Saturday, January 17, 2004

The Beautiful Game

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

As Kansas City prepares for an anticlimactic NFL playoff weekend (once one’s team has been disqualified, the playoffs turn nasty; we still watch, but we’re torturing ourselves with what might have been), I thought I’d take on the topic of the other football – that game we call soccer.

I have cousins who grew up in a part of the country where soccer has been popular for quite a while, and it helped fund their college educations, so I’m not as anti-soccer as this screed might indicate. However, a few years back I listened to a good friend enumerate the limitations and offenses that keep the “beautiful game” from catching fire in the United States. Here’s my attempt at a recap:

1) Soccer has no intermediate goals. Think about sports like baseball or football – even individual sports like tennis. In each, there is something to cheer for other than a run, touchdown, or set. A baseball player can get a hit, advance on the bases, put down a sacrifice bunt – all goals on the path to the ultimate goal of scoring a run. A football team competes for first downs that don’t get it any points but do advance the ball towards a touchdown or field goal. Basketball, arguably, also lacks intermediate goals, but the frequency of scoring makes up for that. The lack of intermediate goals in soccer makes it difficult for fans to stay engaged, particularly when so many international matches end up 0-0 or 1-0.

2) Soccer is both nationalist and communist. The grandest stage for soccer is the World Cup, at which bands of rowdy fans compete to beat the crap out of each other, all while singing jingoist ditties and disparaging the ethnicity of their opponents. But soccer represents a brand of collectivist nationalism that reminds many of communism – as Stephen Moore wrote in a rather over-the-top piece in 1998, “Soccer is the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports....The purpose of a capitalist economy is to produce the maximum output for the least amount of exertion. Soccer requires huge volumes of effort but produces no output.”

3) Soccer prospers where people don’t. There are exceptions, but soccer is played most often in lesser-developed countries, or in lower-economic communities in prosperous countries. Soccer is cheap to play – a ball and two goals are all you need – but the limitation is the space required to play a regulation game. In general, if land is cheap, soccer is a good fit. It’s proletarian in that way. But in the US, where land is not cheap and the sport is still a relative novelty, soccer is most popular in the upper half of the middle class (and among immigrants from soccer-loving lands).

4) Soccer’s statistics are virtually irrelevant. This is a personal issue for me; I add it to my friend’s list of limitations. I love baseball, basketball, and football statistics. Soccer statistics tend to be subjective. Unless a player is a goalie or a big goal-scorer, the stats appear pretty worthless to me. Other than goals, what outcomes matter? This goes back to the issue of no intermediate goals.

5) Soccer’s biggest advocates try to force us to care about soccer.

So, Rene, are you a soccer fan of any magnitude? If so, have I earned a red card?