Some World Cup Thoughts
Like most kids I knew, I grew up playing soccer. Not because I really wanted to, I guess, mostly because it was something to do. I didn’t like to run and I’ve never been very coordinated with my hands, let alone my feet, so you can probably imagine how well my time on the soccer pitch worked out. I eventually lost touch with the sport, something that didn’t change until a few months ago, when a friend (whom I’d also, sadly, mostly lost touch with before this) got me excited about this World Cup.
As you don’t recall in a previous post that no one read, I was getting really into this year’s competition, but still wasn’t in love with the sport. I was planning to go on to write a critique of the sport, explaining that, for all of its charms and good points, there are still so many problems with it that I couldn’t really call myself a fan.
Well, the World Cup’s been over just over 48 hours now, so the window for such a piece is rapidly closing. But no matter how I try… I just don’t think I can any more.
After all, the internet is already filled up with opinions no one cares about critiquing soccer. What I haven’t seen yet is anyone’s explanation about becoming a soccer fan.
And after a month of watching as much soccer as I was physically able to, I think that’s really all I can describe myself as. Its not without dull moments or frustrating aspects, but what sport isn’t? The three major complaints about soccer are the abundance of flopping, the possibility of ties, and the lack of action, and these are, almost without exception, really terrible complaints.
I’ll start with the flopping, because, well, this is the exception. Flopping is awful, and I really have no defense for it. I’ve seen others try to excuse it by pointing out that soccer fans don’t like it either, but really that only makes it worse. I mean, say what you will about the fighting in hockey, for example, at least that’s supposed to be part of the game and is something fans like. That everyone hates flopping in soccer just means it’s awful and that FIFA is, so far, unable to do anything about it.
That said, it’s not exactly like soccer is the only sport facing issues with flopping. I’m not even convinced that soccer’s flopping issues are more serious than those of other sports. In fact, here’s a fun comparison: Check out the best basketball player in the world, and then check out the best soccer player in the world. So, I mean, I’m just saying, yes it’s annoying when it happens, and infuriating when it dramatically effects the outcome of a game. But let’s not pretend soccer players are the only ones known for going down easy.
Now, the thing about ties is… Um… They exist? Okay, seriously, this is something that everyone who doesn’t like soccer criticizes about it, and when I didn’t like soccer, I did, too. And then I actually watched the sport, and thought about this argument, and… Yeah, I don’t get it.
For one, how many times have announcers or analysts in other sports described a game as being so well played, saying “It’s just too bad one of these teams had to lose!” Then soccer comes along and suddenly the saying is “What?! A sport that doesn’t always have a loser! I hate everything about this!”
The best I can come up with is that most people hate ties because they think it goes back to the “everyone’s a winner” mentality they think soccer has (thank you, Ann Coulter). But again, if you watch the sport, it’s abundantly clear that this is not only not true about soccer, it’s not even the case with ties.
When two teams tie, it’s hardly a case where they join hands and sing Kumbaya. A win grants the team three points in determining their standing, a tie grants both teams one. Consider, for example, the States’ first two games at this World Cup. At the beginning of the 86th minute in their first game against Ghana, the score was tied 1-1. But despite not trailing, it felt like death was fast approaching for the American team. Tying Ghana would leave the States in desperate need of a win against Portugal or Germany, effectively ending their World Cup hopes. Luckily, a late header produced a goal for the US, keeping their dreams alive for another match. In any other sport, a late scoring opportunity like that would have been important. But since soccer can result in a tie, it was life or death.
In their second game, the Stars and Stripes were on the verge of beating Portugal, which would guarantee they’d advance, when a header gave Portugal a goal in the last 30 seconds, tying the game at 2. Again, in any other sport, a mistake such as this would have been huge, but only sent the game to overtime. Instead, it removed any chance the Yanks had of winning the match and made sure they’d have to defend for their lives against Germany.
As often as not, the fact that soccer matches can end in ties lends more desperation to each chance the teams do receive, not less.
Saving best for last, the idea that soccer doesn’t have enough action is just flat-out wrong. I’m not the first to point this out, but to play a 90-minute soccer game, from kickoff to the final whistle, takes less than 2 hours and produces 90 minutes of playing time. Compare that with the NFL, where a 60-minute football game takes 3 1/2 hours and has a whopping 11 minutes of playing time. How audiences can handle that much action is truly beyond explanation. It only takes the NFL half a season for their players to give fans as much action as the MLS offers in one game.
The NBA, which, judging by TV ratings, is considered the second most action-packed sport, is only mildly better. While in theory there are 48 minutes of action in a game, 36 of them don’t matter. At all. Just ask NBA-great Bill Russell, who, when asked if there was anything more pointless than the first half of an NBA game, answered “The first three quarters of an NBA game.” So enjoying watching basketball means you enjoy watching 2 hours of guys running around, engaging in an absolutely meaningless activity, only to finally get to the 12 minutes that do matter, which are then stretched out into 2 more hours thanks to timeouts and fouls and TV breaks and fouls. Most of the “action” that matters consists of a guy standing at the charity stripe, where the defense is not allowed to do absolutely anything to impact the game.
And soccer is boring?
No, it’s not the perfect sport, but soccer has a great, consistent rate of play, high intensity, and plenty of unpredictable outcomes. At the very least it deserves to be judged on its own merits. And luckily, the MLS has started offering one game a week that almost anyone can stream online for free. You can vote on which game to stream here, then head to the page for that game to stream it. Check it out if you’re interested. It’s a fast developing league, offers up some amazing results, and, most notably, MLS players actually, y’know, play the sport they get paid for.