USA forwards Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies celebrate Altidore’s goal against Spain on Wednesday. The shocking victory over the world’s #1 team propelled the US side into the finals of the Confederation Cup - a warm-up for next summer’s World Cup - in South Africa.
This article was first published on 6/28/09
I know I am going against the grain by being a soccer fan in America. But I really can’t help myself. Perhaps it’s because I’m a baseball fan that I appreciate the patience demonstrated by good teams, or the delicious feeling of watching the build up on offense, the teamwork on defense, and the great individual skills on display.
Alas, the American game rarely rises to the level found in much of Europe, South America, and other soccer crazy meccas where people live, eat, drink, and die with their national teams success or failure. But for 93 glorious minutes on Wednesday, it did.
The USA national team played the mighty Spaniards with their 35 match unbeaten streak in a Confederation Cup semi-final match this past Wednesday, and with a combination of making the most of their chances, good defense, and a large dollop of simple, dumb, luck, our boys pulled off the biggest upset in world soccer since we beat the Columbians at the World Cup in 1994. The 2-0 victory pushed the Americans into the finals against otherworldly Brazil - a team we lost to early in the tournament by the lopsided, embarrassing score of 3-0.
Expect a similar result today. The skill level, teamwork, and experience of the Brazilians is just awesome and anyone with even a passing familiarity with the game knows the US doesn’t have a prayer.
Of course, they said the same thing before America’s game with Spain. But playing the green and yellow and defeating them would take another miracle courtesy of the Soccer Gods. And everyone knows the Gods are all ex-Brazil greats, deified by their fanatical supporters while still on earth.
I’ve heard the arguments why the “World’s Game” has never caught on here and I’m sure you can recite them along with me. But here’s a clueless fellow who ascribes our lack of enthusiasm for soccer as a result of our basic political beliefs:
Watching the game, one could not have been happier for a team that has not really performed all that well in recent years or, for that matter, in the first few games of this tournament. Indeed, in the first two games, the U.S. was hammered by Italy and Brazil and only got into the semifinal match by beating Egypt and the fluke of a very arcane scoring system that soccer uses to break ties among teams. And even in this game, a neutral observer would have said that Spanish players clearly outplayed the Americans, outshooting the U.S. squad by a margin of 20 shots on goal. As the U.S. goalkeeper and star of the game Tim Howard noted afterwards, “Sometimes football is a funny thing.”
Well, yes, it is. As someone who didn’t play soccer growing up, but had a dad who did and whose own kids played as well, I can say unquestionably that it is the sport in which the team that dominates loses more often than any other major sport I know of. Or, to put it more bluntly, the team that deserves to win doesn’t. For some soccer-loving friends, this is perfectly okay. Indeed, they will argue that it’s a healthy, conservative reminder of how justice does not always prevail in life.
Well, hooey on that. And, thankfully, Americans are not buying it. In spite of the fact that one can drive by an open field on Saturdays and usually see it filled with young boys and girls playing soccer, the game’s popularity has not moved anywhere toward being a major sport here in the United States. It’s grown for sure but not close to where folks once expected it to be given the number of youth that have played the game over the past two decades.
For sure, there may be a number of reasons that is the case but my suspicion is that the so-called “beautiful game” is not so beautiful to American sensibilities. We like, as good small “d” democrats, our underdogs for sure but we also still expect folks in the end to get their just desert. And, in sports, that means excellence should prevail. Of course, the fact that is often not the case when it comes to soccer may be precisely the reason the sport is so popular in the countries of Latin America and Europe.
Gary Schmitt of AEI is a clueless git. First of all, that “arcane” scoring system which allowed the US to advance is a series of tie breakers (just like the NFL), although the criteria in this case was total number of goals (USA had 4 to Italy’s 3). How much less bizarre is it for an NFL team who goes 9-7 and wins their division to make the playoffs while a couple of 10-6 teams miss the postseason because their division winner had a better record? “Excellence” being rewarded? Phooey!
The only thing “arcane” about Schmitt is his reasoning.
Then there’s the utter malarkey that many teams that dominate the game stats wise or just have the better of the play usually lose. Again, let’s look at the NFL and notice that on any given Sunday, there are several teams who are out gained on offense, outplayed on defense, but catch a few lucky breaks and win the game. It is obvious Schmitt is not a sports fan if he thinks that such happenstances are uncommon.
