My Shameful Secret

I am not what you would call a sports guy, by which I mean that I have active disinterest in playing or watching any game that requires legs. Is your favorite team playing somewhere? I don’t care, and am probably unaware, even if that game is taking place in my own city. This is because sports are boring. Also: sports fans are annoying. You know that guy who’s always taunting you because your college’s football team is blah blah whatever? Cocking your head to the side and saying “oh, was there a game?” tends to shut him down pretty solidly.


Every four years, under the light of a full moon, I become a raging sports fan. And by “full moon” I of course mean “World Cup soccer ball.” Yes, I am a soccer fan, though I don’t really have the time or patience to be a soccer fan full time; we have a major league soccer team right here in Utah, for crying out loud–a really good one, too–and I’ve only seen one of their games. But World Cup soccer is different. It has the same international vibe as the Olympics, for one thing, except that the coverage involves actual games instead of just newscasters. There’s also the fact that the games are attended by massive crowds of rabid fans instead of just, well, newscasters. There’s something very iconic about rooting for a country, instead of just a team.

I was exposed to World Cup mania twelve years ago (ie, three World Cups ago) when I lived in Mexico. Growing up in the US, of course, nobody cared about soccer (though I was on some local kiddie teams for a few years), but in Mexico everybody cared. I had several people tell me that Mexico’s economic viability was tied to their World Cup performance, and that as soon as they won the World Cup they would rise up as a major world superpower. I can certainly believe that their national self-esteem is tied to the World Cup, because the games were literally national parties: business would halt, traffic would stop, and everyone would watch the games wherever they were and however they could. It was electric and exciting and contagious. I caught one game while sitting in the airport: Mexico vs. Germany. Even if you weren’t near a TV you could tell when Mexico was close to the goal, because the entire airport would start to murmur and chant and pray, and the noise would get louder and louder until they were cheering and screaming in a single, unified roar. When Mexico scored a goal, I swear the entire airport became instantly and magically drunk, via some kind of cultural osmosis. And when Germany ended up winning, the airport was quiet and sad for a solid hour.

Living in the US, or as some people call it “the only country in the world that doesn’t care about soccer,” we have no frame of reference for just how much the rest of the world does care about soccer. We have football fans, and basketball fans, and baseball fans, but no single game, not even the superbowl, gets the kind of all-encompassing attention that a big soccer game will get anywhere else in the world. Watch a soccer game in Mexico, or Germany, or England, or anywhere else, and you are part of a massive collective consciousness; a nationwide–or worldwide–entity that is wholly embedded in a single event, sometimes a single moment. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we don’t love soccer here: we’re too devoutly individualist, too aggressively non-conformist, to appreciate something on that same, unified level.

As I type this, I’m watching the first game of the 2010 World Cup with my children: South Africa, the host nation, vs. Mexico, which I consider to be my second home. I’ll feel bad if South Africa loses, but of course I’m rooting for Mexico anyway. My son is with me, because he does everything I do without question, and my daughter is against me, because that is apparently what my daughter does. The score is tied at 1 and 1. The game is tense and thrilling; the players are some of the best in the world. How can anyone not like this game? I have no idea.

25 Responses to “My Shameful Secret”

  1. Rob Wells says:

    I personally think that the only reason that America has not adopted soccer is because no one has figured out how to monetize it properly. There are no time outs, which means that commercials will take you away from the action. Until it can make a lot of money, it won’t be on TV, and until it’s on TV it won’t be culturally ingrained.

  2. Nancy Allen says:

    My brother lived in Brazil for a while, and my brother-in-law in Italy, and they both said the same thing about the national consciousness of the sport. My b-i-l said in Italy he would hear a collective roar or groan across the entire city while soccer games were played.

    I am a sports fan, I love watching certain sports and can’t wait each summer for the Tour de France, and I would love to be part of that national frenzy that involves pride and identity. I also love watching rabid soccer fans. Makes me feel better that maybe Americans haven’t cornered the market on crazy. :-)

  3. admin says:

    I agree: if corporations could make better money broadcasting soccer, they would, and we would all watch it, and it would be popular. But there’s got to be more reasons than that, since soccer was popular in other countries long before broadcasting became an issue. My theories:

    1) Soccer allows ties, and Americans hate ties. If we watch a game we want someone to win, dangit.

