans find dull, boring, and so…so…EUROPEAN!
Color me unfazed. Soccer is about to take center stage in the sports world and like it or not, our country has a chance – a minuscule one to be sure – to win the World Cup in Germany that starts next week.
Before giving an overview of the team and our opponents for the first round, let me tell you why I love soccer and why even if you’re a casual observer, you too can enjoy the matches.
Like many of you, prior to 1980, I hated soccer. I saw nothing exciting about a game that featured players apparently running around aimlessly, kicking and heading the ball to no obvious effect save killing time. Low or non-existent scoring meant that the game held no attraction for us Americans who were used to high scoring basketball or football games (although when you think about it, a 17-14 football game translates to a soccer score of 3-2).
All that changed with the arrival in Washington D.C. of Johann Cruyff.
Cruyff was named “European Player of the Century” in 1999 and was Player of the Year in Europe 3 times during the 1970’s. By the late 1970’s and early 80’s, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was searching for established stars to fill out its rosters of also-rans and American college kids. They ended up importing Cruyff (Washington Diplomats) along with the great German striker Franz Beckenbauer (New York Cosmos), and the legendary Irish winger George Best (San Jose Earthquakes) in order to put some fannies in the seats as well as teach the Americans what the game was really all about.
The trio didn’t disappoint. Displaying jaw dropping skills (even though all three were fading toward the end of Hall of Fame careers), they electrified crowds across America. Alas, they could not manage the herculean task of breaking through the American sports muddle in order to elevate soccer to major league status. Many would argue that this has yet to happen, although interest in the game itself has never been higher.
Of the three European stars, Cruyff stood out by virtue of his all-around skills on both offense and defense. And watching the aging legend, you began to appreciate that soccer is much more complicated than it might appear at first blush. There is beauty in its intricacies. What fans refer to as “the build up” can be exciting in and of itself as the offense works the ball around the midfield area looking for an opening. The pinpoint passing and footwork of players as they seek to control the ball and keep it from defenders can be a sublime exercise. And then, the long ball delivered right on the foot of a speeding winger or flashing striker, the ball traveling 30, 40, even 50 yards perfectly leading the player and perhaps resulting in “a chance.”
Cruyff was pure magic. He could do things with a soccer ball that I didn’t think possible. Time and again the crowd would “ooh” and “ahhh” as the star’s lithe body would deceive some poor schmuck of a defenseman and Cruyff would speed past the poor lad is if he wasn’t there. Featuring the ability to change speeds and direction while working the ball with his feet or “dribbling,” Cruyff had the best vision of any player I’ve ever seen. He knew instinctively where his teammates were on the field and would inevitably deliver a perfect pass that would send the player in on goal for a chance. Not blessed with a particularly strong leg, his shots nevertheless would be placed on goal exactly where he wanted them. What the ball lacked in speed coming off his foot, it made up for with an uncanny knack of finding the back of the net.
Attending a Washington Diplomats game out of boredom, I was almost instantly hooked. And therein lies the challenge for American soccer in that like hockey (in which it resembles in other ways as well), soccer is a game best seen in person – or, failing that, in high definition. Being able to see the total field gives one an appreciation for the nuances of the offense as well as the teamwork of the defense.
I don’t expect any of this to change anyone’s mind about soccer. But if you’re an agnostic about the game, I would strongly suggest you tune in to the World Cup matches on ESPN and ESPN 2. Watching the finest players in the world playing against each other, you just may walk away with a new appreciation of the game and its ability to both entertain and enthrall you.
Not surprisingly the national teams reflect the basic characters of their country in some ways. One of the favorites, host country Germany, is methodical in its offensive approach while featuring players who are brilliant technical students of the game. Another contender is Great Britain. The Brits play a scrappy, up tempo game that features some of the most pugnacious characters in Europe.
The French (my long shot favorite to win it all), are stylishly aggressive and feature some of the most skilled players in the world. And yes, they tend to be haughty bastards on the field.
Spanish club soccer is probably the most exciting in the world thanks to many outstanding players imported from South America and Africa. And their national team isn’t half bad either as they play a rollicking kind of up tempo game that features extraordinarily skilled one-on-one players.
And always in the front of the world soccer pack is Brazil. Blessed with players of enormous skill, speed, and technique, the Brazilians are simply awesome to watch. When they play as a team, they cannot be beat. But with so many international stars and so many gigantic egos, they also can disintegrate right before your eyes. Even then, they can beat all but a handful of the best teams in the world.
Tomorrow, I will profile the American team and analyze US opponents in the first round, assessing our chances to advance to the round of 16.