On the Contrary: Soccer Is Not “The Beautiful Game.”
a new blogumn by Joe Rusin
Arguing against the big things, the little things, and mundane things…so you don’t have to…
The World Cup has bullied its way into our national sports coverage. I say bullied because Americans by and large really don’t care about the sport of soccer. In fact, we care so little about it that we have to use an obscure nickname for the sport that no one else in the world uses, because we want to save “football” for our most popular sport (which is really a modified form of rugby that involves very little interaction between feet and balls). Soccer is a word with its origins in the Oxford colloquial abbreviation for “association football.” I’m no linguist, but to put it into perspective, referring to the sport as “soccer” would be akin to someone referring to our American Football as “gridiron.” It just sounds wrong, but for the most part Americans don’t care.
However, the World Cup is a really big deal to most of the world, and every four years we masters of the universe come down with a case of “superpower-guilt”, and will at least try to watch a sport that seems to mean so much to everyone else. Also, with the NBA playoffs now over, our only alternative is midseason baseball, which is not only boring but for the most part meaningless. (Sorry baseball fans—shorten your season by half, cut the length of your games to 7 innings, and shrink the number of MLB teams and baseball will still be boring—but less so.) So we dive into the World Cup tournament, and sports writers insist to us soccer-novices that this is “the beautiful game.” But all one has to do is tune into any match to find it’s quite the opposite.
Watching the game played is probably the closest a professional sport can be to watching children play the same game. Of course the professional adults playing are in fantastic shape and incredibly skilled, but the very physics of the game make moments of real grace about as frequent as the goals (that is, 1 or 2 per game if you’re lucky).
To begin with, the field is huge, much larger than an American Football field. Because the ball is constantly moving all around the field, television shots have to be far away and wide, effectively dwarfing the players. So already it looks like a bunch of kids (or hobbits) running around a lawn. Because everyone is running after and kicking a ball that is so bouncy its trajectory is unpredictable, the running becomes jerky and chaotic. There are no time outs and very little player substitutions, so a lot of players become visibly winded near the end of the match, and the game tangibly slows down because of it.
None of this makes the game very “beautiful.” Add the annoying and constant drone of plastic “vuvuzela” horns during every 2010 World Cup match (something endemic to South African soccer-fandom—like waving the Terrible Towel at a Pittsburgh Steelers game), and the game manages to even be auditorily repugnant. Here’s a taste if you haven’t heard them
Beauty, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder. I watched the opening match of this year’s World Cup in a bar surrounded by cheering soccer fans at 7 in the morning. Beers were quaffed, flags were waved, and profanities were hollered. All before most people started their day at work. The match between Mexico and South Africa ended in a 1-1 tie, but the roller coaster of emotions around me seemed completely out of proportion with what I was seeing happen on the television screen. To me, it was an hour and a half of watching people run around with about four moments of excitement. To the other patrons, though, this was a life and death struggle with dramatic tension every time foot touched ball. Emotions were in fact so high that I saw some fans of Mexico try to start a fight with someone who had cheered when South Africa scored—something to keep in mind if you should decide to take in a game at a bar whose team you’re cheering against. It wasn’t pretty.
Here’s the thing, though. The game doesn’t have to be beautiful. Really there might not be such a thing as a “beautiful game” in sports—they’re all just contrived ways of getting human beings to run around and compete with each other. The World Cup is kind of fun. It’s fun like the Olympics are fun. Yes, the sport will never catch on in America. We like a lot more scoring in our sports, and we always have an overtime period to try to avoid the emotional anticlimax of a tie. We like our time outs, instant replay review, and coaches’ challenges, because we’re a litigious society that feels cheated if we don’t get to hear from both sides on an official’s call. But once every four years, we can enjoy something a little different from our usual sports diet—whether it’s curling in the Winter Olympics or the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. Think of it as sampling an exotic cuisine—it’s not going to become a staple of your diet, but it’s fun every once in a while. After all, it reminds us we’re citizens of the world, and that sports competition and fandom is a common human experience everywhere. And maybe recognizing that deep down human connection actually is a beautiful thing.
Photo Credit: Brit.