    2) We insist, literally, on being the best. The sports we play are the sports we invented–baseball, basketball, and football–which means we don’t have to share them with anybody else and risk coming in second. Other nations have picked up some of those sports, but we ignore them; baseball is bigger in Japan than the US, for example, but we still consider our baseball championship to be the definitive world competition. And football we’ll always be the best at, because nobody else will ever play it.

  4. Randy Tayler says:

    Holy cow, Rob — that makes perfect sense. I always assumed soccer was just too boring or something for most Americans, but we watch BASEBALL.

    …I can’t stop thinking about it now. That’s a stunning revelation.

    That said, soccer is still boring to me. (Sorry, Dan.) I need more points to be convinced something is happening.

  5. Melanie says:

    Dan. you left hockey fans off you list of kinds on fans in the US. Which is about right in many parts of the country, I guess, but you do have some really great hockey towns too.

  6. I’ve never quite grasped how people can get so passionate over a sports game–perhaps because I don’t hold those kinds of intense feelings for anything in particular–but it certainly is interesting to see how riled up people can get. It can be a nice unifying moment for a country, however, and can make for some nice stories (the 1980 Miracle on Ice, for example). I do worry that nationalist pride will flare a bit too much at some of these international sporting events, though. Hopefully everything will go well for the World Cup.

  7. Robert says:

    During the opening ceremonies a giant soccer ball was rolled around the stadium by a giant Dung Beetle puppet.
    Considering that the organizers were playing up to such a worldwide audience of such rabid fans… didn’t they create an unfortunate association for the nature of the soccer ball?

  8. Sean says:

    What makes soccer so big across the rest of the world is its simplicity. The poorest group of kids can set up four cans as goal posts and roll up a ball of rags and you have a soccer game anywhere in the world. Anyone anywhere can play. That is the draw for most of the world.

    Now, there are more exciting, fast-paced games where more points are scored and more things happen, e.g. football and basketball and (to a degree) baseball. However, all of these sports require specialized gear that just isn’t available in the poorer parts of the world, and so they have never caught on the way soccer has.

    My theory is that Americans want more entertainment, and so they watch the faster paced games. Perhaps we rejected soccer when we rejected England. That would make sense since it first became really organized there about the same time as the American revolution. Since its rejection, we have found games that provide more adrenaline, and so Soccer has never captured America’s soul the way it has the rest of the world.

  9. rhsok says:

    football and baseball are certainly not faster than soccer.after every play there is a short break in football, thats jsut annoying and baseball… is faster sure but football and baseball are just slower and not as demanding for the sportsmen as soccer

  10. Andrew says:

    I suspect what Sean says is true. Soccer is big across the world because it really only requires something you can kick around; goals can be improvised, and you don’t even necessarily need a big field to play it. Compare that to baseball or basketball or hockey, and you can see why soccer is so much more popular in most parts of the world.

    Also, many Americans seem to take it as a point of pride that we don’t like the same sports everyone else does. Maybe it makes us feel special.

  11. admin says:

    The thing about points, Randy, is that you need to use the American Football method of scoring, by which I mean “pretend the score is way higher than it really is.” If we decided that soccer goals were worth 7 points each the scores would be more or less equivalent to any given football game, but without the two extra hours of stopping and resetting and catching your breath every time you run a few yards.

  12. My husband does some work for RSL. Rob is exactly right.

  13. I like all I love all sports..but soccer? not so much..although I did watch part of the first game today and then got sicetracked with cooking shows and dont know who was 1-1 when I faded out..I’d rather watch football.

  14. Alex Booth says:

    Americans like football because although there is not a huge amount of scoring, there is lots of progress. In soccer, the ball goes back and forth, back and forth for 60 minutes. In football you have downs. Even if there is not much more scoring you have possessions where you have to systematically progress, not just kick the ball around and round.

