Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Trouble With Soccer

So we're now...what, fifteen days after the end of the World Cup? And once again, Americans have said to the rest of the world, "Thank you very much for showing us your crazy foreign sport, now shush. Football season's about to start." And they haven't even noticed the bitter irony that the rest of the world thinks they're actually talking about the sport they're dismissing.

Why? What exactly is the deal with soccer (for purposes of clarity, I'll use that term for the rest of the column) that makes it so hard to catch on in America? I'm aware that to some people, it's simple enough; soccer doesn't have time for many ad breaks, which makes it hard to televise, which makes it hard to sell to America. But I don't buy that. It's part of it, sure, but soccer does get airtime, and it doesn't get viewers. It remains the unofficial "fifth sport" of American sports, despite attempt after attempt after attempt to shove it down our throats. (Anyone remember the Minnesota Kicks? I do...)

The problem, I think, lies in two major areas: tempo and scoring. Everyone generally talks about the second first, and overlooks the first completely, but I think the two are related in a way that makes them both worth discussing. Sure, soccer's a low-scoring game, but football can end in a score of 7-3 and baseball can end in 1-0. Yet both are vastly more popular than soccer.

Why? Because they have a recognizable, discernable tempo to the game. In football, you can build anticipation for a potential score. When a team crosses the 50-yard-line, the average fan puts down their drink, and the conversation in the room starts to quiet. By the time they've crossed the twenty, fans are leaning forward in their seats, wondering what's going to happen. Even if that drive ends in an interception or a missed field goal, a football fan has a sense of mounting tension that keeps them in their seat for a low-scoring game. (The same is, of course, true of baseball. Two out, bases loaded, count is at 0-2...that inning might end with nobody scoring, but try to get a baseball fan to walk away right then.) In soccer, you can spend twenty-five minutes ten feet away from the goal and nothing will happen...or someone will kick it from half-way across the field and score in five seconds. You can't judge the pace of a game. Hockey and basketball suffer from similar tempo problems to soccer, of course, but basketball is high-scoring, and hockey...well, there's a reason hockey's a distant fourth.

Because hockey also shares another problem with soccer, one that makes both sports relative pariahs in the professional sports world. The Dreaded Tie. Soccer's not just low-scoring, it can be no-scoring. There's nothing in the world more likely to frustrate a fan more than spending 90+ minutes watching a game, only to have it end in a scoreless tie. It's like nothing happened at all. Football? SUDDEN DEATH overtime. Sure, it might not be that fair (although that'll change this year) but you're almost never going to walk away with a tie. Baseball? Extra innings. They go until it's done. Basketball? Overtime until someone wins. Even hockey has taken steps to eliminate the irritating tie, with sudden death shootouts and rules to open up scoring.

As long as soccer stays a low-scoring, erratically paced game, it's probably not going to penetrate the American market. Which probably suits a lot of people just fine, of course; as far as they're concerned, it's our loss if we don't want to watch the game. After all, it'd be a boring world if everyone liked the same thing. (Even so, I bet nobody could watch last year's Saints/Vikings playoff game without becoming a football fan...)


Jim said...

Having watched much of the World Cup, if only to see what much of the fuss was about, I think you're on to something.

Another part of the problem was that these guys were so good, that it really slowed down the action. Offense really couldn't often break through defense, so we saw a lot of passing the ball, looking for an opening. When there weren't any, which was much of the time, it looked like that Simpsons satire in which they had the American announcer saying, he holds it, holds it, holds it. His voice becomes more bored as he talks. The Spanish announcers says the same thing in Spanish, but his voice builds to a fever pitch.

But you know what? That's OK. The rest of the World can love Soccer and we can love what we love. There's no rule that says we all have to like the same thing. That's why they make chocolate and vanilla.

Also, the camera follows the ball, and apparently much of what makes soccer intersting is what happens away from the ball. Sort of "hey look Striker X is in position, can they get the ball to him across the field?"

I don't get it, but others seem to like it so good for them.

j$ said...

All excellent points, although certainly not all the points that could be brought up. For example, the source of most frustration for me is constant offsides calls. It's like scoring is somehow illegal in soccer so you have to try getting a lucky shot off when the ref isn't looking. And even then he can just disallow the goal.

