World Cup season is upon us with play beginning last Thursday afternoon (the US get its first match later today), which means going on facebook or twitter involves wading through a morass of deeply divided opinions and perspectives.
Some of my friends love soccer and are reveling in the World Cup, and others think it is stupid and they want the world to know!
Playing and loving soccer (as a red-blooded US citizen), for the past 20 years, I’ve learned that soccer is the great American Rorschach test.
People will see in it whatever the want to see: everything from feminine floppers and over-paid divas who undermine traditional concepts of competitiveness to the beautiful game enjoyed by all the world. It is either everything that is right or everything that is wrong with the US, the earth, sports, politics, and people. I would argue that this is part of what makes soccer so special and so popular: people talk about it and they talk about it passionately.
(A quick aside: I cannot for the life of me understand why people love MMA or boxing. But they do. I cast my vote with my eyes: I don’t watch it, and I certainly don’t tweet about how stupid I think it is. If you think soccer is dumb, I have one piece of advice: do what I do with MMA…DON’T WATCH).
Let me address a couple of common issues with the game, and then I’ll give you my true theory as to why American’s struggle with soccer (and why I don’t think it will ever fully catch on here, even if we produce a Cup champion).
Typically, the first target of derision is focused around flopping. I don’t think people who complain about this truly understand what a flop is. A flop is not any time a player falls on the ground. Put 22 men out on a pitch, running around at full speed, chasing a ball, and they are going to run into each other and fall down. Ninety percent of “flops” are, upon seeing a replay, truly fouls or incidents where a player is knocked over (or stepped on, or kicked…none of which, by the way, feels good).
There are flops, no doubt about it. It is a skill and a strategy, and it can be used to great effectiveness and it can certainly be abused. But, sometimes it is the only strategy a team might have if they have any hope of surviving a match. The reality, though, according to the numbers run in Soccernomics is that penalties have a very low determinant on who wins the game. Talent and home field almost always trump referees and penalties.
Which leads to another common complaint: the referees are terrible, too arbitrary, too subjective, and have too much influence on the outcome of the game. The same article I referenced above makes the case that while there are always those glaring exceptions (as there are in any sport), the referees have little influence on the outcome of the game compared to other factors.
Moreover, what is interesting to me is that many of the same people who complain about soccer refs complain about instant replay in other sports. Especially IR in baseball in which the “human element” and mistakes/subjectivity by umpires is almost held as sacred (so what do you want, the right call or the human element?).
The NFL, NBA, and MLB have all had significant incidents of referees directly influencing the outcome of the game, but this is never held as a criticism of THE SPORT, only as criticism of the referees. In soccer, the failures of refs are always as a failure of the game itself.
Undoubtedly both of these issues are frustrating, and to a casual fan I can understand why they are difficult hurdles to jump over.
But, here’s the real reason I think American’s struggle with soccer. It’s not the refs, it’s not the flops, it’s not even the low scoring.
Soccer is about the process. It is messy and gray and the results don’t always match the process. It is, inherently, the most unjust of all of the major sports. And, quite frankly, the rest of the world is a little more familiar with injustice than Americans are.
I love soccer, but the most frustrating aspect of the game for me, is that a team can posses the ball for 60, 70, even 80 percent of the time, play dominantly, and lose 1-0 because of one perfect counter attack by the other team (by the way this is the strategy the US has used to great effect in it’s strong showings at the World Cup in 2002 and 2010).
In other words, one team can dominate the game and still lose. It’s unjust.
The goal of soccer is not goals, it is creating dangerous, high quality opportunities to score. Create enough opportunities and goals will come. Over time, the team that is able to consistently do that will win many matches. A team can’t control goals, but it can control the process that leads to goals.
This is true of any sport. You will hear batters, in baseball, talk about their swings and trying “square the ball up,” knowing that that’s really all they can control. In football, teams focus on execution: blocks, patterns, reads, etc, but no sport is as fundamentally process oriented as soccer.
To be a soccer fan is to embrace process over results, mess over order, and injustice over deserved outcomes. Again, the rest of the world is more comfortable with these ideas than we are.
I hope soccer continues to grow in popularity, but I also know that it’s never going to be huge here in the US. This world cup has already been pretty fantastic and it’s only going to get better from here, so if you are ready, now is a great time to jump in and embrace the messy, injustice of the world’s beautiful game.