Sunday, September 13, 2015
American disdain for soccer
I became a soccer fan a scant 14 months ago through the keyhole of Lionel Messi, the smaller-than-your-average-athlete soccer genius. Can you be a genius at soccer, or, really, any sport? No. I only said that about genius because I get carried away. But when one is carried away it looks exactly like genius. Lionel Messi is, if you pour over the soccer part of the Internet, either "the greatest player of all time", "probably the best current player", or "not fit to wash Ronaldo's shorts".
I followed Messi from his second place finish with Argentina in The World Cup (an alternate way of saying "his loss in The World Cup") into a brilliantly successful season with his "real" team, FC Barcelona (the FC stands for Football Club, something it took me about four months to figure out). Then I followed him into a pointless summer with Argentina again and now back to a new season with Barcelona.
This has been my training ground for soccer. As per my nature I am now certain that I know vastly more about soccer than I actually do. In this I apparently have about a billion people for company. And in this journey of less discovery than I think, I have been recurrently aware of a major soccer question:
What is wrong with the USA?
The rest of the world is soccer crazy. It is the world's sport and the world adores it, but here in the USA we can not care less about soccer. Oh, we play it, plenty, but we don't care.
Our poor taste has been sited. People have blamed our gluttonous hunger for scoring, of which soccer often has little. And others have mentioned our long lack of a true, world class soccer hero.
But no. It is none of these. I have been following soccer for just over a year, and I am here to tell you that the American lack of interest is not really even our fault. Indeed, we are being sensible.
The real problem is that world soccer is, for lack of a more refined word, stupid.
No, not the beautiful game. After all, I speak with soccer being the only sport I am even interested in these days, and I think it is the best sport I have ever followed. It requires speed, athleticism, coordination, inventive movement, endurance, and strength from everyone playing. And, crucially, it confers no particular advantage to size, a quality in many popular American sports that by default eliminates more than 99 percent of the talent pool. The NBA for instance isn't really made up of the most talented basketball players in the world. It's made up of the most talented basketball players who are also 6'3'' and taller. How many people do you know in that category?
So if soccer is the better sport by virtue of sheer egalitarianism, what's so stupid?
Like many stupid things it's a little complicated, so we will make use of another comparison.
However absurd one wants to say the sport of baseball is, with its innings and bats and endless standing around, there is little wrong with its structure. No matter how many leagues there are in the world, if you can, if you are good enough, you will play in the Major Leagues. One league, all the best players, all evenly measured against the same competition. The teams play for five or six months and the best teams go to playoffs. Many of these playoff games establish the two strongest teams who then face each other in The World Series. The best team wins. It's simple and sensible and the majority of American sports are conducted along the same lines. Not only does it determine the best team of the year, but the players are equally measured against each other, one person's batting average is fairly comparable to another player's batting average, as are their home runs or earned run averages.
So imagine a neophyte American soccer fan faced with world soccer. Or if you are that neophyte, well, I dread trying to explain it to you.
The best soccer players in the world will play in any of five or more different leagues, most or all of them in Western Europe. Messi's league, in Spain, for instance, will play a many months long series of games among themselves. When it's done whoever has the best record just... wins.
"Is it over?"
"Yes, we lost, but so did the second place team, so we're the champions, although there are still three games to go."
But wait, if you're missing tournaments, we've got tournaments too. Separate from Messi's league, called La Liga, all the teams of Spain have a tournament that winds through that same season. So it's those La Liga teams plus the Spanish teams not really good enough to be in La Liga, thus all the same teams with a bunch of much worse teams thrown into a big tournament that has nothing to do with their regular leagues. I refuse to tell you the name of this tournament because I have so much more cluttering of your mind to go.
So perhaps then you wonder if there isn't a tournament that puts all the best teams in the world together. Yes, thankfully there is. It runs simultaneous to that All Spain tournament (fine, The Copa Del Rey) and the La Liga season. It's called the Champions League and it includes the best teams in their leagues and a group of other teams that qualify in some way that I'm not clear on. This is the closest thing to a league of leagues, an NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB. Except, sadly, it's not a league, it's a tournament, and mostly you qualify for it the year before it happens, which is a bit... delayed. Also, of course, it's interwoven with all their other unrelated tournaments.
I was pretty exhausted after all of these, but then, during what I took to be preseason this year, various championship games or "cups" came up. I think there were two or three more. They seemed to me like pointless pre-season games, but people would also talk about them as meaningful competitions that truly mattered. Championships.
In addition to this ten month season there are short breaks during that season for, and a summer almost entirely involved in, playing for one's national team. So Messi, for instance, during his less than two months off had to race over and play with Argentina, a country that for some mysterious, possibly insane reason that only they know, hates him. This isn't just every four years for the World Cup. These national teams appear to have all sorts of semi pointless games going every year.
Then there is the weird issue of how these soccer players all have to wear advertisements on their jerseys. Picture a Minnesota Vikings jersey, but with a giant 3M logo on the chest instead of, say, the team's name. You get an odd European/USA role reversal: craven capitalism in the sport and players who get no proper vacations in Europe, vs. American sports with tradition, restraint, and very generous summer or winter vacations for the athletes.
This is just a sketchy overview of world soccer and the slice of it I have become acquainted with, but acknowledging the limits of my understanding I think it may only get worse as I learn more. It may be the most beautiful game of them all, but it's a bit of a Gordian knot as well. And I say this as one still newly smitten with soccer, wishing my country shared my fascination: There is nothing unreasonable in staying away from this horribly, insensibly managed sport.
But then, of course, there is the American fascination with the bizarre and unethical world of Collegiate Athletics so we might not want to get on too high a horse.