As I am hardly the first to observe, Americans are finally catching on, this World Cup season, to soccer. It's not only that the TV ratings are soaring -- it's that they (i.e., we) are finally developing the kind of passion for the game that everyone else in the world seems to have by genetic endowment . The fact that so many people are pissed off about the national team's miserable performance last Monday against the Czechs is, perhaps paradoxically, a sign of this; we played miserably in 1990 and 1998, too, but not only did few people in the country care, few even really understood how badly we had played, because few people really understood the difference between good play and bad play. [It's why US coverage always focused almost exclusively on stories about soccer hooligans and soccer riots -- sports reporters and correspondents never knew enough about the game itself to say anything intelligent about it. Listen to Brent Musberger on the ESPN pre-game show to hear what I mean; he hasn't the faintest idea what's going on on the field, and nothing to say about the games].
I watched Monday's in a filled-to-the-gills bar in Washington DC, and, having just come back from four months in Italy where I watched a lot of soccer and where, obviously, I was among some of the world's greatest and most knowledgeable soccer fans, I can tell you that we're finally becoming real soccer fans. Which means we will despair -- like the Ukrainians are now despairing, and the Poles, and the Costa Ricans, and the Swedes -- when our teams fail us.
And if you're looking for reasons that the World Cup is something special -- unique -- in the world, watch Costa Rica v. Poland next Tuesday. Both teams have lost their first two matches, and neither can progress into the tournament's second round; after Tuesday's game, they go home. It would seem to have the makings of a really lousy match -- Kansas City Royals v. Tampa Bay on a hot late-August afternoon: nothing to play for, nothing at stake. Worse, even; soccer is a game of will, of charging down the field over and over and over again even though the chances that any one charge produces a goal is cruelly small; where are the players going to find drive and desire for 90 minutes of intense effort with "nothing at stake"?
In fact, of course, there's lots at stake - that's what makes this the World Cup, and why I can virtually guarantee you that it will be a terrific match, full of passion and intensity, the stadium filled with supporters, each teams' last chance to show its fans and the world that it deserved to be here, that it's worthy of all the high hopes that had been bestowed on them. Go Ticos!
Another Reason to Love the World Cup, Continued
I feel like I unleashed a real torrent with my earlier posting about the manifold joys (not shared by all commenters, to put it mildly!)of the World Cup.
Naysayers should watch the first five minutes of today's Argentina-Serbia&Montenegro match for a perfect illustration of what I had in mind. Argentina scored a truly magnificent goal -- 12 separate passes in the offensive third of the field, a beautiful slow build-up to the final charge into the box (an Argentine defender, who saw an opening and burst into it) and the great finish. [the second goal, with TWENTY-FOUR PASSES leading up to the finish, was even more magnificent).
The usual pile-up celebration followed; but what was really great was the shot of two of the Argentine players, a defender and the goalkeeper, away from the pile-up; the emotion that poured out of them visible on their faces was pretty intense -- there's not much else one ever can see on TV that touches it. If you think (as many do, with lots of justification) that big-time sports is too often just about the money, see if you can find a replay.
What's Up with South Asia?
There is a single corner of the world where nobody is paying the slightest attention to the World Cup -- what's up with that? It's not enough to say India and Pakistan don't have "soccer culture" -- China, and Korea, and Japan, and Thailand, and Togo, and Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, and . . . didn't have soccer cultures, either, and they're now as soccer-mad as the best of them. But the billion or so Indians and Pakistanis could care less about the whole thing -- I don't even think they have national soccer teams. Something's going on, though I can't say I have the faintest idea what it is.
Nice article by King Kaufman over on Salon about scoring (in the World Cup, that is). As he points out, the statistic that the ESPN guys insist on throwing into our faces at every possible opportunity (i.e., "the team that scores first is 21-2-3 in this tournament so far!") is basically meaningless; in a low-scoring sport like soccer, scoring any goal is crucial, so the fact that the team that scores first wins much of the time is obvious and uninteresting. The interesting statistic is the one they never mention: as Kaufman puts it:
If a goal is scored and ESPN flashes a graphic saying, "Teams that have scored first are 22-3-3," I, the typical American sports fan who doesn't care about soccer, will think, "Well, there's about a four-in-five chance that this baby's over. I believe I will turn off the TV, kick my dog, curse some foreigners and play with my assault rifle."
But if that graphic said, "Teams that have scored second are 17-2-3," I'm going to want to stick around to see which team can come up with that all-important tally. Better for me, better for ESPN and way better for the dog.
