How soccer-phobic Americans can learn to love the World Cup

2010 FIFA World Cup logo

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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7 Responses to How soccer-phobic Americans can learn to love the World Cup

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  2. jiam says:

    The basic mistake here is trying to like something that you don’t really “need to” like. Forcing it seems unnatural to me. Specially when you are talking about a sport.

    A better approach in my opinion is to try to figure out if you might like a sport. It is about education and exposure. To me this is a three-step process:
    1. Learn the rules of the game
    2. Ask questions about the culture of the game (top players, top teams, tournaments, history)
    3. If you can, go out and play – that’s how you will appreciate the pros expertise.

    Maybe after that, you will appreciate the nature of ties in soccer, something that I personally love and a reflection of life in general (circumstances in life are not always a win/lose). You need to look at the big picture (the tournament…the long run). It’s an opportunity lost (if you expected to win) or a good thing (if odds were against you). You’ll get some points but not as much as if you had won.

    Also, scoring a goal in Football (the correct name of the sport) is VERY difficult, but until you play it you wouldn’t realize it. Again, it is about education and exposure.

    Americans don’t know what they’re missing. The World Cup is a global Superbowl that lasts 30 days. It’s crazy and wonderful.

    Now I’m off to prepare to watch Germany’s match!

  3. Daniel Fath says:

    I assume you’re referring to that group of Americans who don’t give a toss about soccer, and not Americans as a whole. In which case, I think the better approach would be to simply ignore them. Every four years the US media resurrects this tired old meme … and the net result, as far as I can tell, is nil. I know plenty of soccer-savvy Americans, and I would wager that you do, too. So the question is “Why should we give a damn about the non-believers?” We shouldn’t – it smacks of insecurity and the need for validation. Sorry the editor stuck you with this assignment.

  4. tsean says:

    If someone thinks watching World cup soccer is a waste of time, I say screw ’em. If you don’t enjoy soccer, best of luck to you, there’s plenty of other stuff you can be doing with your time. Anyone who watched the US England game and considered it a waste of time and boring, there is no argument to convince them otherwise. Walk on, I say…

  5. Pingback: Stop Treating Soccer Like the Spectator Sport Equivalent of Brussel Sprouts - Jody DiPerna - Fan Overboard - True/Slant

  6. Brian Donovan says:

    It’s tough for me to be enthused about America taking 12 shots. In fact, that makes it sound even worse. They played for 90 minutes and got…12 shots off? Were they taking smoke breaks or something?

    I have started to appreciate soccer more this season (barring the vuvuzelas), but I don’t get why people get so upset that Americans don’t embrace it. It’s quite unlike all our major sports, except maybe hockey, which ain’t doing so hot either. It doesn’t make Americans neanderthals for liking high scores, they just like what they’re used to.

  7. artguerrilla says:

    1. not a ‘soccer-phobe’, just that soccer sux as a spectator sport… (that can be objectively proven)
    2. i remember ‘playing’ soccer in school (ie standing around watching long-stockinged ants at the other end of the field run around in circles), it was boring and stupid… shit, tether ball was/is more fun to play…
    3. many other authors have waxed lyrically on just about ANY sport… writing ABOUT a sport should not be confused with PLAYING (OR spectating) a sport…
    4. i would *LIKE* to like soccer: it is egalitarian, universal, and minimalist, utilizing one of the fundamental sporting activities (running… unfortunately, that is ALL soccer uses of elemental athletic actions: it is a one dimensional sport…); but it sucks…
    5. *NOT* that other sporting events don’t have drinking and hooliganism, but soccer is MOSTLY renowned in amerika because of drunken fans and the resulting soccer riots…
    *OF COURSE* the fans get drunk out of their skulls and fight in the stands, there’s nothing going on of much interest on the playing field ! ! !
    6. i don’t ‘like’ football (you know, *real* he-man football, not futbol), necessarily, but it IS a FAR more exciting game to watch, that is simply true…
    7. as far as that goes, there are a LOT of sports i would LIKE to see more of on the teevee, but they are not shown for all kinds of reasons… for example, i am not a huge track and field fan, know the top runners, etc; but i DO like to watch track and field on occasion and appreciate all the fine athletic performances of people i have never heard of…
    hardly ever shown…
    8. i’m a PC, and soccer sux…
    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

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