Woody Allen had a routine about reincarnation: “Another life? Does this mean I have to sit through the Ice Capades again?” I know exactly how he feels. Every four years the World Cup comes around, and with it a swarm of soccer nerds and bullies reminding us how backward and provincial we are for not appreciating soccer enough.
And every four years, it’s the same litany: It’s the most popular sport in the world! What other sport tries to force you into liking it by telling you how left out you’re going to be if you don’t jump on the bandwagon? Do rice manufacturers try to bludgeon you into not ordering potatoes because “Rice is the most popular food in the world”? Are you ready to give up hard rock or hip-hop because disco is more popular? Well, next time somebody pushes soccer in your face, remind them that soccer is to sports what rice is to food and disco to music: bland and monotonous. Tom Cruise is the most popular movie star in the world! Think of soccer as eating rice and listening to disco while watching a Tom Cruise movie.
Soccer bullies are programmed to say things like “More Americans play soccer than any other sport” and “Soccer is the most popular women’s sport in the U.S.” Never mind that soccer is played by hundreds of thousands of American kids without the slightest enthusiasm—kids who can’t wait to bolt and get home to their skateboards and video games—and never mind that the women’s World Cup victory didn’t move the “soccer zeitgeist” a single blip on the Richter scale.
What the soccer bullies want in their heart of hearts is to eliminate baseball, football, and basketball—or, really, any sport that utilizes arms and hands and thus about half the athletic talents the human body is capable of. And with good reason: They are the ones who couldn’t play those sports growing up, the ones who got chosen last or not at all in the pickup games. To them, soccer is “democratic” because it eliminates the swiftest and the most powerful and takes for its physical standard the average European male. In other words, the average soccer nerd’s own height and weight.
While they’re at it, they want to eliminate any sport that has statistics. Statistics enable any fan anywhere to pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV and know virtually as much about any sport as the experts. Eliminate statistics, and all interpretation must come from a handful of gurus whose commentary is so laced with quasi-mysticism that it defies analysis.
Of course, what is meant by “world” in discussions of soccer is usually Europe and South America. Soccer is only moderately popular in the world’s most populous country, China, and in the second most populated country, India, it still lags behind cricket. I have no idea what the most popular sport is in Muslim countries; my guess is that baseball will catch on quicker in the Islamic world than soccer if only because their arms are in such great shape from throwing stones at U.S. embassies. As we go to press, the Turks have yet to decide whether they’re European or Middle Eastern. Soccer is popular in some African countries, semi-popular in others. Canada, Scandinavia, and much of Russia favor hockey. In Taiwan, Japan, and the Caribbean, soccer is no more popular than baseball.
Only three nations outside Europe have ever won the World Cup, so the proper response to “Why do so many Americans insist on calling soccer a foreign sport?” is “It isn’t a foreign sport, it’s a European sport, and a Western European sport at that.” Well, OK, a Western European and South American sport. And why is this? Because, let’s face it, soccer is the only sport in which these countries could possibly challenge the rest of the world. Quick—can you name me four, three, or even two leading athletes in any or all other sports who hail from Western Europe or South America? (Heck, I’ll even start you off: Britain has the heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis.) Soccer is the only possible sport you could have a legitimate world tournament in because the rules are so absurdly slanted in favor of defense that the smallest country can’t appear to be that much weaker than the biggest world powers.
Like the phony U.S. “success” in the current World Cup. “We” (and I’m using “we” here only for want of a better term) got the shit kicked out of us in the next-to-last round by Poland, a team that, for God’s sake, had already been eliminated, and because of some Kafkaesque rules, “we” got a chance to move to the quarterfinals, where “we” lost by only one goal. In any other sport but soccer, this would be called “mediocrity.”
The staples of all other great sports are absent from soccer. Perfection is reached in a World Cup match that ends in a 0-0 tie, settled by penalty kicks. Imagine the NFL changing its rules so that the Super Bowl would be likely to end in a 0-0 tie. I know a great tiebreaker! Have each team’s kicker chip extra points until the other team blocks one.
And yet, somehow, we are the ones who are out of step. Worse than that, we’re “xenophobic.” According to one thesis, in the 1950s soccer in the U.S. was “the passion of immigrant Germans and Italians still trying to shake off the label of bad guys. . . . It wasn’t a sport of the elites, as were tennis and golf.” This completely ignores the fact that masses of Italians and Germans had already been playing baseball, basketball, and football generations before World War II or that the so-called “elite” sports of golf and tennis were in fact imported here from Europe. Putting all that aside, one might ask why Europeans who reject American sports aren’t equally guilty of xenophobia. (Of course, Europeans don’t reject American sports, which have grown enormously in both television popularity and participation in several Western European countries, but the soccer nerds never seem to acknowledge this; it’s always America that is wrong because we’re not enough like somebody else.)
But now, the strategy for pushing soccer on us has curiously switched from “Get with the rest of the world’s program” to “Let’s stomp the crap out of these little foreigners who think they can lord it over the U.S.” Or, as Clint Mathis, the most obnoxious American athlete since Mark Spitz, phrased it, “Americans are sort of greedy people—we are pretty much the lead country in everything.” So that’s the reason I’m supposed to love soccer now? Screw that—let the South Koreas and the Cameroons have their little moments of glory. Myself, I have two favorite teams: the Yankees and whoever is playing the U.S.A. in soccer.