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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Behold the Soccer Bigots

I've been so distracted with the World Cup, and brain-damaged by the sound of vuvuzelas, that I've hardly had the time to post. I'm working up to it, I assure you. The following though is a variation of a post at my sadly, neglected personal blog (not that personal) to tide you over until the new stuff gets done.

FYI - Just to be clear, "Bigots" in the title does not refer to racial bigotry in any way. As unpleasant as some soccer haters can be, fair's fair.

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When the discussion turns to sports, as it often does with a group of males under the age of 150 who aren’t busy ogling women or eating BBQ, inevitably someone will offer an opinion on which sport it is that excites them most*. They will speak wistfully of childhood encounters with athletes both legendary and surly, often the same people. They will grunt and nod and scratch, especially if the sport is baseball, and wipe a tear from their eyes. Then, I will take my turn, and faster than Usain Bolt at altitude after a coffee break, the conversation will turn ugly. I will suddenly be confronted by a plethora of sneers, raspberries, other faux bodily noises, and rapid reflexive scratching from the baseball guys. Welcome to the world of a soccer fan in America.

Mind you, everyone won't respond that way.  By now, even the most backwoods, cold-war era survivalist nut has heard of the sport. It’s only the most popular one in the world, the one played by more nations than there are in the United Nations and called football by all of them except us, Canada, and animals (who refer to it as “Yahtzee”). It’s one of the most popular sports played by American youths these days as well. Yet, there is a class of highly biased people, let’s call them the "average American sports writer." This predictable bunch responds to the word “soccer” as though someone had just taped over their VHS video of Super Bowl XXXVI with an episode of “Trading Spaces” or surreptitiously switched their beer for a mimosa.

I recently read a column by a writer whose name I have since forgotten, so I will refer to him as Maurice. Maurice suggested that the reason some American kids play soccer is because they are too uncoordinated to play other sports. I suppose it takes real coordination to fling a small hard ball in the vicinity of someone’s head or to grab a football and run directly into a pile of kids made up of everyone on the field, including a couple of over-zealous team dads. Maurice - who's nickname is probably Sheila, so let's call him that - suggested that soccer was a way to get kids out of the house between piano lessons. Sheila is apparently as familiar with soccer as Russell Brand is with hair grooming products. If he were in the game they would have left the tackle from behind legal, just for him.

Soccer of course is that sport that people play primarily with their feet.  It's a game where, if you want to stop a ball coming out of the air at full speed - which for adult amateurs would be anywhere between 40 to 70 miles an hour, you have to do something other than just reach out and slap at it with your mitts. Soccer players do this and more. Some kids are able to keep the ball in the air for lengthy periods of time, juggling from foot to knee to head. Whereas, the average soccer-hating sports writer would inevitably lodge the thing in his mouth, the only legal maneuver in the sport he could pull off, besides the throw in.

Soccer players do all the stuff they do with the ball in a game where they'll run 5-7 miles and regularly get elbowed, kicked, and charged to the ground. The average soccer-hating American sportswriter would have passed out and gone into cardiac-arrest after the first 800 yards of that, if they hadn't already choked on their donut at the sound of the words "run 5 to 7 miles."

There are plenty of lame excuses on offer for their soccer bigotry. Some weakly argue that there’s not enough scoring. These are the same individuals who could sit through a 22 inning, 1-0 baseball game, decided on a bases loaded balk, and marvel in 800-1500 words the next day in a column about the electrifying “pitchers’ duel” they witnessed the night before. They'd wear out their thesauruses looking for synonyms for "tense" and "anticipation."

There are some who complain about the violence that is reported in some soccer loving countries. Sadly, it's true that it has happened on occasion. However, I invite each of these individuals to spend the evening in the low-rent streets of a major domestic metropolitan city or big college town the night of a big championship win or loss to prove their point ...no fair cheating with police escorts or driving around in tanks. Better yet, I invite them to spend 20 minutes in a small vehicle with Bobby Knight under the pretense that he invites probing questions.

Some ironically argue that soccer isn't violent enough.  "It's not a contact sport! It's for 'sissies'!" They'd never last 10 minutes in a real soccer match.  I myself have separated a rib, sprained my neck, and broken a bone in my face playing soccer.  I once came home from a friendly pick-up game with cleat marks that extended from my forehead to back beyond my hairline. True, it would never have happened were I wearing a football helmet.**

My own suspicions as to the source of soccer hatred are two-fold. The first is that soccer doesn’t satisfy the mania some Americans have for sports statistics. I’m sure you know what I mean: “Well, Johnson is batting only .120 in situations with the bases loaded, against left-handers with migraine headaches, on windy days with a southwesterly cold front, in Eastern division cities in July, when attendance is under 10,000, under the lights…and there’s the swing ...and it’s out of here for a grand-slam.”

And yet our country continues to lag behind other nations in math education!

The second is ignorance. It is said that people hate and seek to destroy what they cannot understand***. The tax code proves this point, but I digress. Soccer-haters often complain about the mystifying rules in the sport. In reality, soccer is nicknamed "the simplest game" for a reason. There's a ball and two goals. The object is to kick the ball in the other guy's goal.

The most common gripe about the complexity of soccer rules is the offside rule; you know, the one that says that an offensive player must have two people even with or between them and the goal at the moment the ball is passed to them. That’s it. That’s the rule that has twisted many an otherwise astute sportswriter into Buffalo-wing-sauce stained knots. There’s no calculus involved, just a simple matter of where the player is when the ball is passed. Yet, many of the same people who contort with discomfort when this is explained to them can themselves explain, without notes, all possible variances of (American) football’s illegal shift rule.

Fear is at play here also, fear that if soccer catches on to any extent their precious games will fall by the wayside, putting shoulder pad and catcher’s mask manufacturers out of business everywhere. Not any time soon. America is a big country with arms larger than George Foreman’s and room for lots of sports (although I will admit, if tennis disappeared tomorrow you'd have to nudge me before I noticed).  Soccer arrival only demonstrates this while adding to the great sporting atmosphere and lucrative merchandising that already exists.

Ignore soccer? Fine. Watch something else if you like. You have to be a pretty miserable type though to invest the energy some do in trying to convince the rest of us that it's somehow boring and undemanding.

The only thing that's truly boring and undemanding is the same old anti-soccer schtick that gets recycled everytime soccer gets too close to these fellows' world. Sadly for them, that's going to be a pretty constant siutation.

* If they are ogling women, "mud-wrestling" will be the answer, nine times out of ten.
** Don't get me wrong.  Football in America is as physically demanding a sport as they come. When a 300+ dude falls on you, pads or no, he's going to squash something.
*** This applies to cats and furniture, as well.

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