Truth, Justice, the American Way, and Soccer Referees:
The refs are working hard to screw the World Cup up, proving the wisdom of the old adage: "players win games, coaches lose games, and refs ruin games." The patently absurd penalty called against the US in its game against Ghana was not the worst of it. My two candidates for the worst of it:
In the France-Korea game, Zinedine Zidane -- by common consent the greatest and most elegant player of his generation -- got the stupidest yellow card of them all; he bumped into and knocked down a Korean defender a second or two after the keeper had made a save ... a truly trivial offense, and clearly accidental. But because it was his second yellow card (he got one in the first game), he has to sit out today's match agaoinst Togo. The truly awful part of it is that (a) he announced several months ago (front page news, literally, in Italy, though I'm sure it wasn't even mentioned here in the US) his retirement from soccer after this World Cup, AND (b) France's next match might be their last in the tournament (if they don't win). So it adds up to this: because some jerk of a ref wanted to teach him some stupid lesson, we might never see Zidane play soccer again. It's truly appalling and depresses me no end (not least because now I really HAVE to root for the French to win their next game).
This morning, in Tunisia-Ukraine, the score is tied 0-0; if the Tunisians win, they go through to the second round. Tunisia has a free kick, and one of the Ukrainian defenders sticks his arm up in the air and deflects the ball. As clear a penalty as you could ask for, but the ref does nothing. Five minutes later, the Ukrainian striker Andrey Schevchenko has the ball in front of the keeper, and trips over his own feet (probably intentionally, to draw a penalty) -- and he gets the call! 1-0 Ukraine -- a two-goal swing.
Here's what interesting, though. I think that this is, paradoxically (and possibly perversely), part of what people who are obsessed with soccer (all 1.5 billion or so of us)find compelling about the game. It has, like life, an irreducible element of capriciousness and luck. American football deals with this by sending out about 15 referees and, since that does not seem to be enough to guarantee that calls are made correctly, using instant replay in addition. It is equally absurd, though in a different, and I think peculiarly American, sort of way. Tunisia got screwed; it is too bad. But that,sometimes, is the way it goes . . .
Americans, Soccer, and Scoring con't:
Bobo makes some very interesting points in a comment on my earlier posting about soccer referees. He/she writes:
Problems I, as an American, have with soccer:
3) Too much randomness. Scoring just seems too "lucky." . . . So much has to go right just to make a shot go in. . . . if I get 3 clear shots on goal and score 1, am I really better than the team that gets 4 shots but doesn't score any?
4) The infrequency of scoring. Not because "we Americans need action", and "action = scoring". But because, like someone above said, 1-0 is a blowout, and 2-0 is the beating of a lifetime. Basically if I'm losing by 2 with 10 minutes, I have such a small chance of winning that it's not even worth playing. There's no suspense. Game's over. . . .
More evidence, I think, that the things soccerphobes dislike about the game are the very things that fans love about it.
Re the infrequency of scoring: Nick Hornby, in his wonderful soccer memoir "Fever Pitch" (highly recommended), has a wonderful list of the ingredients that go into making a truly great soccer game, the kind of out-of-body ecstasy that soccer can induce and which all soccer fans understand. Some of the ones I recall (I don't have the book with me): home game for your team; home team wins, 3-2, after trailing 2-0; outrageously bad penalty call against your team [followed by a missed penalty kick by the other side].
So it is absolutely true: if you're losing a soccer game 2-0 with 10 minutes to go, you have a mighty slim chance of winning, and you are almost certainly going to be walking out of the stadium depressed and disappointed. But . . . it does happen. Teams do come back. And if this is the game in which it happens, you will never, ever, forget the experience of watching it. It will be roughly equivalent to having sex with all of the other fans, simultaneously.
In 1999 Man. U scored two goals in the last 4 minutes of a Champions League Final -- unlike the World Cup final, which will be watched by ten times more people than watch our "Super Bowl," the Champions League final is watched by only 4 or 5 times more people than watch our Super Bowl. It's kind of a big deal. I'm not a Man U. fan -- but I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to be a Man U fan in that stadium that night.
You might have to watch many, many games before it happens. You may go a lifetime and only experience it once or twice -- or, god forbid, never. That's why you go to a lot of games -- to be sure to catch it when it happens.
When I first discovered soccer, I, too, came up with lots of great ideas for how to get more scoring. Widen the penalty box -- make the net bigger -- etc. etc. But then it hit me. Soccer is the great team sport because it is a test of team will, and it is a test of team will precisely because it is so damned hard to score a f**king goal. You have to run down that field, time and time and time and time again, knowing full well that there's "practically no chance" anything will come of it. Again and again and again. You might have to do it for ninety minutes and get nothing, and then you have to do it again in the next game. It is exhausting, physically and, even more, mentally. But you have to keep doing it, because the moment you stop doing it -- the moment anyone on the team starts to think about not doing it -- you lose.
Character and belief and determination and will become very, very transparent in these circumstances, and soccer, more than any other sport I know of, is about these things. Scoring is incredibly difficult -- but if you let yourself believe that you can't score, you will not score. It's why you'll see soccer fans sometimes giving their team a standing ovation after a 0-0 draw -- because character and determination and belief are very transparent, and can be detected even when no goals have been scored (perhaps best, actually, when no goals have been scored).
