Friday, March 03, 2006

Anti-ESPN: Part 2 Soccer and the "Worldwide Leader in Sports"

As I watched Sportscenter last night, waiting for Red Sox highlights which in the end amounted to watching Coco Crisp stretch a single into a double, I heard the phrase that anyone who watches the show knows: ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Then I got to thinking, is that really true? It probably is statistically, but I have a big problem with that claim. First of all, what is the biggest, most followed sport in the entire world? That's right, football. No, not THAT football you ignorant American. Futbol. Soccer. You know what I'm talking about. Are Americans so arrogant that we are just going to ignore the rest of the world and their passion for soccer? Its like the metric system; the whole world might use this system, but not us. Fuck the world, we're America. I think one obvious reason that soccer isn't as big here as it is everywhere else is simple: American Football.

In high school, I played soccer. I'm proud of that. Now if you're Jonny Highschool Football reading this, you have called me a fag and a pussy in the last two seconds. That may be a slight exaggeration, but not much. Soccer players in high school, in general, are looked upon as guys who can't hack it on the football field. I had more than enough athletic ability to play football, but I didn't want to, plain and simple. The football coach at my school was a complete and utter fanatic, and possibly the most irrational man on Earth when it came to people who dared not play football. His world was black and white: 'If you play football, you're a real man. If you don't, I don't want anything to do with you. But if you play soccer or don't play a sport at all, you are standing on the lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder and I hope it breaks.' Although this was my experience, I would wager that it is similiar, to one degree or another, to what happens all across our country. Its this attitude that dilutes the pool of talented athletes who might chose to play soccer, and creates a negative opinion of it in the publics conscious, especially with younger people.

Obviously there are other factors involved, but everyone has been to high school; you want to be considered cool, and that usually doesn't involve soccer. Besides the influence of American football, what other reasons influence the lack of popularity of soccer in this country? One point would be that, until recently, the United States didn't have a chance in hell of beating a decent national team from other parts of the world. And if there is one thing American's like, its to be #1. How can an American sports fan get behind a team that is consistently beaten by teams from other countries? Another contributing factor is that there just isn't much soccer coverage in this country. ESPN, the so-called Worldwide Leader sure isn't carrying it. I know you can get channels that do carry soccer games, like Fox Sports Net, but you have to pay extra for that. Its almost like there are American sports, then whatever the rest of the world is doing. Cricket? Rugby? Soccer? Those are games for Europeans and guys who can't make it playing American sports.

Finally, I believe that Major League Soccer (MLS) has something to do with it. The quality of play, the style of play favored by American teams, pales in comparision to the European or South American soccer game. The MLS style makes for sluggish and sloppy play. Also, most of the major world stars play on club teams in Europe, thus eliminating some of that good ol' U.S.A. marketability. In the U.S., its not only what you can do on the field, but what you can do for Sony or Samsung or whoever is sponsering the team. Also, soccer games don't usually consist of a lot of scoring, and thats the only thing most American sports fans can understand. The Home Run. The Touchdown. The Slam Dunk. Americans don't care about setting up plays from midfield, and scoring chances. They want the bottom line; Score, or my limited attention span will be directed elsewhere.

The winds of change are starting to blow, and they have nothing to do with The Scorpions. The World Cup is being played this year. For those that don't know, a normal soccer season consists of players from all over the world joining club teams in different countries, such as Juventus in Italy, Barcelona in Spain, and Manchester United in England. These teams consist of great players with names such as Ibrahimovic, Ronaldinho, and Rooney. These players come from different countries to play for their club teams, but every four years the World Cup takes place. The World Cup is a tournament where each country is represented by the best players from that country. Its like the Super Bowl of soccer, although calling it that is sort of an insult. While the Super Bowl gets wrung through the U.S. media hype machine and usually does not deliver the promised greatness, the World Cup does. This is where the best bring their best, and usually produce the best results. For soccer fans, the World Cup represents heaven on earth. It is also a forum to display fanatical nationalism and support for their team, something Americans have no interest in doing. The 2006 World Cup presents not only an opportunity to change the world's perception of U.S. soccer, but to change the perception of soccer in America.

Perhaps ESPN doesn't realize it way out in Conneticut, but there are a lot of immigrants in the U.S. Many of them still feverishly support their respective countries soccer teams. I live near New Bedford, MA, which recently has considered changing its name to PortugueseLand. I know for a fact that any time Portugal plays, their fans watch, no matter where in the world they are. Brick layers who live check to check will skip meals to pay to watch the games. So why don't American's pay attention? Its like if you are at a party and everyone is drinking the punch, but you stick to your beer because you don't know about anything else and automatically label the punch as being stupid. This is year for the U.S. citizens to try the is very good incidently.
In a discussion with my friend, a soccer enthusiast I'll call 'Garrett', we spoke about a very relevant topic; there are four major sports in the U.S. Hockey has been declining in popularity and quality since the early 90's, and we were saying that is a matter of time before soccer overtake hockey as the fourth sport in America. We both decided that while this change wasn't going to happen tomrrow, it is imminent. But then we considered the World Cup. For instance, if the United States can beat a team like Brazil, what would that do for soccer in America? It could push up the replacement of hockey by years. If they advance deep into the tournament, people will pay attention. It will make stars out of players on the team, which will translate to success for what amounts to club teams in the U.S., the MLS. It will make the MLS a profitable business and a place companies will look for sponsorship, leading to soccer eventually being fully integrated into the sports culture in the United States.

