Why I love soccer
Everybody loves Brazil, except Argentinians,
People wonder from time to time why we write about soccer over other sports, and there's a simple reason, it's the largest entertainment business on earth, larger than movies or film. FIFA has as much power as any NGO shy the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross.
This escapes most Americans because soccer is, still, for the most part, an amateur sport. There isn't the depth of leagues common in the world. In Europe, a team like the Red Bulls would have been long relegated to a second division. But in the US, they just stagger on. However, people
underestimate the number of people who speak the language of soccer in the US, men and women.
I grew up watching soccer, I saw the Cosmos play in Yankee Stadium, I would watch Premiership and Bundesliga games which aired on PBS on Saturday afternoons. PBS once thought sports was worthy of live broadcasts, at least for awhile. Of course, between the Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester games, Nottingham Forest would pop up. Now, to be honest, I don't know why my father didn't turn the channel, but this was in the days before college football had a massive audience in the northeast.
By the 1970's, college football had shifted from the Ivys and Service acadmies to the South and West, Southern schools had finally accepted black players increasing interest in the game, with a new ABC Saturday afternoon contract as well.
I played a little, but dodgeball figured more in my childhood sporting life, as it did in most schools in the 70's. Soccer would have been more fun.
We're into a second generation of Title IX women who speak the langauge of soccer and can pass it down to their kids. Soccer has become the acceptable sport for kids. Which means it's going to be passed down in families. In Europe and Latin America, soccer is stickball, basketball and football in one. The talented are moved up quickly and can become insanely wealthy and national heroes. But in the US, it's the sport of the middle class and upwardly mobile.
Soccer has grown in the US because more people speak soccer, they know what a sweeper and a midfielder are, they know what offsides mean. They can follow the game because they played it.
Soccer almost totally disappeared from the US in the 1980's. The US sent a collegiate team to Italy 1990. Now, the 1994 WC was critical for soccer, both for the US and the European game. The English didn't make the cut, which given the high levels of yobbo inspired violence, was not a bad thing. The Americans were exposed to international soccer, FIFA made an inroad to the US market.
The European game, which had reached a nadir in 1985 with Heysel, began to recover. People don't realize that the modern, high stakes, billion dollar team sport we see today was tottering near disrepute only 20 years ago, with gang violence, and riots.
And things are far from perfect with both Juventus and Milan implicated in a massive scandal, and last year's German ref bribing scandal.
The defining moment for US soccer was when the US Woman's Team won in 1999, after a disasterous performance for the US in 1998. Not only did they win after an embarassing failure for the men, they won in style, Brandi Chastain's shirtless run said a lot about the sport, that it was fun and the women were both women and athletes. But it did something else, it validated the years of support women's soccer got from the NCAA's. It may seem odd, an act of uninhibited joy and no small leering, being so important
MSL MLS has been doing well, getting decent crowds and feeding players to the big European clubs, which is a sign of growth. And the National Team is fourth ranked in the world. You can take that with a grain of salt, but the US does have a good international side, and one which is gaining increasing support from advertisers. It remains to be seen if Anheiser-Busch will be as interested as being soccer ambassadors as it is selling their swill to Germans. Gatorade is now running a series of pro-US national side ads, and Nike has been running pro-soccer ads for about a year. The surrent series feature's Brazil's national team.
But the reason I love soccer is simple: it is the beautiful game.
That's no hyperbole, either.
You can dig up the old video of Pele making a bicycle kick or the hand of God play of Maradona, but even an average Premiership or La Liga game can have some stunning moments, balls being kicked overhead, someone scoring a goal with their head.
You often hear from people who don't watch soccer complain that the game is slow and there is too little scoring. Well, it isn't slow, in fact, there is near constant movement, as each side tries to figure out how to break the defense. It's more like chess than American football, because there's always the tension between defending and offense, without the pause and set plays and it can all turn on a single kick.
The other thing about soccer is the passion people feel for the game. There are no anti-Yankee songs, no pro-Cubs chants in the stands. When Manchester United was sold to an American, Tampa Bay Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer, there were protests in the streets, actual marches with banners and screaming. When Browns were moved to Baltimore, there were angry columns and some cursing.
There's an appeal to that which can't really be explained.
Because it is so simple, so easy to understand and so very hard to do.
With the World Cup coming up, Americans will have a world class team, light years from the 1990 collegiate team sent to play professionals, just before the massive internationalization of the European leagues, worthy of watching and supporting. It's too much to expect the US to shut down during World Cup matches, but some bars should be filled.I mean if people are jamming in to see Barca beat Arsenal in the middle of the week, then there should be no small interest in the World Cup.
This time, every game will be on ESPN or ESPN2 or ABC live in English, no small deal. In 2002, most of the games only aired live at 5 AM on Univision, because of the time difference between the US and Japan. And while watching a game in Spanish isn't horrible, it's nice to be able to cringe at the poor quality of the American announcers over lunch, not in a sleep deprived haze as the sun rises.
There's another thing: as the world becomes smaller, it isn't enough to speak another language, or eat someone else's food. Soccer is the world's game, fraught with politics, nationalism and group identity. Understanding and appreciating soccer allows people to understand a part of the world in a way beyond books and travel. In my experience, everyone from ambulance drivers to pizza counter guys can relate when soccer comes up, it's like belonging to a club, the people who like soccer.
As clubs go, it's a pretty good one to be in.
If you want to make up your own World Cup side and play along, hit the link below.
The World Cup begins June 9
World Cup Fantasy Game
posted by Steve @ 1:26:00 AM