Friday, October 21, 2005

Behold the Soccer Bigots

I've been neglecting this site in favor of DOUI (and my real job, which involves weather, supermodels, and chickens.) So here's a little piece I wrote with local papers in mind. For those who know, "soccer" in the piece means "football," which is what everyone outside the U.S. and Canada call it.


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, inevitably someone will proffer 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 the conversation will then turn ugly as I am suddenly confronted by a plethora of sneers, raspberries, other faux bodily noises, and rapid reflexive scratching from the baseball guys. This is because I am a soccer fan.

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 extremely prejudiced people, let’s call them the average American sports writer, who respond to the word “soccer” as though someone had just taped over their 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) that suggested that the reason some American kids play soccer is because they are too uncoordinated to play other sports. As if it takes real coordination to fling a small hard ball at 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-anxious team dads. Maurice suggested that soccer was a way to get kids out of the house between piano lessons. Maurice is apparently as familiar with soccer as Bobby Knight is with apologies. If he were in the game they would have left the tackle from behind in just for him.

Soccer of course is that sport that people play with their feet, where if you want to stop a ball coming out of the air at full speed, which for adults would be up to 40 to 60 miles an hour, you have to do something other than just reach out and grab it with your mitts. Soccer players do this and more. Some kids are able to keep the ball in the air, juggling from foot to knee to head, while the average soccer-hating sports writer would inevitably lodge the thing in his mouth, the only legal maneuver in the sport they could pull off after the throw in.

Of course they offer all the lame excuses for their soccer bigotry. Some say there’s not enough scoring. Of course, these same individuals could sit through a 22 inning 1-0 baseball game, ended on a bases loaded balk and marvel the next day in a column about the “pitchers’ duel” they witnessed the night before. People complain about the violence that is reported in some soccer loving countries. I invite each of these individuals to spend the evening in the streets of a major domestic metropolitan city or college town the night of a big championship win or loss to prove their point…unarmed.

My own suspicions as to the source of soccer hatred are two fold. The first is that soccer doesn’t satisfy the mania 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 America continues to lag behind in math education!

The second is ignorance. It is said that people hate what they cannot understand. The tax code proves this point, but I digress. The most common gripe with soccer is the offside rule, the one that says that an offensive player must have two people even with or between them and the goal when the ball is passed to them. That’s it. That’s the rule that has twisted many an otherwise astute sportswriter into BBQ-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 explain themselves, without notes, all possible variances of football’s illegal shift rule.

Of course fear is at play here also. Fear that if soccer catches on that their precious games will fall by the wayside putting shoulder pad and catcher’s mask manufacturers out of business everywhere. They forget that America is a big country with arms larger than George Foreman’s and room for lots of sports (although if tennis disappeared tomorrow I’d never notice) and that soccer will only add to the great sporting atmosphere and lucrative merchandising that already exists. So says this soccer Fan-do.