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My World Cup Post

Considering my vast international audience, I thought I should offer some comment on the World Cup, which I know is of immense interest in most of the world outside the USA. First, I would like to ask people who want to point out that the name of the game is "football", not "soccer," to get over it, please. We quite understand that "football" is a more descriptively apt name for what we call soccer. But we didn't start calling it soccer just to annoy the rest of the world. For one thing, "football" was already taken by another sport, however illogically (since kicking the ball is far from the main feature of American football). For another, we didn't just pull the word "soccer" out of the air and start using it to annoy everybody else—we got it from the English, who, after all, invented the game.

Now, about the relative American indifference to professional soccer, discussion of which always quickly comes round to that standard American complaint: "soccer is boring." The World Cup always brings out a certain sort of American crank who denounces the sport, which in turn produces a huge argument. That took place one day last week at Inside Catholic (and please note that the idea that "soccer is ruining America" is tongue-in-cheek). I'll quote here what I said in that discussion: a former soccer dad I have a mild interest in the game. And the way it's played by high-schoolers and up, male and female, it's most definitely not for sissies. Still, I never was able to get into it the way I do football and to a lesser extent baseball and basketball. I decided that the problem is a lack of tension. In football, for instance, you have a series of well-defined dramatic moments that end in victory or failure (each play), within the longer story of each first down series, within the longer story of each possession and its attempted march toward the goal, within the longer story of the entire game. There's a lot of tension and release.

But soccer, for those who aren't expert in it, seems pretty aimless--run up and down the field, kick the ball all over the place, and keep doing that for ten, twenty, thirty minutes or more without any one significant event or milestone like a first down, to say nothing of a goal. The same might be said of basketball but the frequent shooting and scoring gives it some drama. In baseball you have the drama of every pitch, with a huge variety of possible significant outcomes. In soccer teams can go a while without even getting a shot on goal. 90-minute games end in a score of 3-2. I'm sure it can be exciting if you can see the subtleties, but most Americans can't.

I should amend that: 3-2 is actually a fairly high-scoring game. One of the first games in this World Cup, I think, ended 0-0, another 1-0.

And of course (heh): England 1, USA 1. I was interested enough to want to see this game, but I didn't think I was going to be able to, as my wife and I had other obligations. As it happened we ended up having a late-ish lunch in a coffee shop where the game was on TV. And I was lucky enough to see the one USA goal.

I must say, though, that as the father of a former goalkeeper I couldn't help feeling really bad for England's goalie. Even someone who doesn't know the game well could see that it was a massive error on what should have been an easy stop. There's an appropriately sportsmanlike comment from the American side here ("You never want to see that for an opposing player").

Still, we earned some respect, since there was a whole half left to play. My daughter tells me that The Daily Show (which I don't like) a few days ago featured some English comedian making fun of the whole idea of an American playing soccer. This is for him:


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As far as televisual spectation goes, rugby and steeplechases are the only sports I've ever found remotely engaging. When it comes to playing, football is extremely physically demanding - more so, in my experience, than rugby or even rowing; perhaps because of all the pointless running about. I'm not sure where the idea comes from that it's a soft option.

European football definitely requires a huge amount of stamina, and can be pretty rough (USA's goalie is being treated for what may be cracked ribs from yesterday's match). American football is demanding in a different way--fairly extreme physical punishment is built in to it--300-pound (135kg) guys colliding with each other at a full run, smaller guys slammed and crushed to the ground by the 300-pouners. Fairly severe injuries are inevitable and minor ones routine. The playing time is shorter and more often interrupted, so it doesn't require the same sort of ability to keep running up and down the field for a very long time. American football requires the ability to run like a bullet for fairly short distances and at fairly long intervals. I guess it's two different kinds of stamina: the ability to take punishment and give short bursts of really intense activity, vs. the ability to keep going for a long time. Sprint vs. marathon, as far as the running is concerned.

I once had a professor who said, when he found out I liked baseball, "Baseball's great. So is watching grass grow." He had no appreciation for the sport. I find it one of the most fascinating sports of all. The key is to understand the art of pitching. It is the equivalent of understanding that in American football you have four downs to move ten yards. The other thing that makes baseball so fascinating is the extreme obsession with stats. Also, it is the only sport I know of where it it sometimes a(n unofficial) part of the game for one guy to intentionally try to hit another guy with a very hard ball.

