Football is back. After being restricted to the sloppy care of amateurs playing on grassy fields over the summer, it’s finally back at the big venues. Now, the world livens up with boos and cheers while sports fans everywhere salivate at the prospects of a new season… everywhere but in the United States, where the football is brown and oval rather than round and white, moved by the players’ hands rather than their feet. Here, the game known and loved by billions worldwide is called soccer, and it’s relegated to the dark alleys of sports coverage favoring brawny jocks in goofy helmets crashing into each other.[bore]
As Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko once said: “All that proves is that most of the world is too poor to build bowling alleys, golf courses, tennis courts and baseball fields. There’s hundreds of millions of poor people out there who still ain’t got indoor plumbing, but that don’t mean there’s something great about an outhouse. Soccer is boring. I’ve never seen a more boring sport.”
Regardless, the big leagues began in early September in Europe, the center of the world’s commercial soccer, ending a two-month drought only partially alleviated by the Olympics, in which the best players can’t participate. As always, the summer gave birth to record setting transfers, most notably the English Premiership’s Manchester United paying more than £20 million for Everton’s 18-year-old prodigy Wayne Rooney. Even as the teams square off against each other internally, the best clubs set their sights toward winning the Champion’s League, and the national squads attempt to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The ticket offices pulse with excitement, once again filling the air around the stadiums with the supporters’ song. In the midst of this rejoicing, nobody looks over the ocean toward America, where Major League Soccer plays before uninterested television viewers, unwanted in its own country.
Ten years ago, soccer was the most fashionable game in the U.S. It was hosting the World Cup, the biggest sports event on the planet, and international broadcasters and tourists lined up at its borders, money in hand. Americans bought tickets and read in the newspapers about the unknowns representing their country. At the home opener in the Pontiac Silverdome, they waved their flags and cheered at Eric Wynalda’s equalizer against Switzerland as if they understood what they were watching.
The tournament was a success. The U.S. advanced from the round-robin before losing to Brazil, who went on to win the gold. But as the rest of the world returned to their homes, American analysts pondered whether they’d bring the game back with them, whether soccer was a one-hit wonder. They’d hosted the World Cup to promote the launching of Major League Soccer, but the question was whether the hype would carry over to this latest attempt to claim the game as American and give it a permanent place in the hearts of domestic sports fans.
In 2004, the answer reads loud and clear. The MLS, home of mediocre Americans and international has-beens, completely devoid of star power, gets virtually no airtime by the major sports broadcasters. Neither do any other leagues, for that matter, and it seems safe to say that soccer remains a foreign sport, unable to garner support from baseball and football fans.
Still, while a commercial failure, soccer’s a lowbrow athletic hit, as evidenced by the many intramural players on the MSU campus, as well as the two teams representing the university in the Big Ten tournaments.
Ashley Lawson and Emma Harris both play for MSU’s women’s team, the latter leading it in scoring. Both attribute their love for the game to an early introduction to the little leagues most children play in whether they’re talented or athletically degenerated. [page]
“My parents put me into it,” Harris said .
Asked to explain why soccer is special, Lawson points to its aesthetic quality. “It’s a pretty game, the way the plays build up,” she says. “There’s a lot of strategy to it, and it demands more hand-eye coordination than other sports.” [fans]
Coincidentally, this is one of the main complaints the hardcore soccer haters, lamely nicknamed “soccer-knockers,” voice against the sport. For example, a random and very non-representative survey of Michigan State’s tailgating community yielded comments like: “In soccer, a team can dominate another for 89 minutes and the other team plays a long ball that is nodded on and falls right and they score and win: that is crap,” and “it’s more of a finesse game….”
This implies that soccer is uneventful: a game for weaklings who don’t score enough goals or break enough bones to entertain. This image partly stems from the diving antics prominent in leagues like the Italian, where sportsmanship is punished and bad acting is rewarded with penalty kicks.
Brazil’s Rivaldo performed one of history’s most impressive dives in a 2002 World Cup game against Turkey. During a stoppage of play, one of the Turks loosely kicked the ball toward Rivaldo, hitting him on his left thigh. Rivaldo fell to the ground, rolling around as if shot, hands covering a face twisted in convincing agony. After the tournament, FIFA penalized the Brazilian midfielder for his conduct. The fine equaled roughly $7000, which the star, likely laughingly, promptly extracted from his huge fortune.
Incidents like this are hardly endearing to American sponsors and spectators, and neither is the murky reputation of soccer hooligans, who seem to be inseparable from the game.
“It’s more intense,” Harris said, comparing the atmosphere she experienced at a game in Belgium to that of an American football game. “(fans) were throwing things.”
Which must have been on a good day, as hooligans likely do more than throw things given a chance. Hardly deserving to be called fans at all, they claim allegiance to certain teams only to have a reason to fight each other. Commonly on a game day, they set a time and place to duke it out, sometimes even agreeing on which weapons to bring. Unfortunately, they don’t only beat the hell out of each other. With every big event, there’s a threat of large-scale violence, and hence cities spend huge amounts on police support every year. This behavior is not restricted to the spectators. The lower the quality of the league, the lower the quality of security, and the larger the chances of referees getting chased out into the woods by angry coaches or linesmen being brutalized by players disagreeing with offside calls.
Although the hooligans are the most visible, they only make up a tiny proportion of soccer-lovers. Hardcore fans appear in all shapes, sizes, and ages. They meet and warm-up before the game and socialize afterward. They bring the game home with them, read about it in the morning papers, discuss it at work, and dream of a championship title for their club. Those who saw British movie “Fever Pitch” (or read the book) have a fairly good idea of the climate. Soccer can be more than just a game, it can become an obsession transcending sports and creating its own culture.[page]
Pride and Prejudice
Harris and Lawson are living proof that women’s soccer is more popular than men’s soccer in America, an inversion of international conventions and conditions. Harris names the success of the female national team as one of the reasons.
“They won the World Cup (in 1999),” she said. “That helps to inspire girls growing up.” [culture]
This leads to the question whether Americans only like sports in which their team without a doubt is the best, a notion neither Harris nor Lawson agree with. But the country’s major sports are football, baseball, and basketball. The first two are mainly restricted to North America, and the third quickly got disavowed during the Olympics this summer, when it became obvious that the “Dream Team” couldn’t walk all over their opponents anymore. As the tournament bore on, many fans even began rooting for the other side, as Iverson, Duncan and the others only managed to scramble to a bronze.
What other explanation is there for Americans refusing to embrace soccer as something more than a hobby? In soccer, the commercial center is elsewhere. For once, there are no high quality games for fans to see live this side of the Atlantic unless they’re willing to venture to the southern continent. The U.S. is furthermore marked by an obvious lack of interest in foreign leagues, similar to the sentiment toward subtitled films, which rarely make it to the American big screen. Whether this represents a larger reluctance to understand foreign cultures, who’s to say?
One thing’s for certain, however. The rest of the world is comfortable keeping the status quo just as it is. They’d hate to admit it, but they breathed a relieved sigh when the Germans beat the U.S. in the World Cup quarter-finals two years ago. The American women may dominate, but unfortunately nobody seems to care. But if the men step forward to claim the cup, then the U.S. will have the world in upheaval, completing the humiliation initiated by George W. Bush when he ignored the United Nations in 2003 and invaded Iraq. The last sense of international pride doesn’t depend on a desert country in the Middle East, nor on a sheet of paper with environmental legislation. No, it rests on a green grass pitch with white lines, in spiked black shoes tearing forward, in a round white ball hitting the back of the net.

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