And not only is scoring a goal incredibly difficult, just as a matter of technique and athletic skill -- did you see the goal that Argentina's Maxi Rodriguez scored against Mexico to win that game??? I know people always say that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, but come on ... try this at home: on the run, take a ball coming towards you from 40 yards away onto your chest, bring it down and before it hits the ground smack it into the upper corner of the net, 30 yards away, with your off-leg (i.e, righties have to do this with their left leg, and vice versa --- it even has an element of total randomness to it. That's life, as they say.
Americans and Soccer, continued
Two brief responses to Todd's responses to my comments on Americans and soccer. He writes:
"Americans don't like soccer because Americans don't like soccer. The sports embraced by a given society/country/culture are largely conventional and traditional."
That's what someone once called "a nice theory, slain by an ugly fact." Within the last 30 years, Asians have gone from being soccer-indifferent to being possibly the most passionate fans on the planet -- FIFA had to disable all incoming traffic from Korea onto its website after Korea was eliminated from the World Cup because it was being inundated by angry fans! And the Thais and Malaysians make the Korena fans look tame. And the same, more or less, has happened in Africa, too.
Second, Todd writes
"it should be skill, not chance that decides games, and this seems to be a universal sentiment. One problem with the World Cup is that the talent levels are so compressed these days that almost every game comes down to a single goal and thus one referee's call (a penalty kick or quetionable red card) can thus prove decisive in a game."
Um, wrong. Two billion people are going to watch the World Cup final; it is a little odd that you talk about the "universal sentiment" here, or the "problem with the World Cup." The final of the World Cup is going to be decided, like all great soccer games, on a combination of incredible skill, team desire, and luck. You don't have to watch, if you don't like it -- fine by me. I think many Americans feel as you do -- that's OK, too. But don't tell me what the universal sentiment is!
I'm outta here -- Brazil-Ghana is starting soon. [If this game were decided on skill alone, 46 people would watch it; the Brazilian team is so skillful they couldn't possibly lose a single game, ever. But in fact, they might lose ... and I will be joined by 500 million folks in front of the TV to see if this is the game in which it happens]
Soccer is an almost-entirely improvised affair -- another one of the things that makes it the greatest of sports. Anyone who thinks that basketball is the great improvised sport -- "like jazz," as the cliche has it -- has never watched a soccer game. [And I mean that not as some kind of moral judgment, but as a simple empirical claim]. Soccer coaches can't really do very much at all during the game; their job is more-or-less complete when the whistle sounds, their team is either ready or not. And they only get three subs the whole game. At the professional level, coaches (or 'managers,' as they're usually called) sometimes even sit up in the stands during the game -- the better to see what's happening, since there's not a whole lot they can do down on the field anyway.
But Argentina's manager, Jose Pekerman, managed to lose the match for them yesterday, pretty much single-handedly, I'd say. It was quite unbelievable. Remember Grady Little, and the Pedro Martinez affair, when everybody in America knew that Pedro had to come out of the game except his manager? Multiply by 100 or so (because this is the World Cup, and so much more is at stake for so many more people). Argentina is up 1-0 and, to my eyes, in complete control of the game. Their 'keeper has been injured and subbed out. With 20 minutes to go, Pekerman takes out Riquelme and Crespo -- Argentina's two best offensive players. Strange . . . but he does have wonderful substitutes on the bench: Pablo Aimar (one of the great creative midfielders in the world, a perfect sub for Riquelme), and Lionel Messi, who has had a sensational tournament and who will soon be, by common consensus, the best player in the world.
The problem is, he doesn't put either of them in the game -- he puts in Cambiasso, a defensive midfielder, and Julio Cruz, a 2d rate striker. AND NOW HE'S OUT OF SUBS. Neither Aimar nor Messi can see any action at all in Argentina's most important game of the last 20 years. So when Germany, predictably, scores and they go into extra time, he's got the wrong damned team out there. The rest was completely predictable.
I cannot even imagine how angry I'd be if I were Argentine. If you have Argentine friends and want to display your deep sympathy for them, just walk up to them and say "Julio Cruz? Julio Cruz??" Tears should be welling up in your eyes as you do this.
This Argentine team deserved better -- they had the talent, and showed in snatches the ability, to play at truly heavenly heights. Though at least the Germans, this time around, are playing some beautiful attacking soccer. If the Germans had won the last time it would have been a travesty -- even die-hard German fans admit that the team's presence in the Final was more the result of having an easy draw (getting the USA and S. Korea in the quarterfinals and semifinals ain't exactly tough going -- and the US outplayed them, to boot) than great soccer playing. But this year's team is, I have to admit, fun to watch.
With all the lip-flapping about nation-building going on, here's a thought that is, alas, way too simple (and way too obvious) to ever be taken seriously. Aprroximately two billion people out there care more about the outcome of the World Cup than about pretty much anything else. Or, more precisely: people care more deeply about the fate of their national team than they do about damned near anything else in life. That goes for people in the Ivory Coast and for people in Germany and in Iran and in just about everyplace on earth. A hundred million dollars to build up Iraq's soccer team would do more for nation-building than any other damned thing we could possibly do -- why nobody sees this is totally beyond me.