I'm just trying to remember the formulae. I think they're:

Rugby Union is the game for thugs played by gentlemen.

Rugby League is the game for thugs played by thugs.

Soccer is the game for gentlemen played by thugs.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

I forget what Aussie Rules football is, but it's full of testosterone!

The Socceroos lost to Germany last night (I'm told) but that was par for the course. Apparently we need to beat Ghana to get into the next round at all.

Baseball is pretty boring, IMO.

And American football? All that padding!

Basketball I really like.

I played field hockey (ie real hockey) and soccer myself. I rowed as well.

Now I'm a soccer mom! (And a World Cup/Geology widow!)

No sooner did I read those definitions than I ran across several variations, some of them contradictory. Somewhere there must be a definitive lexicon...

I didn't know there was such a thing as Aussie Rules football. I would expect it to be something like rugby, but with less of that dainty and fastidious quality.

"The other thing that makes baseball so fascinating is the extreme obsession with stats."

I like baseball well enough (though I don't watch it very often), but that brings back dreary memories of age 12 or so, hanging out with my brother and a friend who were both baseball-obsessed and talked stats constantly. Zzzzzzz....

Having been a goal keeper in Lacrosse, I felt pretty sorry for Green. A whole team has failed if a player gets a clear shot such as the American scorer had, but the goalie takes sole responsibility. Plus, as one could see in the numerous replays, that ball is moving very fast. At the same time, I'm not surprised the American goalie may have cracked ribs - he performed several fantastic saves!

Nice to see you again, Francesca!

I watched about 5 minutes of a lacrosse game the other day, first time I'd ever seen it. It appeared that the players were whacking each other with those sticks, also body-slamming as in hockey (ice). Must be a tougher game than I thought.

For soccer goalies (and their parents) the absolute worst thing is the penalty kick. That's just a preposterous way to decide a game. The guy who wrote the First Things diatribe against soccer was right about that--you literally might as well flip a coin. The goalie just has to guess, and yet it's on him if the team loses.

Here's an example of the stupid stuff that gets said here about soccer:

Right-wingers make fun of it and say it's a sport for Euro-weenies. Left-wingers work at loving it because it's all international and multicultural and stuff.

"something like rugby, but with less of that dainty and fastidious quality"

Yes, that pretty much captures it. In rugby you aren't allowed to tackle above the waist, or try to run up other players vertically, but apart from that they're fairly similar.

There are, it seems, teams in the US.

Here it's described as "a mutant hybrid of soccer, rugby, basketball and a street riot". (Basketball because you're only allowed to run a certain number of steps with the ball in your hands, then you have to either pass or dribble; the rest is self-explanatory).

Looks pretty crazy. I didn't know about Australian Rules, but rugby is actually not all that rare in the USA. There was a local team here, in a medium-sized city in the deep south, for instance. Maybe still is, but I haven't heard them mentioned for a while. And I had a neighbor who had messed up his knees playing in a school-sanctioned team at Auburn (second-best university in the state).

And how in the world do they dribble a ball that's not round?

There's an example about seven seconds in:

Unreal! I never thought I'd live to see the day that Americans would play Aussie rules. Another example:

a mutant hybrid of soccer, rugby, basketball and a street riot

LOL! 100% accurate IMO.

Nick thinks it's a pathetic game b/c if you miss the goal (worth 6 points) but get it just to the side (between a big post and a little post) you get a "behind" (worth one point). Heh! No other game rewards you for missing the goal!

But I can't help it - I quite like the game myself. (Not a sporting fanatic, however).

Cdl Pell played it and would have played for one of the teams in the AFL (the top level) called Richmond, but he went off to seminary instead.

Francesca, I used to read about lacrosse in Enid Blyton books and always wished I could try it out. They do play it here now but not when I was a kid. Any sport with sticks is good, IMO! Except golf.

Looking at that link again I now feel squeamish since my (rather tiny) 12yo son will be playing it much against his will every Friday this term against other Catholic school teams. :/

Richmond (Cdl Pell's team) btw is shown in at least one of those segments. It's the team with the black top and yellow diagonal stripe.

I am a North Melbourne fan, myself (blue and white vertical stripes). The last time they won a premiership was the day my first child was born! (almost 14 years ago)

And just to impress y'all - I can dribble (bounce) an Aussie Rules football.