  15. Christoph says:

    I am from Germany, and while football and hockey sometimes attract a fairly good crowd, it seems like the whole of Germany will turn out to watch the German national team. We had the world cup 2006 in Germany. The performance of our team and indeed our own performance as hosts gave us back a bit of national pride. Before this world cup, when a German displayed national pride (even in Germany!!), they would immediately be dubbed radicalist and Nazi. Now it is perfectly okay to have a German flag in the garden (something that, I believe, is fairly common in the US). And still people wonder whether that may be too ostentatious.
    I do not know why soccer did not really break through in the US. What I do know is that soccer is some kind of national sport, because every guy and even many girls play it during their youth. However, when Germany fetched the handball world cup, we were nearly equally proud of our team. So yes, soccer is loved here because everyone has done it to some degree, because it is rather easy to understand, but it is hardly the only sport we are enthused about.

  16. I’ve been thinking about this, Dan, and I have an idea. First off, though, I was in Brazil the day AFTER the Brazilian team won their 4th World Cup championship in 1994. I was in the Capital on the day that the team arrived.

    It was terrifying and exciting beyond belief.

    One point: Rob is right on. Hard to monetize a broadcast of soccer. Time outs and action don’t fit well with commercials.

    Another point: Soccer is a summer sport and America has had its own summer sport as its freaking national pastime: baseball. Never mind that baseball is mind-numbing to watch for any length of time.

    Another point: American football, baseball– these are barely sports. I read once that there are about 12 minutes of action in an hour long football game. I loves my Steelers, but I’m not going to argue that they’re playing crazy hard. Soccer is flat-out, insanely strenuous.

    Maybe Americans just get exhausted watching it.

  17. Rob Wells says:

    Here’s one theory as to why the US likes baseball and football.

    In both football and baseball, each play (whether it be a football play or a throw from a pitcher) is like a mini-game with an immediate result. Your team either wins or loses, and you cheer for each play individually (as well as for the game as a whole).

    Football and baseball have no equivalent to soccer’s pass-the-ball-back-and-forth-and-wait moments, and there’s NOTHING in football or baseball that equates to passing the ball back toward your own goal. You’re always advancing, and always fighting a quick mini-battle as part of a larger war. (And, as others have said, baseball and football games almost never end in ties.)

    So yes, while there are a ton of pauses in a football game, a football fan almost gets the feeling that they’re watching a hundred short little games back-to-back.

    I’m not sure what that says about Americans: that we like victories? Or is it that we have short attention spans?

  18. Nate Hatfield says:

    WOOT! Argentina!

    Here in Seattle MLS has taken off big. BIG. Sounders games are a big deal. And they like to yell and get crazy and mostly drunk at the games, too (or so I’m told–haven’t been yet.) So it’s catching on. It’ll get big other in Elsewhere, US. Just wait. Maybe once everybody ditches their TV and goes to the internet for all content. Then they can have banner ads instead of commercial interruptions.

  19. Andrea says:

    I know how you can not like the game:
    At the moment, it’s monday, half past 6 in the morning in Germany. I’m awake, because I have to work and I’m very, very tired, because yesterday Germany won. I didn’t want to know that, but I knew immidially, because people were cheering in the streets. And honking there car horns. And blowing those south african vavuza thingies, that sound like foghorns. They did this up until midnight. Only when they were done I could sleep. This will get worse, if Germany continues to win. It will happen too, if Turkey wins a game, because there are so many turkish people around here.
    I hope they both lose their next games and we can be done with it.

  20. Steve D says:

    See I’ve always thought of baseball and football like Rob tells it: a series of battles that contribute to a larger war. I love the individual match-ups of a baseball game. I love the d-line vs. o-line match-ups of football (always referred to as the “trenches”). I’ve always held that baseball isn’t for those who lack patience.

    As for soccer–fĂștbol–it really depends who you are watching. It can be far more boring than even minor-league baseball. Or a normal game can be far more exciting than an NFL playoff game. It depends. Because they are different. Apples and oranges. I hate when people compare baseball to soccer. Really? They are completely different in fundamentals and in terms of the type of athlete that participates in them, not to mention the way strategy is employed over the course of a game/season. If you are going to compare anything, go soccer to hockey (both under-appreciated in the US).