As in football, the team with a lead in soccer will play it safe, usually dropping a couple of players back from midfield in order to prevent the other team from organizing an effective offense. This will invariably lead to the team that is behind having much the better of the play. Also, the leading team will push forward fewer players on the counterattack. The result is exactly as Schmitt describes but the reason is not because of any particular flaw in the game as much as it is a deliberate choice by the team that is ahead. Of course Spain took 20 more shots on goal. They were behind for almost the entire game. How many NFL teams have we seen build up a big lead in the first half and basically coast the rest of the way? His criticism is nonsense to anyone who knows anything about sports.
But that’s the problem in America. I think in order to love the game, you must be familiar with at least some of its nuances and strategies. There is a method to much of the madness the casual fan might see on the field and what looks like a lot of running around is actually a purposeful offense — probing for weakness, switching the play from one side of the field to the other to exploit an advantage, the give and go, and the teamwork involved in knowing where your teammates are on the field all the time are all practiced repeatedly by good teams in order to break down a defense and create a chance to score.
Defense is the loveliest of dances - a synchronized ballet where defenders react to where the ball is on the field and move almost in unison to block the assault. If you’ve only watched the game on TV, you can be forgiven for not being able to see much of this. And if you’ve only watched American soccer - the MSL variety - you don’t see much of it anyway. The American club league is an inferior product which helps explains to the Schmitt’s of the world why soccer hasn’t caught on here.
Legendary English football writer Steven Wells (who just died last week) saw the ugliness of what he terms “soccerphobes” in this Guardian piece from January of this year:
Meet radio show host Jim Rome. Jim - a short man with a Village People biker moustache - is the pope of soccerphobia. “My son is not playing soccer, ” promises Jim. “I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequinned blouse before I hand him a soccer ball.” Jim’s soccerphobia is part of a grand tradition of crassly xenophobic, casually homophobic, tediously sexist and smugly pig-ignorant soccer-bashing in mainstream American sports journalism. As Sport Illustrated’s soccer-friendly Alexander Wolff put it: “There isn’t a US daily without a ’soccer stinks’ beat guy”.
“Their mania is in direct proportion to their insecurity,” laughs Miguel Almeida, a New York-based soccer writer. “Hence its intensity. And the phenomenon pops up every time the World Cup rolls around, its reappearance as certain as swarming locusts.”
Not all soccer-haters are cliché-recycling hacks. Meet (right-wing) intellectual think-tanker Stephen Moore. “I am convinced,” writes Stephen, “that the ordeal of soccer teaches our kids all the wrong lessons in life. Soccer is the Marxist concept of the labour theory of value applied to sports - which may explain why socialist nations dominate the World Cup.”
Now before you dismiss Mr Moore as an isolated and irrelevant know-nothing right-wing bollock-talker, have a listen to his fellow Washington conservative, Mr John Derbyshire: “The very inconclusiveness of soccer is, I suspect, what has made it the pet sport of the repulsive [left-wing] bobos.”
OK, but two soccer-hating American gobshites do not a sinister right-wing conspiracy make. So here’s Jay Nordlingerm who claims soccer is “a project of the left, the athletic equivalent of vegetarianism”. This bile is echoed in the letters pages of America’s newspapers: “Soccer’s slow strangulation of real sports like football needed to be stopped,” rages a reader of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “High school football programs around the country have nearly succumbed to the foreign-sports terrorism known as soccer … Young minds and bodies are being wasted by continuing the slide into the soccer abyss.”
Schmitt isn’t that bad but it begs the question; is there a political element to people’s hate of soccer?
If there is, I don’t feel it. I enjoy the game as a sports fan. Hell, I even enjoyed watching the Afghan national game Buzkashi. And that’s because there are certain universal elements to sports and competition that make watching soccer or baseball, or any other game where athletes perform and teams compete to win such a joy. “The human drama of athletic competition” was part of the opening of the old ABC Wide World of Sports that featured every kind of game under the sun including Irish hurling, Australian rules football, and something as tame as curling.
I don’t see politics or underlying political truths in games and those who do are trying too hard. The loons who wail about football or hockey being too violent or teaching our kids the wrong life lessons are no different. Concentrate on the stellar athletes - the human body in motion is enormously pleasing to watch when it is done by those born with the grace and strength to play the game - any game - at the highest level. The desire to win, the sacrifices for the team; it is the same in any game and says more about our basic humanity than it does about any silly political generality made up by partisans who wish to score points against their enemies.
Not everyone likes football. More do not like soccer. But if you are ambivalent about the game, tune in to this afternoon’s USA-Brazil match. The Americans might get creamed. But if you want an idea of what soccer is really all about, watch the play of the Brazilians.
You just might discover what many Americans and most of the rest of the world, like about the game.