I should go down to the oval and get the kids to video me doing a demonstration for y'all. That at 34 weeks gestation would be an hilarious sight!

Yes, do! For some reason I can't get to YouTube at the moment so I can't see these examples.

The roots of American football are definitely visible in the rugby variants.

Yes, I think American football is very similar to rugby in principle, but with padding! Given what happens to rugby players' brains and bodies, I don't think the padding is bad though. My 43yo cousin has severe and crippling arthritis through his body because of rugby (plus a genetic tendency to arthritis).

I never understood rugby at all until I played a season of touch football, which is gentle rugby (or rugby for girls)! This was the last time I ever played field sports - about 12 years ago now.

I hated the thought of running around in that video, so perhaps I'll just bounce the ball from a stationary position!

The other sport that gives you a point for missing the goal is horseshoes.

Oh cruel: There were a few enjoyable things about watching soccer. No commercials, it looks good in HD and I was able to get some things done around the house since there was no real danger of missing anything.

But actually I disagree with that--with scores like 1-0, there's a danger that you'll miss *everything*.

Louise, if it's any consolation (for not having played lacrosse at school), we used to think the Enid Blyton boarding school books were hilariously unlike actual boarding school life.

At least in girls school lacrosse as we played it in those days, you are not supposed to hit each other with the stick. You are supposed to be using your stick to knock the ball out of the other chap's stick.

Yes, it looked like they were doing that part of the time. But not all the time. I suppose hitting the person is the sort of foul that players will commit when they think they can get away with it.


Having watched a couple of world cup games in the last few days, and having even been to a real live professional soccer match (Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution), I've actually been thinking about this stuff recently.

I think the reasons soccer isn't as popular here in the US have more to do with .... something like "cultural exposure" -- i.e., the amount of time that the average American has spent being exposed to soccer (in whatever fashion).... than with other factors inherent in the sport. After all, car racing is pretty popular here, and IMO is far more boring than pretty much any other sport.

I would slightly disagree with your characterization of soccer as having a lack of tension. I would say it's closer to being all tension, especially when the score is close. When the game is significantly one-sided, though, as in the case with most games in which one team is up by at least 2 goals, it can get genuinely boring, as the "up" team goes into a defensive posture, and the "down" team may get discouraged and stop playing well.

Another reason it may not be as popular here is that the sports TV market (around which the sports world revolves) is really saturated. Baseball season starts in April and ends with the world series in October. Football season starts in mid-August, and ends with the pro Super Bowl in the first week of February. Basketball starts in fall and ends with the NBA championship in June. This overlaps significantly with hockey. So there's really not any season in the US that's not populated with one of the "big 4" sports. This is in my view part of the reason for the failure of the various start-up pro leagues over the years, and partly why Major League Soccer (MLS) hasn't caught on more, though it's been around a while.

Additionally, there's no easy way to insert full commercials into televised soccer games, whereas all the other "big 4" sports have natural breaks in the action.

Lastly, on the subject of penalty kicks -- I agree that it's a terrible way to end a game. Soccer's not alone there, though -- hockey games are decided either by sudden death overtime or (failing that) by penalty shots, which are nearly as one-sided as soccer penalties. And of course NFL games are decided by sudden-death overtimes. This last thing is being changed for the upcoming year, as you probably know.

Anyway...just some thoughts.

Those are excellent points about the tv-unfriendliness of soccer--or I should say tv-commercial-unfriendliness--and the saturation of the tv schedule. I don't really think lack of exposure explains it at this point, though. Soccer has been a pretty big and growing part of American life for 25 or 30 years now, at least, but at the high school and younger levels. It's a game that can be played enjoyably and not too badly by kids who aren't that gifted or dedicated, so it's well suited for that level. But it stops for most people after high school. You could say that's because the space is filled by other sports, which is true, but it's also true that soccer doesn't have the appeal to push into that territory. I guess there's a chicken-egg thing--maybe if there was more interest at higher levels, there would be more possibilities, and vice versa.

I agree that NASCAR is boring, but it has other things that account for its mass appeal, not necessarily good things: sheer spectacle, noise, and serious danger. Similarly, hockey has that violent edge--though I must say that I don't find it any more interesting than soccer. But I suspect that if it appeared on the scene now, as a new thing, it probably wouldn't get very far--it's probably only established because it was something people could do outside in really cold places in winter.