I think in the end the biggest reason I don't like professional soccer is because nothing actually feels professional about it. At the end of 90 minutes the ref subjectively adds an arbitrary amount of time to the game. People tell me there is a lot of strategy but I watched a few of the games and it is essentially the exact same game I played when I was seven years old. And just like in bumblebee soccer leagues, in the end it doesn't really matter who wins or loses, everyone gets a participation medal and an orange wedge.

At least, that's how it seems to me. For a professional sport to be worth watching it has to be a sport in which I couldn't compete if I were in better shape. I can't catch a 70 yard pass and come down in the corner of the end zone with my toes inside the line, I can't shoot over Lebron James, I can't hit a 95+ mph fastball, and I certainly can't put a slapshot in the five hole since I can barely stand on skates, but I can still kick a place kick with reasonable accuracy to a spot right out in front of the goalie. And that's a skill I mastered in second grade.

Alegretto said...

j$: I will personally give you all my material possessions if you can score a single goal against *any* of the 16 in this last World Cup. Heck, i'll give you half of them if you can cross the center line with the ball on your feet.
You speak from ignorance of the sport. Which is not so bad. You just don't watch it/know it. There's not a chance in hell you would even touch the ball in a high-level game. Stop downplaying and demeaning a sport that you clearly know next to nothing about.

@John: While i don't think your reasoning is wrong (from the pov and regarding a united-stateian audience its accurate), as a football fan i have to present my own view:
The same tempo critique could be said of the slow-paced, mechanical-like American Football, or the predictable, circuit-like Baseball. From the perspective of a football fan those games can be very boring on account of their predictability, or overly orderly behavior and tactics.

Regarding the score and possibilities of a tie, yes it can be frustrating when the score ends up being 0-0 but only if the match was a boring one. There's plenty of action to see in a football match other than the scoring. You just need to know what to look at. In football matches aren't all that better or worse from having more goals, they're better or worse from having *good* goals. Or good plays in general, even if little or no goals. I'm sure in American Football and Baseball similar judgements could be made of each match.

In the end it comes down to knowing the game and what to watch for in it (my own points against American football or Baseball are probably rendered moot as soon as i learn how to watch the game, for instance). I'm certain several people really, really like watching cricket or nascar or whatever so I honestly think its perfectly fine if people like baseball or american football (as boring or enjoyable as i may or may not find them) better than whatever.

What i really think is not, however, is the arrogance of the common American football fan, bent on downplaying Football in favor of a game that, really, is only played and enjoyed by americans and lets face it, is neither played with the feet nor with a ball (cause whatever that thing is, its *not* a ball).

Anonymous said...

I'm with alegretto: It's American football that has the pacing problem. It seems for every minute of action they have to stop 10 minutes to chat. -

j$ said...

I didn't say I could score a goal, I said that I could accurately placekick a ball to a region out in front of the goal. Most of the people where I am from, including myself, have played team soccer as kids so it's not like we're unaware of the game or its rules. You can attempt to dismiss my opinion as invalid because you claim I don't understand the nuances, but the fact is it's a relatively simple game. I programmed a team of robots to play soccer in my graduate work and, like all suburban American soccer parents, I was as proud of them as it was painfully boring to watch them play.

I understand your point about the arrogance of American fans and there is no denying the truth in that, however, it definitely goes both ways. Your disdain for American football and baseball is completely superficial because you have never played them nor do you understand rules, which I assure you are not the least bit simple. I suspect the same is true of many people who have never actually watched or followed an American football team.

There is a trade off in sports between constant action and using the game mechanics to build points of suspense. I simply prefer the latter. And, since I think the whole point of sports is to compete, if there is no clearly defined winner in my mind there was therefore no competition. To be fair, that could be because I once spent seven straight days in Australia watching a cricket test match only to have it end up not counting. I enjoyed having an excuse to hang out in pubs all day with my friends but I was extremely upset that the sport of cricket had wasted an entire week my time. I felt similarly, although to a much lesser extent, watching the USA games in this World Cup, most of which ended as ties.

Here's your participation trophies, now who's up for some Dairy Queen?!

Yay! Ice cream!