Friday, June 30, 1978, SPORTS
Copyright 1978/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
A Boot for Soccer
It’s the world’s biggest athletic extravaganza. More than 140 nations took part. More than a billion people watched it live or on TV. The World Series dwarfs by comparison. The Super Bowl is just a football game.
It has everything. Patriotic fervour, betting interest. Monarchs watch it. Prime ministers keep a radio to their ears. A guy in Brazil kills himself because his team lost. The New York Yankees might be a bunch of guys from Texas and Florida but in this game the ‘home’ team is really the home team.
It’s World Cup soccer, a quadrennial frenzy that catches up four continents in its excitement.
Why not Americans? What is it about this world sport that turns us off, that keeps it a bush league event in this country, a country that always likes to go where the action is, to join the party?
Over the years, under pressure from complaining friends who are perplexed because the U.S. does not take soccer to its bosom, I have tried to come up with an answer. Imperfect as they may be, I have several.
First of all, the U.S. sports fan wants more than just a game. The essence of sports in this country is competition — and controversy. The American fan also demands suspense. Soccer lacks two of the three.
Come with me to the broadcast booth. It is the Super Bowl game. The score is Cowboys 17, Oakland Raiders 14. There are two minutes to play and Oakland has the ball on the Cowboys’ 40-yard line, first and 10. Listen to the announcer:
“And it’s a pitchout to Clarence Davis and he’s on the 39, 38, 37 — all the way to the 35-yard line and it’s second and five and there is one minute and 48 seconds to play! And Stabler is fading back — there’s a man open! — it’s Biletnikoff and he’s down on the 25-yard line! And there’s one minute and 25 seconds to go! They’re in a slot right, it’s a fake handoff to Van Eeghen and it’s Stabler back to pass. It’s complete on the 16 and it’s second down and one to go and the seconds are ticking away!”
It goes on like that. The suspense builds and builds. Hearts pound, people can’t bear to look. Time out is called to adjust defenses, rearrange strategy.
Now, let’s look at the soccer game. Boom! a guy kicks the ball down to the (in effect) 10-yard line. Boom! a defending player kicks it back to the, in effect, 75-yard line. The peril does not build. It is all but invisible. I would imagine soccer would be totally unsatisfying as a radio sport.
That’s point one. Now, take controversy. Americans love to sit around the hot stove all winter and argue strategy. They even have a name for it: the Hot Stove League. What do they talk about?
“He shoulda bunted. Why din he bunt in that situation — two men on and one out and trailing by one run in the seventh. I woulda bunted.”
“Why din he walk him? Why let Henry Aaron beat you a game? He shoulda walked him!”
“Why din the Raiders kick a field goal in that situation? They tie the score and go into overtime. Win the toss and you win the Super Bowl!”
“Why din Stabler try an end run? They were looking for the pass!”
Or, “Why din Stabler pass? Caster was wide open. He shoulda saw the Cowboys were in a stack!”
In basketball, they might say, “Why din he foul ’im?”
And so on. Americans love to chew over victories and defeats. “Why din he put in a pinch-hitter?”
What do you chew over in soccer? Do they sit around pubs and second-guess all winter? If so, over what?
There are other inhibiting factors. You use only part of your body, your legs. You can play the game in handcuffs. The host country wins suspiciously often. The World Cup was inaugurated in 1930 in Uruguay. Naturally, Uruguay won. When it is held in England, England wins. When it is held in West Germany, West Germany wins. When it is held in Italy, Italy wins. And when it is held in Argentina, Argentina wins. Brazil is almost the only “road” team ever to win World Cups and it won three of them. On the road.
Well, these, I think, are some of the reasons Americans are slow to join the chorus. It’s not the fact the game is not violent enough for us. What’s violent about golf? Tennis? It’s just that the game takes away our inalienable right to second-guess. And our right to scream “Hold that line!” when the enemy forces are massed on the one-yard line, fourth and goal to go. In soccer, goals are kind of like mother-in-law’s visits — unexpected, unwelcome, without warning and — most fatal — unable to be anticipated.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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