Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Games We Play

 Try as they might, soccerites have been singularly unsuccessful in getting Americans to be interested in their sport. For the few of you unfamiliar with the game, soccer is an international sport played on a field the size of Rhode Island with about 50 people on each side.
It’s played in two periods. Each half lasts about five hours and, with the typical score of one or two to zip, you can tell how much really happens while you nap.
Internationally, the games are traditionally followed by an obligatory riot where the losing country takes out its frustration on the winning country’s fans, stores and automobiles. The British have added to the fun by hosting the obligatory soccer riot even when they win. It's kinda like Kentucky basketball on a national scale. Before the rules for modern soccer were established, the game was called “war.” 
 Soccer is incorrectly called “football” in English speaking countries and “el gameo nada endo” in Spanish speaking countries. In the U.S. we speak American and know what real football is.
In all fairness, soccer has become a popular sport among the daycare, cell phone and Subaru crowd. They don’t play, of course, but they do drag their impeccably coiffed and dressed yard apes to the field. A cynic might suggest that the parents do this so that they can chat with friends about stock options while the kids run around the ball, kicking each other in the shins. 
All of our little kids play, but interest seems to die out with the arrival of puberty. Back in the mid-1990s the U.S. even hosted the World Cup.  Reruns of “Roseanne” got higher ratings. For those who don't follow soccer (and that would be all of us), the World Cup is the Super Bowl of international soccer without the wardrobe malfunctions, Dorritos and Bud Lite commercials. 
Interest spiked a few years ago when that cute American player tore off her jersey at mid-field in front of the fans and the camera. My guess is that most of you will remember that classic moment in sports history, but will be unable to remember her name or who the US Women were playing. Hell, my bet is that most of the men who saw that move on sports highlights not only couldn't name her, but aren't 100% sure that she was on the American team. The love of the sport died back again when American viewers discovered that disrobing at midfield was not a regular part of the game. Thinking back to our hosting of the World Cup, I don’t remember a single bar hosting a Wet T-shirt World Cup Party. If sports bars can’t figure out a way to turn this event into a money maker it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Americans just don’t care.
The lack of American interest might be BECAUSE so many of the world’s nations love soccer. Americans are notoriously contrary. Whatever the rest of the world is for — we are generally against. The only nation more socially contrary ( and less sanitary) than the U.S. is France and they play this game. To my way of thinking we stand alone in world-class contrariness. It’s part of our nature and part of our proud and well-deserved national arrogance. 
The score might be another reason that soccer is in disfavor. You can watch a 10 hour game and it can end in a one to one tie. WASSUP WID DAT? Americans don’t like ties. We want a winner and we want to know who it is when the game is over. Baseball can, and often does, last two or three days, but with the last out in the bottom of the 53d inning we always have a winner. It's rare, but every now and then after 53 innings umpires have declared a winner based on the team with the most players passing drug tests.
Maybe if a tie game in soccer was decided by sudden-death penalty kicks or even a good fist fight we would care more. They did have that incident where the Colombian goal keeper was killed after blowing a save. Rumor has it that the drug cartels had some money riding on the game and were not amused at the outcome. If football, baseball or basketball players were executed for bad plays there would be no need for a salary cap and Chicago would only have one baseball team.
Maybe we don’t like soccer because it hasn’t been properly Americanized. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not prejudiced against foreign sports. In fact, most American sports began overseas (with the proud but inexplicable exception of NASCAR), but have been changed, modified, adapted and stolen. In other words, made uniquely American. Forms of cricket became baseball. We changed cricket because we couldn’t understand the rules of that silly game and it was way too slow (like baseball isn’t slow enough). Spanish speaking countries are taking up baseball in a big way and, recognizing how slow it is, they are calling it "soccer." 
To rugby we added pads, helmets, the forward pass, John Madden, big-breasted cheerleaders, the point spread, the seven-figure contract, beer commercials, the halftime show, the touchdown dance, and made it a uniquely American sport. That’s the American way. If we don’t invent it, we steal it, modify it and make it our own.
We’re not totally opposed to foreign sports. Millions of Americans, during the last winter Olympics, watched our athletes lose in luge, curling, biathlon and ski jumping and loved it. We just don’t want to see it more than once every four years.
I think the bottom-line reason that Americans don’t care about soccer is the lack of equipment. Soccer doesn’t appeal to our national sense of excess. As a people we like to see our kids and sports heroes girded in thousands of dollars worth of clothes and equipment. We don’t even mind that most of the equipment is manufactured in sweat shops in some foreign country; we just love stuff. Soccer players wear a pair of shoes, shorts and a shirt. There is a single, inexpensive ball and a couple of goal posts. I know what you’re thinking — shoes, shorts, shirts and a ball is all that basketball has and it’s a big American sport. Not so fast, Bunkie. Basketball seems cheap and simple until you add the $1,000 pair of heavily endorsed shoes and the shirts with stars’ names and numbers. Name even one pair of super-expensive, endorsed soccer shoes — I dare you. Even with a game as apparently simple as basketball we have managed to Americanize the equipment.

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