I'm sure it's true that if you're playing, or watching with a lot of knowledge, the tension is there. But that's monotonous, too, if it's constant--drama needs tension *and* release.

It's not the sudden-death-ness that's the problem with the shootout as a tie-breaker, it's the...what's the word?...almost random or arbitrary quality, except that the kicker is favored. It really is, like one of those guys said, barely better than flipping a coin, and a trick coin at that. Football overtime is a miniature of the regular game, but in soccer it's almost like another sport is substituted--and it decides the game.

No, I didn't know that about the change in pro football--what's the change, exactly? Is it going to be like college, where it's not sudden death and each team gets a shot? I like that better.

Thinking about it more, I think your point about there really just not being much space for another bit-time sport is probably the main thing. Just how much time can the general public spend watching sports? Quite a lot, obviously, but finite. Personally I wish basketball season (college and pro combined) were a lot shorter.

The chicken-egg thing applies re the spread of soccer as a major-league spectator sport, too, now that I think about it: people might be more interested if they saw it more, and if they were more interested it would be more widely available and they would see it more.

Talk about something boring to watch: golf. In my opinion. Actually I find the whole golf cult rather annoying, but that's another topic.

re: exposure, lack thereof....You mentioned that soccer has been a growing part of American life for 25-30 years now. I agree, and therefore speculate that when those kids who started playing soccer back then begin to run media companies and own sports teams, we may see more soccer events here. Some of those "kids" are already doing just that, of course. It seems to me that MLS (major league soccer) is doing better now than it has in the past, perhaps for that reason. Of course, I could be completely wrong about that. And you're right, it is a kind of chicken/egg thing.

re other sports.....You mentioned that hockey wouldn't be as popular if it appeared now. I think that's true. In fact, hockey's popularity has been declining, at least in the US, pretty steeply. Maybe soccer can fill that "void" in the future.

re penalty kicks etc.....So I meant not to bring up the sudden-death thing, but to point out that in pro football ('Merican), the sudden death overtime rule amounts almost to a coin toss. This is because it's so relatively easy (with a good quarterback) to get into field goal range. The reason for the change in the NFL rules is because last year's NFC championship game (semi-final) was decided in this way. In that game, the quarterbacks were Drew Brees and Brett Favre, and certainly both those guys would've been able to get their teams into field goal range quickly. But Brees' team, the Saints, won the (actual) coin toss to decide who gets the ball first in overtime, and they won.

re: golf.....I confess that I have actually enjoyed watching golf in the last year or so, though I don't keep up with it at all. I like the pace of it, and I like the elements of timing and individual concentration.

I bet most people don't know that lacrosse is the official sport of Canada. It's true.

Our unofficial sport, of course, is hockey, and I'm afraid I must ask that these comparisons of hockey and soccer be put to an end. Mac, your original post about soccer is about the best I've seen at putting a finger on why it's so dull: shapelessness and stasis.

I can see why it might seem that the same criticisms apply to hockey, but the similarities are superficial. First, goals are scored in hockey. A typical game probably has a half-dozen goals, so the game develops as it progresses. Second, although hockey does not have well-defined set plays they way football and baseball do, and so it does not have the well-defined structure of tension and release, there really is a lot of drama and contrast in a typical hockey game. Penalties, in particular, lead to a good chunk of the game being played by "special teams", and there is a good deal of strategy and teamwork involved in doing that well.

On the other hand, it would be really nice if the popularity of hockey would decline in the US. Then we could get our teams back.

Jesse, I was thinking about why professional soccer isn't becoming more popular for the reason you cite--all the people in their 20s and 30s who played soccer when they were in school. But then it occurred to me that they were playing soccer, but then going home and watching basketball, football and baseball. My son (30) played soccer for 9 years--maybe more--and he was goalie, but now he's a big basketball and football fan.


No, I had no idea at all that lacrosse was the official sport. I would have assumed it was hockey. I will quit picking on hockey think you're going to have a hard time convincing the unconvinced that hockey is more interesting than soccer--apart from the fights, of course. Which I've always assumed play the role of wrecks in NASCAR.