    All that said, I love my DVR. With one button, I can record every wonderful World Cup match. And then the boring ones can be sped through (What was up with Argentina’s snore-fest? Talk about an underwhelming performance by the #7 team with the supposed best player in the cup)

  21. Arlene says:

    Love sports. Love soccer. Don’t have satelite or cable. :(

  22. Shush says:

    Hrrmm. Very interesting.

    Of course, I have my own wild and bizarre theory as to why Soccer isn’t held to the same esteem in America as the rest of the world.

    It goes like this: Back in the beginnings of humanity, the love of Football, then an ancient stone-aged game bearing little resemblance to today’s sport, was ingrained into our collective DNA. This spread the love of the game into all cultures across the globe.

    How does the universal love of Football explain the American’s lukewarm thoughts on the game? Through the dastardly utilization of a linguistic meme that changed the name of the game which the rest of the world (if I’m not mistaken) know as Football.

    Yes. We Americans know the sport as Soccer. The whole world loves ‘Football’, but we Americans devised some other, new sport which usurped our love of Football by stealing it’s name and with it its power.

    Americans want to love Football. Americans do love Football. Americans only don’t know that Soccer is supposed to be Football.

  23. Aaron says:

    I’m rooting for Argentina. I lived there during the world cup, 3 world cups ago. During the game between England and Argentina, I feared for my life because of the intense passion they felt for the sport. Most Argentines recognized me as a North American, but as the game came close, they began to call me an Englishman instead. I remember during the game, no one was on the streets. The few businesses that were open had televisions in them and the people in the business were only there to watch the game. I was in the super market trying to do grocery shopping during the end of the game when it was tied and each team was taking a series of penalty kicks to see if they could break the tie. I remember thinking, “if England wins, they are going to kill me. Everyone here will kill me.” :) Argentina won by one shot and immediately the streets erupted with noise, people, cars and all sorts of noises. People were singing on busses and trains, “He who doesn’t dance is an Englishman”. They were following me on the streets waving the Argentine flag saying “You lose, you lose”. I would tell them, “I’m a North American. We suck at Soccer”.

  24. Aaron says:

    I ask myself why I don’t care that America seems to be doing so well in the world cup as of yet. After all, they’ve tied with Britain and now Slovenia, both really good teams. Am I unpatriotic? Even if America went on to win the World Cup, would I suddenly start rooting for America instead of Argentina? No. Why? You hit it on the head, because most of America doesn’t care about soccer. Even if we went on to win the world cup, and most of America took at interest in this world cup and watched the games, it still would not come anywhere to the same level of patriotism that many of the other world countries who love the sport. The feeling in America as we win the world cup would be nothing compared to the feeling in other countries as they play. Americans simply cannot go to the nearest Catholic Cathedral and pick up a sticker of Jesus wearing their favorite teams soccer jersey.

  25. the new nerd says:

    America has actually kinda jumped on the soccer bandwaggon. Soccer just isn’t a real everybody-loves-it kind of sport for some reason. I didn’t like soccer before the England v. US game during this world cup, but that’s just cause I don’t like sports in general. Soccer can be boring during the whole pass-the-ball stages, (especially with Latin American teams, it seems like all they do is pass) but when someone scores a goal….. it’s awesome. Times ten. For some reason soccer ignites something. I think it has something to do with, during 90 min. only three or four goals are scored, so during all the extra time, you have excitment building, like good suspence movie. And then, when a player is about to score a goal, and the opposing team is trying to block him, and then he scores, it’s like the climax of the move. All the emotional buildup from the twenty minutes of passing comes bursting out in a shout of triumph or defeat. You just don’t get that with football. With football, there’s so much happening, so much excitement, that you can’t really tell whats going on. An entire game of football is like a screaming match, everything that’s happening makes you kind of blind to what’s happening. To go back to my suspense movie analogy, you get more scared when you’re watching it, your heart is constantly beating faster, you’re constangly on the edge. In an action movie (which would be football), there’s excitement all around, you care what will happen to a character, but you’re not captivated. There’s action all the time, and you’re in a constant state of agitation, but it’s happening all the time, so it doesn’t make much of a difference. There’s not build up, like in a suspence.

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