The question isn't if, but when. When will Americans wake up and realize that they are misusing their sports time, wasting it watching overpaid 18 year old play basketball and hockey games that can't compare the quality of hockey in the 80's. Soccer is not an easy sport to play. I know I could have played football, but I know a lot of football players who couldn't play soccer. It requires a different coordination, using ones feet instead of hands or a bat or club to strike the ball. Beyond that, soccer requires, and breeds, creativity. Have you ever seen Ronaldinho, the King of Kings, with the ball at his feet? Have you ever watched David Beckham bend a ball more than the laws of physics should allow? What about Thierry Henry rip a seed from outside the 18 into the upper 90? The world loves soccer because it is the world's game; you can play in a Third World Country just as easily as if you were standing in front of 60,000 at Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, in England. A soccer players blend of athleticsm and creativity leaves every door open during a match, making them unpredictable, incredible, and entertaining. ESPN had better pay attention, because if you are going to claim to be the world's leader in sports coverage, you have to include the world, not just America. Soccer is coming America, and fast. It is better to prepare now than to be caught flat-footed when it happens. This summer could change the sports landscape in the United States for ever...Here's hoping it does.


Blogger chris said...

I think a major misconception with sports today is that if you dont need a helmet and pads its a soft sport. The reality of it is that if you gave a good rugby player pads and a helmet they would feel invinceable and could probably lead the NFL in rushing every year laughing as 300lb, out of shape, overpaid to lean on guys their size, landed on them every play. An example is the Jets new punter Ben Graham. He played professional rugby for years before trying out for the NFL. He told a story in an interview of the first day of practice when he first punted a ball in a "game situation" and proceeded downfield to try to hit the return man as hard as he could. When Herm "We're on the bus" Edwards tried to explain to him that he isn't supposed to get involved that far up field he was a little embarrassed and thought "I don't want to let this guy run all over the place. I want to put him in the ground." He probably also thought "what a bunch of fags." Here is a guy who is used to full contact no pads football basically. And if you've ever seen rugby hit highlights you know those guys take much more of a beating, with a solid hit, than the NFL-ers ever do.
As for ESPN and soccer; the closest they come to being embassadors for the game is the college tournament and the odd Champions League (Which is a tournament of the best European Club teams) game. These games air at 2:30 pm on Tuesdays or Wednesdays usually. In reality who is home to watch these games? Mothers, grandparents and housekeepers. Kids are getting out of school and want to play their own games or use the new swimming pool (i.e. video games) after being couped up in school all day.
A big problem for soccer is that the World Cup takes place every 4 years. So interest dies for about 3 then kind of boils up during the World Cup year. There is actually a pretty good level of patriotism for the few weeks of the tournament but when the U.S. gets ousted early in the knock out stage people get so disinterested and stop watching. It makes you think that the U.S. could enter any kind of tournament and the people just care that its USA they dont care what they are doing in the tournament. They could be in the World Cup of peeling oranges and there would be a following until the U.S. was out. Proving the earlier point that U.S. citizens look at things with a "kill other countries" mentality and pay no attention to what is going on on the playing field. One of the best games in any sport in recent years was last years Champions League final where Liverpool was down 3-0 to AC Milan at halftime and came back to tie it and win in a shootout. Anyone who knows sports would know that being down 3-0 in a soccer game at halftime, especially to a team like AC Milan, is like being down by 30 at halftime to the '05-'06 Pistons or down 21 at the half to the '85 Bears. You just don't have a chance. American's obsession with scoring is so sickening that a guy could pitch a perfect game and his team will win 2-0 and some will say the game had no action. That is history and people can't appreciate it. The guy would have to throw a perfect game and go 4-4 with 2 jacks and 7 RBI for people to love what happened. Its kind of sad. Another thing that hurts soccer is that it is never going to draw the "best" athletes. Let's face it, even Larry Bird the most dominant and probably top 5 tough white athletes ever, said that African Americans are simply better athletes. If you were to ask one to play a sport where they can't jump very often or go one on one all game they would say no thanks and go grab a basketball. A soccer game is 90 minutes long. American athletes don't want to run around that much. They would rather sprint, rest, sprint, rest for an hour. Dont get me wrong I love Football, Baseball and (College) Basketball but where have you seen lazier people than on a baseball field in the majors? Athletes these days dont even want to play for coaches that want them to hustle. I will say, however, that probably no one could play every down as hard as they can in a football game, but you've got guys announcing that they "take plays off" and they are making millions of dollars a season. There's factory workers in the mid-west that would play every down on the off/def line for double their salary.
A major difference, pointed out earlier, is the "north american" style of sports. Tough, slow, methodical. Hooray. We stood no chance in the olympics with hockey because the game is played with so much skill in Europe that it looked like figure skaters vs. the U.S. Now I know the games were all close, but lets be realistic. If we weren't tough we might not have scored at all. Same with soccer. I think American soccer players are realizing conditioning and skill win the World Cup and as they are improving themselves the U.S. team is more competitive.
Flat out, how exciting is watching two teams score 40-50 times a game in basketball? Games should be a quarter long. People say "you only have to watch the last two minutes of a basketball game" and that to me is a joke. You take a casual fan or a non-fan to a hockey game and there isn't a person in the world that doens't leave saying "that's the most exciting sporting event I've ever been to." It's because every shot counts. A guy winds up for a howitzer from the blue line and 19,000 hearts stop. Nobody cringes in the first quarter when a guy sets up for a 3 pointer because they know the other team will have 60 other chances to match it. If they made touchdowns worth 2 pts and then the extra point people would hate football or love hockey if a goal was worth 7 points.
As for soccer catching hockey, I'm not sure we will be alive for the day soccer takes over hockey (the hit hockey took with 2 lockouts in about 10 years brought them down a lot. No one likes greedy people.) but just the fact that they might be on an even keel at some point says something about how soccer is growing. People don't really play soccer much because the success is "too team oriented" and everyone wants to succeed for themselves nowadays.

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