About 20 years ago a vogue for hockey had rinks being built in odd places, like the deep south. There was a pro team here for a while...I guess that was in the '90s. It's ok with me, though, if your teams go home.

Yeah, Jesse, you're right about the pro football overtime. I only recently started watching pro football and had forgotten the overtime rules were that rigged (so to speak).

I would rather watch fishing than golf.

This is kind of a good summary of the state of the question:

Too bad about the bad call in the USA-Slovenia game today. That would have been a good game to watch. Unfortunately it was on at 9am CDT, so most Americans would have had to take off work or skip school to see it.

Or get up started at 7 pacific time. I watched a little but had to turn it off at halftime.

I liked that NRO article you posted. I agreed with most of what it said, the exception being the proposition that someone like LeBron James might've done well in soccer. He might've been a good player, but there's no guarantee that he would've turned the soccer world on its head. It's like saying, what if John Coltrane had been a classical saxophone player? At some level the question doesn't make any sense to me. I don't think that athletic skills are necessarily universal. Or, to put it another way, just because an athlete performs at a very high level in one sport doesn't mean he will (or would have, had he started earlier) perform at the same level in a different sport.

But the larger point is probably true. I'm sure that if pro soccer players commanded the same salaries in the US as star basketball players do, or as their soccer-playing colleagues do in other countries, we'd produce a larger number of high-level players. As it is, the best players in the US can make the biggest money by playing in one of the top-tier European leagues, which probably seems a lot farther off to a young soccer-star-to-be.

Janet, good point about kids playing soccer & then going home & watching other sports on TV. I'm sure it was/is that way for the vast majority of such youngsters, myself included. I would imagine, though, that there would be a small subset of those kids for whom the interest would never die, and a smaller subset still who would try to evangelize for soccer in some fashion...and I suppose an even smaller subset STILL who would have the means to make it happen. Who knows? It hasn't happened yet...

re hockey. Mac, you talked about NHL hockey teams in the Deep South...from CBS sports, NHL teams in the South: Tampa, Miami (a.k.a. "Florida"), Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte (a.k.a. "Carolina"), Dallas, St. Louis. Also Phoenix, LA, & Anaheim, but those are hardly the South :).

I have been a hockey fan in earlier years -- I was a Detroit Red Wings fan in the mid to late 90s but haven't kept up, mostly because none of my current group of friends are into hockey. I still like it, I just don't keep up with it much anymore.

No, you can't really say of any specific person (I'm not even sure who LeBron James is--NBA, I gather?) that he would or should have been a great soccer player. But I think the bigger point is valid: that there are probably a lot of basketball and football players who would be really good at soccer. And really the guy is sort of tiptoeing around the racial aspect: soccer is a heavily white sport in the US, for various cultural sorts of reasons, and there is quite obviously an awful lot of athletic talent in the African-American community. I would think some of the characteristic abilities that help A-As be wildly "over-represented" (as they say) in basketball & football would lend themselves well to soccer.

It's slightly strange that soccer would be considered a sport for the relatively affluent, since part of the reason for its worldwide popularity seems to be that you don't need anything but a ball and some open space, preferably also a couple of nets, to get started.

I wasn't aware of the "theatrical flopping" the NRO guy mentions.

It does seem to me that interest is a little higher every time the WC rolls around. Having some world-class homegrown players helps, probably.

More from Duncan Currie, on that bad call--everybody seems agreed that it *was* bad:

You must have seen a miniscule amount of footie on TV (I mean, even less than I have), Mac, not to be aware of the 'diving'. I only watch the worldcup, and it's a key element - Italians, especially, are famous for theatrical dives in the hope of penalty kicks. It's an art form in itself, if performed near the goal. It was a striking (or not!) feature of the America/England match that no-one was throwing themselves on the ground.

This Czech advert for rugby also alludes to the practice that Francesca mentions.

"You must have seen a miniscule amount of footie on TV..."

Precisely. Probably under 5 hours, lifetime total. Definitely under 10, even if you count half-watching it while eating in a Mexican restaurant. Pretty funny that the Italians are famous for it.

Francesca, I cannot tell how bitterly disappointed I was to discover that boarding school was not really like Enid Blyton's accounts. I was fairly certain that hitting other players was not the objective in lacrosse, but any gameinvolving sticks has to include the possibily that one might get to hit an opponent with it and that's always an exciting prospect!

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