The weekend beckons, so I thought I’d write something about the World Cup. At his personal blog, Jonathan Last links to a pretty apt take-down of soccer evangelists he wrote in 2002, when Americans were in the grip of another pseudo-World Cup craze.* I say ‘pseudo’ because despite its best efforts, the media-industrial complex is still unable to gin up genuine grassroots enthusiasm for American soccer. The only demographic the game appeals to consists of young, worldly, educated types – the kind who obsess over Belgian beer, listen to indie rock, and want to telegraph the fact that they’ve studied or traveled abroad and are therefore more sophisticated than the rubes who play Madden or obsess over Kobe’s jumper (damn – I think I’ve just described half of my social circle).
But despite the thoroughly artificial media blitz surrounding the World Cup and the obnoxious social signaling that goes into American soccer fandom, I’m really looking forward to the tournament. So I thought I’d take a stab at explaining how soccer differs from American sports and why I find its distinctiveness so enjoyable.
Lumping team sports together is a chancy business, but I think there is one important commonality between football, baseball and, to a lesser extent, basketball that distinguishes them from soccer. All three American sports are characterized by short, action-packed intervals followed or preceded by pauses – an inbounds pass that leads to an easy dunk; a pitch that results in a strike that ends an inning; an end-zone reception immediately following a thirty second pause. This is not to say there aren’t fluid sequences in American sports – witness fast-break basketball or baseball’s hallowed triple play. But American teams usually see action in short, frenetic bursts instead of the slower build-up of a good soccer match.
To an outsider, the notion that a two hour football game only consists of 11 minutes of televised action must seem absurd. At its best, however, the pauses accentuate tension and allow for more elaborate plays, more back-and-forth adjustments between the teams’ respective coaches, and a level of athletic execution that would be impossible in a less controlled, faster-paced environment. For the most part, this is a trade-off I can accept. To take another example from American sports, good pitching duels include plenty of pregnant pauses. I don’t think this detracts from the action so much as it heightens the tension of athletic competition.
Soccer has fewer pauses, fewer substitutions, and no timeouts. As a consequence, the manager (coach) has very little opportunity to pause or direct in-game play. Soccer also tends to be more spontaneous, more dynamic, and less scripted. While physical contact or bad execution will sometimes slow the game down to an unbearable pace, the rules of soccer allow for a level of fluidity that would be impossible in an American context (transition-oriented basketball is the only exception I can think of, but that’s still broken up by frequent timeouts, inbound passes, and the tempo of the opposing team). The build-up to the first Dutch goal in the 1974 World Cup final is a classic example of soccer’s distinctive style – despite a slow start, the Dutch control the ball for over a minute before Johan Cruyf streaks through the defense to draw a penalty kick.
Maybe the contrast between the short, frenetic play of American athletes and the fluid build-up of a European soccer match offers some insight into our respective cultural psyches. But I suspect a more fluid style of play already appeals to American sports audiences. Fast-paced, transition-oriented basketball was the calling card of Magic Johnson and the Showtime-era Lakers. A quarterback-directed hurry-up offense is often the most exciting part of a football match. So if you like fast-paced team competition, give soccer a try. But if the World Cup isn’t your thing, I won’t hold it against you.
*For a very droll introduction to the World Cup qualifiers, see this N+1 primer.