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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

It seems the best way to shore up your average comment count is to declare that the World Cup is of interest and that you intend to post on it. It also helps if you then mis-date the next day's post so that the shocking revelation that you are some sort of hippie euro-snob fairy remains at or near the top of the blog for all red-white-and-blue blooded to see and fret over. If you, the blogger, do this, then you will return to see the soccer-sucks-no-it-doesn't sniping has bloomed like algae across any surface it can attach itself to. It's so bad that other noted college football bloggers have retreated to obscurer interwebs in a (thwarted) attempt to avoid serious loss of street cred.

In a way this fevered bitch (H!IKM!) is no suprise. A brief survey of essentially any country in the world that isn't this one or Canada will reveal that the game lends itself to mad passion better than any other. Generally this results in bickering between two fanbases representing different teams, but in the United States the camps are divided over the game itself. On the one side are people like Tom Power:

No one who actually is from here cares about the most over-hyped, mind-numbingly boring event in the world.


Thirty years after soccer was supposed to be the next thing here, ESPN and ABC will attempt to "educate" as well as entertain American viewers during the World Cup, according to an article in Sunday's paper. The arrogance is astounding. The networks still are subscribing to the tired old chestnut that Americans aren't interested in soccer because we don't understand it.

All that tactical beauty is somehow slipping past us. We aren't smart enough to understand the nuances involved in the most popular game in the world.

In fact, just the opposite is true. We don't like soccer because we do understand it. And it's awful.

Etc., etc. It's the same column you've read a dozen times every four years, hitting all the high spots:
  • OMG soccer is boring!!!
  • OMG soccer fans are loco nuts man!!!
  • OMG ferrigners is teh dumbs!!!
  • USA Number One! Hotdog sauce!
A large number of these arguments showed up in the comments -- though to be fair to the commenters they had the decency to not be published by a major newspaper -- and I'm here to say that all these criticisms are completely accurate. Soccer, by in large, is boring. Soccer fans, and by "soccer fans" I and everyone else means "English soccer fans," are not people you want to invite into your house. Ferrigners are by and large teh dumbs. And, of course, USA Number One. Hotdog sauce.

For a large portion of my life I could have written the same column, though undoubtedly it would have had much more wit and savoir faire. I came to soccer young as a participant -- five or six, playing on shrunken fields with shrunken goals and no goalies -- but late as a spectator. I was fifteen when I watched a soccer game for the first time. The United States was playing in the World Cup, and I looked upon a game that had previously always been accompanied by water bottles and orange quarters with somewhat alarmed interest: you mean people watch this? On TV? After the US went out, soccer disappeared from my consciousness entirely for eight years. No Doc Martens-clad hooligan I.

So why bother? First you have to accept that there is this... thing about the game. Tom Power refuses to believe that there is any such power possessed by the game, chalking it all up to ferrigner stupidity:
It's time to quit apologizing and tell the truth. When it comes to soccer, we're right, and the rest of the world is wrong. If they want to dance in the streets of Cameroon or Belgium over this stuff, fine. But the sport does not suit American taste, and we should stop feeling guilty about it.
If this is you and your opinion, than we can speak no more of this, as I will lose. You are free to click somewhere else and spend your time more productively. But I submit that in the case of soccer, billions of people can't be wrong by definition.

All right: so we accept that there is a mysterious thing about soccer. There are mysterious things about all sports that persist to this day. They have survived because they appeal to certain facets of human nature. The truly dull things, aside from auto racing, have shuffled off the mortal coil. But that doesn't mean they're all the same thing. As anyone who's watched Sportscenter can tell you, baseball is intolerably dull without context. Literally nothing happens in a baseball game that you haven't seen a thousand times before: a strikeout, a diving catch, a homerun. Baseball's big moments are all about timing or numbers. It's a game of familiarity. Basketball provides a constant stream of moments both good and bad, but even the most spectacular play is only two points of a hundred. Both sports offer thousands of little compartmentalized events of minor signficance and string them together like beads on a rosary.

On the other hand, soccer and hockey* -- soccer's spiritual cousin and frequently a fellow object of American sportswriter ridicule -- are games that flow from one end to the other, steady as the ocean. This is the boring bit. A lot of nothing happens in any hockey or soccer game. This is granted. At any one point in either game, someone has the ball at a certain point and all that muck that happened before may as well have not existed. But if you will permit me to be zen for a moment, a scaffold of anticipation is built from the nothingness. Where your rosary sports feed you little bits of feedback all the time, with soccer and hockey there is nothing apart from great giant thunderbolts that bring feast or famine, with nothing in-between. The infrequency of these events, the unlikely ways in which they come about (there are no Ronaldinhos or Ovechkins in rosary sports because they restrict heroes to realms of the possible), and the sheer power of them lend them the same sort of magic that caused early men to dream up the idea of gods in the first place. It makes a lot of sense that the most infamous play in soccer history is called "The Hand Of God." These things are a religion, and watching them is a vigil, as anyone who's sat through four overtimes knows. It isn't for everyone, but if you can stand the nothing then your reward is the occasional moment when everything comes together that sears itself in your mind and lingers on like an old friend.

Which is why when I close my eyes I can see Eric Nystrom pass back to Jed Ortmeyer; I can see Charles Woodson slice through a morass of bodies into the great white open air; and, yes, I can see Robbie Keane blasting a ball past -- through -- Oliver Kahn long after all hope had gone. When it comes to religion, you've either got some or you don't. Myself, I say hallelujah.

*(Football is left out of this equation as its genius is that it takes all the mucking-about-in-midfield/neutral-zone stuff and remembers it. This turns every play into something relevant for the future. You are here on yard Y because of plays X,Y,Z, and everything else that happened after the last score. Each score is the culmination of everything that goes before it. When you can combine total relevancy with the moment of spine-mangling horror when a corner jumps an out and the ball hangs in the air as God decides which team he will favor this day, you are cooking.

By the way, God always picks Notre Dame.)