P. J. O'Rourke's Up To a Point: Oops, I Enjoyed Soccer
How I accidentally fell for a game I so wanted to hate.
I belong to the “Soccer Hater” demographic—middle-aged Republican crank with long, blonde hair and a great pair of gams. No, that’s Ann Coulter. My legs are short and hairy. But you know what I mean. And Ann Coulter’s two-fisted (but no kicking or biting!) assault on “futball” has gone viral. “Going viral” is the point of modern life. Maybe there are some exercises I can do for my legs.
I switched on the June 16 USA vs. Ghana World Cup match looking for things to loathe. It was conveniently scheduled at cocktail time. After 90 minutes of cocktail time, I am at my loathsome best. But, darn it, here was a game of courage, passion, and skill.
Of course, the same is true of luge and that only lasts three minutes. But—you can’t say this about luge—we have a “historical rivalry with Ghana.”
Or so the soccer announcers said. In a game where there is a great deal of kicking the ball forward to no evident purpose and even more kicking the ball backward to less evident purpose, soccer announcers have time to say a lot of things.
However, Ghana knocked USA out of the World Cup “Group Stage” in 2006 and eliminated us from the World Cup “Round of 16” in 2010. So USA vs. Ghana is the Red Sox vs. Yankees of soccer, if the Yankees came from a place we’d never heard of.
Mention “Ghana” to the average American and he or she assumes it’s street slang for marijuana.
Anyway, USA vs. Ghana was a great game, a wonderful game, an enthralling game. Just don’t ask me what went on during it. I don’t know the sports terms for anything that happens in soccer, let alone the sports terms for when nothing does.
Nor do I understand who is playing what position. I mean, if you put a man at third base, he plays third base. He doesn’t roam all over the baseball diamond.
I will leave it to my friend, comedian and actor Maz Jobrani, to explain soccer play. He’s from Iran where they take this sport (and, frankly, everything else) very seriously.
“Soccer has an orgasmic rhythm,” Maz says. “You fool around and fool around and nothing happens and then—Wow!—something happens. Then nothing happens again and you fool around and fool around and—Wow!—something happens.”
USA vs. Portugal was also full of orgasmic rhythm even if though it was a draw. Why this game didn’t go into extra time (soccer needs extra time?) is a mystery of sports bylaws like the infield fly rule, icing in hockey, and why NBA refs are blind to traveling with the ball.
Speaking of mysteries, powerhouse Germany’s 1-0 victory over USA somehow didn’t matter. Both teams advanced in World Cup standings. This is not the most mysterious thing that has ever happened in World Cup standings. In 1998, the USA was ousted from competition after losing 0-1 to Yugoslavia, a country that didn’t exist.
My orgasmic rhythm withstood the detumescence of loss. I was proud to see America hold the squarehead Nazi krauts (World Cup promotes healthy patriotism in fans) held to one goal. And now I even know the name of a professional soccer player, Tim Howard, who—I mentioned I don’t know the terms—swats and grabs and bounces around so well that he’ll wind up in Soccer Cooperstown, if there is one.
Then we lost to Belgium, albeit in the part of the game after I thought everyone has supposed to stop playing the way USA and Portugal did. But, still, losing to Belgium? I mean, for all I know Belgians are the Tintin and Snowy of FIFA. But Belgium, as a country, is the doormat of Europe, marched over by every nation you can think of since the Duke of Wellington was a corporal. And America can’t beat them at kick-the-can?
Still, I cannot go along with the Soccer Haters. They claim the sport is “Unamerican.” But America played in the first FIFA World Cup in 1930. And in 1950 we upset then-dominant England in a game called “The Miracle on Grass,” which should not be confused with the 1960s Peter Fonda movie of the same name.
True, it took America until 1990 to qualify for another World Cup, and it was 64 years before we made it past the first round. But doesn’t everybody love the Chicago Cubs?
Also soccer has an American kind of history. It was played in England as early as the 9th century. Two villages would set goal markers at their outskirts, then the men from the villages would meet in the middle with an inflated pig’s bladder. The idea was to get the “pigskin” into the opposing village by any means possible.
America hadn’t been discovered, but what a perfectly American idea of fun. Of course we would have played it on ATVs, but ATVs hadn’t been discovered either.
The restriction on the use of hands (decried by some soccer-objectors, including myself until we beat Ghana) is sensible. In the 9th century those hands held daggers and clubs.
“Hands-free” soccer wasn’t codified until an Oct. 26, l863, meeting of England’s Football Association. Some English teams were having none of it and formed leagues to play rugby from which the NFL real football evolved.
Bedsides, many American games restrict the use of hands. You can’t pick up your golf ball and toss it into the fairway from the rough or, for that matter, whack your golf opponent with a 9 iron.
Soccer is as American as shooting people. And if the Football Association meeting had been held in the United States on Oct. 26, 1863, (shortly after the Battle of Chickamauga) we would have figured out how to pull triggers with our toes.
Which bring us to complaints about “soccer fan violence.” We can learn from it. In football our thugs are paid enormous salaries. Soccer thugs work on a volunteer basis. And, while Americans are no strangers to fan violence, El Salvador and Honduras went so far as to fight a “Soccer War” in 1969 after El Salvador won a World Cup qualifying match.
Is soccer too much of a “team sport” for Americans who like to see exhibitions of individual excellence? In Super Bowl XXXVIII, Tom Brady wouldn’t have exhibited much excellence if he’d been on the field alone against the Carolina Panthers.
Is soccer too “low-scoring”? Hockey outcomes are not obstacles to the mathematically impaired. And consider a baseball game where both teams pitched shut-outs and the game kept going, extra inning after extra inning, until every player had dropped dead or it rained. This would be talked about for years.
Is there not enough “physicality” in soccer? We’re a nation that, with the help of Ty Cobb, turned a form of cricket into a contact sport. Yet, even in the NHL, you’d have to watch a lot of enforcers at work before you saw something like what happened to Brazil’s Neymar during the match against Columbia.
Yet soccer is not likely to become a sport that American life revolves around like the Super Bowl. Or March Madness when all business activity ceases while employees devote full time to filling in brackets only to lose the pool to the executive assistant who picks colleges according to which school colors she likes best. Or the World Series where you can take a snack break during the wind-up for every pitch.
For us Laz-Y-Boy League All-Stars in our 50s and 60s (a key sports fan demographic), soccer will always be a thing that was introduced at schools, YMCAs, and rec centers when America was having its JFK physical fitness fit.
Soccer was intended to be safe, free from the worrisome “over-competitiveness” of Little League and Pop Warner, and playable by any kid no matter what a fat little jerk he was. That is, soccer was intended to be no fun, like a 50-mile hike.
Plus children didn’t know how to play it. And they still don’t. Every parent winces at the mention of soccer, recalling endless afternoons spent viewing Kid-Cluster-Kick, usually in shade-free places with nowhere to sit and mosquitoes. Twenty years after the phrase entered the American lexicon, “Soccer Mom” retains its power as hurtful speech.
The time between World Cups is too long. America is “gratification nation” and we like ours immediate or, at least, annually. Soccer is similar to one of those Olympic sports that get us excited—400 meter hurdles, platform diving, pole vault, 200 meter butterfly—then four years pass and we can’t remember which one we’re excited by.
And put soccer’s lack of time outs together with beer and a prostate…
Plus we lost to Belgium so I had to switch channels. And now you’ll have to excuse me, Women’s Beach Volleyball is on ESPN 3.