The upcoming soccer World Cup in Brazil got me to thinking. Always a mistake. There is no sport that more fully embraces American values than soccer. What the rest of the world calls football. It is strange that the “typical” American sports fan rejects this sport. Usually for two reasons.
First, it is low scoring. Can’t deny that. Second, it is low scoring. Can’t deny that, either.
Yet, if an unbiased anthropologist from Mars visited Earth she would come to the conclusion that soccer is an all-American sport. If she had studied the values that “real” Americans articulate regularly. Sports like baseball and American football, on the other hand, would be seen as throwbacks to the pre-democratic days of authoritarian rule. Likened to a Dickensian vision of America.
American value: Freedom and individualism. There is no sport in which an individual is expected to act on his own more than soccer. Every soccer player constantly adjusts during the match. Sometimes playing offense, switching back to defense, then offense again…oops, back to defense. Constantly. For 90 plus minutes. While you have a formation , that formation is in constant flux. Fluidity. Personal freedom abounds. Thinking is essential. Making the right decision on your own. What is more American that that?
Compare with baseball. Every pitch is dictated by a catcher or manager. Every at bat is proscribed by the coaches. Take a pitch. Bunt. Swing away. Hit and run. For the pitcher. Throw a curve ball. A slider. An intentional walk. The manager decides each minute detail. Signals are given to the players to tell them exactly what to do. Authoritarian to the extreme. Make no decisions on your own.
Or football. Every play is called by the coach. Every defense is called by the coach. Even when the quarterback calls an “audible” it is still a play that was practiced and practiced before the game. A play determined by the coach. And after each play we stop. Get a new play from the coach. Then play on. Authoritarianism run amok. Do not deviate.
In the two most popular American sports thinking is discouraged. The manager or coach has the brains. The players have the brawn. Cogs in the system. Don’t deviate. Do your job. The boss knows best. Do as you are told. We don’t pay you to think. Freedom ? Not if you want to play.
American value: Fair play. While every sport has its poor sportsmanship issues, there is a custom in soccer that emphasizes fair play. It has to do with injury. A casual observer might conclude that in American football the attempt to injure an opponent is, in fact, an essential part of the game! During a play if a player gets injured he is run over and ignored. The cornerback pulls a muscle and writhes in pain on the ground. That is an opportunity to score a touchdown. The game goes on. We will pick him up later. Same in baseball. Two fielders collide and knock each other out. That is an opportunity to score a run. It is considered a lucky break. Fair play?
But not in soccer. If an opponent is hurt (really hurt, not diving) the opposing team will intentionally kick the ball out of play. They stop the match even though they have the advantage. And when play continues, the other team will kick the ball back to them. Sportsmanship. This occurs even in championship games. With millions of dollars at stake. In fact, if a team breaks this unwritten rule they will be roundly booed by their own fans. Fair play.
American value: Hard work. Let’s look at soccer. 90 plus minutes of running, jumping, kicking, jogging. Almost continuous action. Players do take breaks within the game, but only for a few seconds when the ball is not near them. No time outs. No rest periods. One 15 minute half-time. No substitutions. You play offense . You play defense. You play the entire match. Three substitutions. Period. Eight players on each team play the entire match.
Let’s look at baseball. YAWN. Each player stands at his position when on defense. He waits. And waits. And waits. Maybe the ball will come to him, but probably not. The catcher and pitcher do most of the work. And the pitcher seldom plays all nine innings. Too tiring ! Then after standing around for three outs the team jogs to the dugout and…sits. And waits. And waits. For one turn at bat. Usually 4 times a game. And if you do get on base you may get a chance to run or jog 360 feet ! Hard work ? Hardly work.
Now football is a bit more brutal. After all, you are trying to decapitate your opponent. (The death penalty…that IS an American value). But each player only plays about one-third of the time or less. That amounts to about 20 minutes of real activity. Twenty minutes of hard work. Oops. I forgot. Most of those 20 minutes are taken up in the huddle. Where you are being told what to do. The actual physical activity for the average player is about 10 minutes a game. Hard work ?
So, why do Americans hate soccer? It seems to encompass the American values of hard work, fair play, individualism and freedom. Must be something else. Maybe it is because soccer is a “communist” sport played in “socialist” leagues?
After all, an American value is capitalism. The best get ahead. The losers fall behind. Life is tough that way. Except in professional sports. In the rest of the world if a pro soccer team does not do well they get “relegated” That means kicked out of the league and another team takes their place. Raw capitalism. Succeed or die !
But look at US pro sports. Even the worst teams get to stay in the league year after year. No matter how incompetent. No matter how lowly. There is no real incentive to do better. There is always next year. Meet the Chicago Cubs. 100 years of futility. And still in the major leagues. The US pro sports system is actually socialistic to the extreme! Maybe communistic. No one gets demoted. In soccer, on the other hand, succeed or be gone!
So, why then is this” beautiful game” which exemplifies all of the best American “values” castigated in the USA? Baseball is supremely authoritarian. Football is minimally active for the individual player. Neither punishes the least successful teams.
An anthropologist from Mars would say this: Don’t always listen to what folks CLAIM about their values, look at what they actually admire . Study how their sports reflect society. Authoritarian or democratic? Take advantage of an injury or fair play? Talk about hard work or actually work hard? Success based on performance or guaranteed by a rigged system? Take orders or engage in free thinking?
Soccer: the all-American sport. Now…if they would only score more goals………