Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nil on the Pitch

I have tried to love soccer. I truly have.

My youngest played the game from kindergarten through her senior year in high school. I never missed a game.

I drove vanpools, attended practices, coached, officiated, put up the nets, lined the fields and cleaned up when the games were done. I praised her in victory, consoled her in defeat, cheered and booed. I was, proudly, a Soccer Dad.

So much for my bona fides. I still maintain a mild interest in the sport, which usually surfaces once every four years during the World Cup.

But take my daughter or my country out of the equation, and I'd just as soon watch the Best of Synchronized Swimming.

I am willing to concede soccer is the most popular sport in the world, revered in every nook and cranny of the planet.

What I will not concede is that its lack of popularity in the United States is the result of some sort of national character flaw, or isolationism, or indifference, or, heaven help us, as one essay concluded, because we hate foreigners. We are, after all, a nation of foreigners.

Nor do I agree with an assessment that appeared in the Times recently written by author Ariel Dorfman: "... We are living a moment in history when the very notion of American exceptionalism is under siege," he wrote. "If the United States were indeed to abandon the idea that it has been chosen by God to save the world, if its citizens were to really entertain the notion that they are just the same as humans all over the globe and not uniquely endowed with shining virtue, could they not someday join the rest of the species in celebrating the most beautiful sport of our time?"

It's only sporting to point out Mr. Dorfman was at one point in his life cultural advisor to Marxist President Salvador Allende of Chile. He is also a critic of what he calls "North American cultural imperialism." Just to frame his argument.

Look, soccer had its chance. The first recorded soccer club formed in the U.S. was the Oneida Football Club, which played on Boston Common from 1862-1865. It was played at Eastern colleges at the turn of the 20th century.

But as baseball, football and basketball evolved in the early days of American sport, soccer was left behind.

We developed our own sports, just as we developed our own system of government.

This was a young, vibrant, proud country. This was the land of Teddy Roosevelt. Carl Sandberg, writing about Chicago, could have very well been describing the entire country: "Hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads ... stormy, husky, brawling ..."

This was no country for a sport in which, according to Jim Murray, "twenty-one guys stand around and one guy does a tap dance with the ball."

Watch soccer and you watch a game that allows a 0-0 tie. Americans hate a tie. This is not a demonstration of skill. It demonstrates a lack of skill.

Let's face it, soccer is boring. I'd rather Bust It Like the Babe than Bend It Like Beckham.

Watch soccer and you watch a game that allows players to flop around on the ground like beached fish, feigning injury. Faking it to gain some sort of advantage is about as far from good sportsmanship as you can get.

I once saw a video of a soccer team standing in a circle around their coach at practice. When he blew his whistle, they fell to the ground en masse, writhing in simulated pain. It may have been a joke but it had its roots in truth. Soccer offers the worst acting this side of Keanu Reeves.

Watch soccer and you see inept officials calling big games on the world stage. The apologies for bad officiating in this year's World Cup almost exceeded the number of goals scored. Instant replay? Not an option. Too American, I guess.

Watch soccer but watch out for hooligans who make Raider followers look like bird watchers.

Watch soccer and you see a game populated by players who often use one name. Spain has a player who is simply called Pedro. That must strike fear into the hearts of his opponents.

Give me Dick "Night Train" Lane, "Crazy Legs" Hirsch or Red Grange, "the Galloping Ghost." Now, those are names.

Watch soccer and you see teams called the Wanderers, Caledonian Thistle or Chivas, which in Spanish means "goats." Give me the Heat, the Giants, the Bulls, the Steelers.

Watch soccer if you wish. I'll be at the Rose Bowl or Dodger Stadium or Staples Center.

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