Friday, June 18, 2010


The disconnect couldn't have been more apparent. It was day one of the World Cup, the most followed sporting event on the planet. On the one side of the split screen was the host of an American morning TV show, obviously bored; on the other, live from South Africa, was an English reporter who couldn't have been more excited. He talked about the teams, the fans, the local color surrounding the event. When he was done, he threw it back to the US, where the American said, "Well, I guess I'll watch some... as long as you can guarantee me that they'll be at least one goal scored during the tournament."

If that doesn't neatly capture the sentiment on both sides, I don't know what does. Talk with any person whose most recent roots are outside this country, and they can likely talk of nothing else. Whether pulling for their national team or a favorite like Brazil or Spain, they are studying schedules, draws and groups, and planning when they can sneak out to a bar to catch some of the action live. For the truth is that far more people in the world had childhood dreams of being Pele or Franz Beckenbauer or Diego Maradona than they did of being Whitey Ford or Joe Montana or even Michael Jordan.

It's never been that way in this country. You could say that baseball is more popular because it's been around longer, but you can't make that same case for American football or basketball, both which postdate the earliest soccer associations. And it's even more surprising when you consider that soccer has been the most popular team activity for kids in the US for several decades, so much so that you'd be hard pressed these days to find a kid who doesn't have a soccer trophy is his or her room, even though it's likely to read "Most Enthusiastic Player" as opposed to "Most Goals Scored."

So why the lack of interest? There are institutional reasons: a historical bias towards home grown sports, a lack of corporate money, a series of unprofitable professional leagues. There are practical reasons as well: the continual flow of a match means no commercials, the lifeblood of any sports franchise. And there is even the nationalistic character/psychological rationale: we are a nation of achievers, and chafe at a game where scoring is miniscule. After all, Pele is the top scorer in the game, with 1284 goals. Compare that with Michael Jordon, with over 29,000 points... and he is merely number three on the list (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is number one).

But some of those reasons could be said about other sports with much larger followings than soccer in this country, such as ice hockey and NASCAR. ANd neither could the lack of acceptance be because of the caliber of the players themselves: no one would suggest they aren't incredibly skilled athletes. Likewise, it's certainly not because of the complexity of the game: other than not using your hands and a few small technical rules, it's far easier to understand than almost any of our favorites.

So it's got to be something else. Of course, it could be the announcers. Since there is no stoppage in play, there's a lot of, "Well, he gave that up, let's see what happens now. Uh, oh, lost it, going the other way." No analysis, no diagramming on screen, no sideline reporters with any inside scoop. Instead, you get such cogent observations as, "I am a firm believer that if one team scores a goal, the other needs to score two to win." Or how about, "You cannot possibly have counted the number of passes made, but there were eight." Or my favorite insight, "If a team scores early on, it often takes an early lead."

Perhaps it's that the game clock counts up instead of down, and they inexplicably add extra minutes to the end of the game. Or maybe it's because the score can and often does end in a tie, many times at nil-nil. And compared to the World Series Trophy, the Stanley Cup or the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the FIFA trophy looks like a melted fire hydrant, and has the winner's names inscribed on the bottom. How stupid is that?

But that's being catty. Even if the best television angle is so wide that watching a match is like watching ants on green carpeting, we might be able to forgive it all. Maybe the real reason is much simpler. Personally, I think it's because that guy really is incredibly annoying: "GOOALLL!"


Marc Wollin of Bedford watched the opening France-Uruguay match. Length: 90 minutes. Score: 0-0. You decide. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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