Saturday, August 20, 2016

Go To Your Corner Kicks

The executive had a long and distinguished 20-plus year career with his company, rising through the ranks to become a senior executive and president of a major division. He was being interviewed in front of a group of employees, and the floor had been opened for questions. He got a few on strategy, a few on business outlook, and the inevitable ones on career guidance. What, he was asked, would he have done differently in his career? Without hesitation, he said he would have learned more about soccer.


Asked to explain, he said that if there was one area he thought he lacked experience on early in his career, it was international. Companies and customers cross borders all the time; even those living in one country can have deep roots in another. If you're going to try and understand their point of view, you have to have a better grasp of their background. And as you talk with almost anyone outside the US or who grew up there, the one common touch point is what the rest of the world calls football.

As the Olympics have unspooled from Rio across multiple nights on multiple channels and platforms, I thought about this point of view. It isn't the idea of building an appreciation of soccer/football per se, though there's nothing wrong with that. It's that especially in the middle of an election campaign where we place ourselves in the center of the known universe, it helps to be reminded that there is a universe. That while what we think and do do matter, there are a lot of people who look at things differently. And Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are not necessarily their point of reference.

In fact, the Olympics is the one time where Americans get to see what else the world watches. If you flipped to some of the secondary channels, you saw big crowds at rugby and badminton, volleyball and field hockey. That said, trying to rank the "most popular" sport is difficult. After all, what metric do you use? Most fans? Highest TV Viewership? Number of professional or amateurs? Most headlines? By any one or combination of those measures, some sports that we are ravenous for on these shores have indeed gained considerable followings worldwide. Basketball and base are close to the top, while tennis and golf are also up there. But you can't leave out boxing and track, as well as non-Olympic contests such as cricket and Formula One Racing.

Of course, the 500-pound gorilla on these shores is American football as practiced by the NFL. Because of its popularity here, interest is growing worldwide, aided and abetted by the once year pageant that is the Super Bowl. That said, use almost any combination of those aforementioned measurements and you still come to the same conclusion: soccer beats them all handily. It has over 4 billion followers, with the World Cup being the most watched contest in the world. Another way to look at it: between winnings and endorsements, LeBron James may be the highest paid athlete on these shores and a magician with the ball. But he's bested worldwide by two guys who never touch it with their hands, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

You got a taste of why that is watching the crowds in Rio. Brazilian fans know how to party, and soccer is their game; what the rest of the world calls football is really the only sport that counts in that country. And so as they did in 2014 for the World Cup, the crowds packed the men's and women's matches, and put their passion on display. True, they brought that same level of intensity to swimming and gymnastics, and to the consternation of competitors used to a quieter approach, also to table tennis and fencing.

But let's circle back to the beginning. The next time you want to relate to someone you meet from Spain, or try to get to know someone better from Argentina, or want to make small talk with someone from Uruguay, ask about their family. Inquire about their kids. See what movies they like or their favorite type of music. But if you ask them about corner kicks, odds are better that even that you will be on the same pitch. And that will help make it a level playing field. Literally.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always played goalie. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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