Baseball, Futebol, and Football
Saturday, July 12, 2014
Anyone who has ever been in a Major League Baseball dugout five minutes after the game wouldn’t snicker about whether soccer is a real sport.
At the end of a baseball game the dugout floor is spotted with more spit than a Chinese railroad station after the train left. As soccer grabs the fickle attention of American audiences during the current World Cup, one thing you can say in the game’s favor is that you can’t play soccer while being fat and chewing tobacco.
Soccer players on the level of the World Cup just might be in the best conditioned of any athletes on earth. I’d like to see the New York Yankees play 90 minutes of soccer. Within two minutes they would be wheezing, vomiting, and calling for oxygen.
But soccer in America may be fated to always be on the way without ever arriving. Despite the growth of youth soccer leagues and college soccer, the game is constantly catching on without catching on. It’s like lacrosse, whose advocates say, “It’s America’s fastest growing sport,” and they’ve been saying it for 50 years.
Americans like defined rules and soccer requires abstract imagination. Four downs to make ten yards makes sense to the average American, but “stoppage time” after 90 minutes of regulation play on a soccer field makes Americans come unglued. They want to know, how long is the game? Exactly. How long? Those minutes of mystery time added by the referee to compensate for the time players spent faking injuries are to Americans like baseball without a home plate.
And speaking of faked injuries, soccer’s reputation is not helped by the art of “diving”, also known as “flopping.” Some of the best players in the world will fall to the ground twisting their faces in apparent agony with what looks like a career-ending injury. Then they’ll get right back up and run full speed. That doesn’t happen in a game like hockey in which a player isn’t really hurt until a bone is showing.
The New York Times ran a story that questioned whether American soccer players are hindered in international competition because they are bad actors, unable to convincingly fake an injury that will get their opponent a yellow warning card. Americans don’t mind cheaters, but they like their cheating to be subtle.
Of course, soccer is foreign, but it’s not so much the foreignness of the game as its language that grates on American sensibilities. Sorry, but it’s a “field,” not a “pitch.” That’s reserved for baseball. It’s irritating to Americans that the world calls soccer “football” because it’s not the same game played by the NFL and Americans like to think the world revolves around them.
International soccer players call their shoes “boots” and we call them spikes. They say the score of a game is 1-Nil. In America that’s “zero” and no American who wants to avoid getting beat up on the playground is ever going to use the world “nil.”
Soccer’s offside rule is unnerving for the American audience. An attacking player has to stay even with the second to last defender. What? Where’s the line … did he cross it or didn’t he?
Americans understand it when a tied soccer match goes into overtime. Baseball has extra innings and basketball has overtime. We get it. But when overtime ends in a tie and the game is decided by a shootout of penalty kicks on undefended goalies, it seems like the entire previous two hours, plus stoppage time, was for nothing. It’s a terrible way to end a game, but unlike baseball, which can be played for 24 hours straight because it requires so little exertion, soccer games have to end or the players will die.
It does have a certain beauty to it, and that’s why they keep calling it The Beautiful Game. You look at what they can do with their feet and a ball and it’s like a magician making objects disappear and then come back. The pressure builds as the game goes on and the slightest success or error can determine the outcome. The lack of scoring makes the game more explosive. If you turn away from a soccer match, you might miss the only goal of the game. You have to watch, and that’s the beauty.
Stoppage time adds a journey into the deep unknown. Will someone score, and how long do they have to do it? No one knows. It’s a thrill ride.
Baseball is the American pastime because you can ignore it most of the time while you drink beer and talk to the guy who brought you to the game.
We like football because it satisfies our hunger for firm rules and violence. We just love a game that leaves a retired player arthritic and brain damaged.
Americans have the ability to learn and there may be hope for them to learn about soccer. After all, we’ve learned to drink wine and to make drinkable coffee. It’s only taken about 250 years. I’m not a huge fan of soccer, but I’ve come to appreciate it. If I had to choose between baseball and soccer, it would be soccer 1, baseball, nil.