Yesterday’s U.S.-England soccer match-up was just a few minutes old when an American viewer made a grand pronouncement: The tie game was a royal bore. “A waste of 90 minutes,” declared Dennis Cao. “I might as well have not watched in the first place since the end result did not advance either team. I will probably not watch another match of soccer for a long while.”
Cao’s comments were predictable – and unnecessary. The same arguments are regurgitated by soccer-phobic Americans every time the World Cup arrives: Soccer has too little scoring; soccer “action” (players running up and down the field) is monotonous; ties in soccer are totally unsatisfying. In short, this argument goes, who gives a s-h-*-t about soccer?
The short answer: Tens of millions around the world, including a large percentage of Americans who attend Major League Soccer games, who shepherd their children to soccer games (that’s me), who see in soccer the reflections of other sports and cultural activities that Americans otherwise love. Here are five simple ways that more Americans can appreciate the World Cup:
(5) Think of every shot as an achievement. The final U.S.-England score was 1-1, but both squads took at least a dozen shots (the U.S. 12, England 18). Just maneuvering into proximity to the goal is an accomplishment. Kicking the ball at the goalie is an accomplishment almost worth celebrating – the equivalent of getting a runner to third base in baseball. In Major League Baseball, fans go wild when their team gets that close to home. In the NFL, too, cheers erupt when a team edges toward a touchdown. This close-to-scoring precipice happened 30 times in yesterday’s England-U.S. game. Not bad. Not bad at all.
(4) Appreciate the running and soccer-handling that takes place. The running that World Cup players undertake is a testament to their intense athletic ability. Ditto the way they control the ball with their feet. Unlike, say, NFL players, who may sprint for just a few seconds, soccer players are in constant motion, racing whole stretches of a field to get where they want to go – all the while battling defenders trying to undermine their progress. Soccer players are arguably the best athletes on the planet. Without question, their sprinting is full of drama and style – as good as anything on Broadway.
(3) Consider the World Cup as a Presidential election. Like a race for the White House, the World Cup only happens every four years. Both start with a long list of contenders. Both weed out those contenders in match-ups that test the contestants’ durability and smarts. The contenders have spent lifetimes to even get into a position to win big. Their time on stage is intense and revealing. It has to be with so much at stake.
(2) Soak up the players’ and teams’ storylines. England is battling a history of falling short. The United States has never won a World Cup. This was part of the backdrop to yesterday’s game. So, too, is the story of the U.S. goalie, Tim Howard, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. The New Yorker just had a big article on Howard and the U.S. squad, giving readers more reason to watch yesterday’s game and see how Howard – one of America’s highest-paid soccer players – fared against the favored English. Howard made a series of memorable saves. His medical history is unlike that of any current pro athlete in America.
(1) Revel in the world uniting for a good cause. Never mind the fighting that occurs among soccer fans (a fact that my True/Slant colleague Ethan Epstein pointed out this week). In the World Cup, nations vie against each other without economics at stake, without militaries at stake, without political power at stake. When Iran played the United States in 1998, it led – briefly, it turned out – to closer relations between the two countries. “Soccer diplomacy,” it was called.
World Cup games are so much more than wins, losses and ties. When more Americans realize that, soccer will find a much greater foothold in this country.