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2nd Meditations on the soccer ball.

July 3, 2010, 5:03 am

So, the U.S. is out.  Not terribly surprising.  Anyone familiar with sports is familiar with the maxim that you have to play the whole game; usually, this is a monition to a team that is winning in the waning minutes.  With us, it’s a reminder to the defense that they have to show up before minute nineteen.

In any event, forward we go in our discussion of reasons Americans don’t like soccer.

The explanation: “Soccer is boring.”

The attraction: This one appeals to both fans and detractors of soccer.  To the detractor, it’s a claim that Americans don’t like sports where 95% of the time is spent kicking the ball back and forth, 4% of the time is spent faking career-ending injuries, and 1% of the time goals are scored on set pieces, penalty kicks, and then taken away by the the ref because his rheumatism acted up.  Real sports are ones with high scores and manly men being manly.  To the fan, it’s a claim that Americans, unenlightened brutes that they are, are unable to see the beauty of a game unless it comes with lots of scoring and instant replays and space monkeys, and football is simply too subtle and complicated.  Everyone gets to feel smug and superior.

The problem: There’s actually a jigger of truth mixed up in all this.  It’s not that the game is low-scoring; fans of baseball were raving this month or last that a bad call cost a pitcher a perfect game, which is one in which quite literally nothing happens.  People watch golf, and apparently have been known to be entertained by it.   It’s also not that the game is terribly complicated or taxing for American brains.  There are basically three rules, and one of them is that you can’t use your hands.  We got this.  Moreover, it’s not as though Americans have never heard of soccer.  Among other things, it’s the middle class suburban pastime for children, largely because you don’t need much equipment, there are basically three rules, and anything that wears out the little rugrats so they sleep is welcomed.

What we don’t have in the U.S. is a large tradition of watching good soccer.  And this hurts soccer’s popularity during the World Cup, and I suspect more generally, because soccer is a game that is mostly about flow. A game that is about flow is a game where elegant control of the ball-like object leads to the creation of chances to achieve the goal in the game; the opposing team stops them by interrupting them, and taking over.  Soccer, basketball, hockey, and were I in the mood for a challenge I’d argue NASCAR (um, minus the ball bit), are games like this.  Games of flow can be contrasted with games of plays, where one team tries to do something to get points, and the other team is defending.   Football and baseball are games like this.

One of the advantages of games of plays for the casual spectator is that the action in the game is very easy to follow. Even if the spectator doesn’t know all of the details of the strategy or tactics, it’s relatively easy to describe what the teams are doing.  They’re trying to make it ten yards in three or four tries; they’re trying to thwart them.  He’s trying to hit the ball; he’s trying to throw it so he can’t hit it.   There’s an aggressor, and a defender, and it’s relatively clear what everyone’s up to.

Soccer is in a tough position.  It’s a low scoring game of flow, unlike basketball where flow usually leads to baskets; where fighting isn’t allowed, unlike low-scoring hockey; and for the casual spectator, figuring out flow is very difficult.   Take the Brazil-North Korea matchup.  Brazil!  Joga bonito! Five World Cups!  North Korea! May actually  be permitted to have a soccer ball now!  Final score: 2-1.  That’s an awful lot of “what makes the team good?” occurring in things that aren’t obvious unless one already understands the flow of the game as played at a high level.

To understand the flow of any game, one has to watch a lot of it, and it’s hard to decide to do that in the case of soccer given that top-level games are not generally shown on the main networks, and it’s a rare person who buys premium cable to watch a sport they don’t understand.

So, who are your favorites of the remaining teams?

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