The Great Soccer Mystery

by Paul R. Hollrah –

On Monday, March 8, 2004, in the Colorado Avalanche’s 9-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, Todd Bertuzzi of Vancouver “sucker-punched” Colorado’s Steve Moore, driving his head into the ice and breaking his neck. Bertuzzi was suspended for the remaining 20 games of the season, and although Moore eventually recovered, his professional career was over. He never played hockey again.

Thinking about the Moore-Bertuzzi incident, it occurred to me that we may have lumped a whole lot of athletic activities into a single category called “sports,” when some contests can only be loosely described as such. I’ve always felt that the activities we call “sports” should be divided into four basic categories: perfect sports, imperfect sports, spectacle, and… soccer.

For example, American-style football is a perfect sport. It is a game of violence, but there are rules to the violence that are strictly enforced. It is the best, most perfect of all sports.

Baseball is a perfect sport. The phoniest thing about baseball is the way they argue. How many people do you know who argue by screaming at each other with their faces just inches apart, throwing spittle all over each other? It’s disgusting, but no more disgusting than the spitting and crotch-scratching that most baseball players engage in. With the inflated salaries they make, one would think that they could have their jock itch treated by a qualified dermatologist.

The other problem with baseball is the strike zone. The rule book says that the strike zone is from the inside edge of home plate to the outside edge, and from the knees to the letters. So why do the owners allow each and every umpire to have his own version of the strike zone? It’s almost enough to make baseball an imperfect sport.

Track and field, swimming and diving, gymnastics, lacrosse, volley ball, squash, racket ball, and golf are all perfect sports. Tennis, too, is a perfect sport, except for its silly scoring system. If you have no score, you have “love.” When you score one point you have “15.” If you score again you have “30.” And if you score a third time you suddenly have “40.” Why not “45?” If at some point both players have the same score… 15-15, 30-30, or 40-40… it’s called “deuce,” which means “two.” It’s probably a scoring system designed to be unfathomable just to keep the riff-raff off the tennis courts.

Basketball is the best example of an imperfect sport. Not only is it intensely boring, if you tune in to the last thirty seconds of a basketball game you’ll see all the excitement you’re ever going to see. So why not have thirty second basketball games? Given the number of momentum-killing timeouts that coaches call in the closing minutes of a game, they could stretch two or three minutes into thirty minutes of commercial messages.

But the biggest rap on the game of basketball is the scoring for foul shots. If a player steals the ball and races down the floor for an easy lay-up, chances are some huge 300 lb. galoot will land on his back and crash him to the floor. When that happens, the player who is “mugged” gets to stand about sixteen feet from the basket and shoot two free-throws. If he’s lucky enough or skillful enough to make both of them he’s awarded two points, the same number of points he would have made had he not been smashed to the floor.

So where’s the advantage? Where’s the penalty? The game of basketball could be improved 1,000 percent by merely making foul shots worth two points each and allowing no timeouts in the last five minutes of a game.

But none of these, perfect sports or imperfect sports, has the long and proud tradition of the “spectacle.”

We don’t know what games prehistoric man invented to amuse himself. We do know that the Mayans played a game in which the players attempted to throw a ball through 6 in. round holes in stones attached to the front of the first row of spectator seats. It must have been about as boring as watching a basketball game or a soccer game, but the excitement came at the end of the game when the captain of the winning team was decapitated by the local high priest. That was “spectacle,” but it’s almost a certain bet that there weren’t a lot of MVP trophies sitting on mantles in Mayan homes.

Then, in the early Christian era, the local town folk in Rome enjoyed some real knee-slappers as they watched the Christians dashing around the arena, trying their damndest to be the last one eaten by the lions. That was spectacle.

Later, the Spanish found a way to get even with the animal world by arming a whole bunch of guys with spears and swords and turning them all loose on a single bull. That’s spectacle.

In the modern era, we have professional ice hockey, and its first cousin, professional wrestling. Ice hockey could, and should, rank right up there with football as one of the greatest of all perfect sports. It should be a game of beauty and grace, a game of speed, skill and athletic ability, but it’s played as if it were a common street fight. It appeals to the most visceral side of human nature and attracts fans, most of whom would pay to see an autopsy or a fatal car crash. It is not sport, it is spectacle.
And finally, there is “football,” the game that we in America call “soccer”… a game that is in a category all by itself.

To understand how Americans feel about soccer, just imagine a football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas longhorns with 70,000 screaming fans sitting in the stands, but a game in which both coaches call the same “up the gut” offensive running play, time, after time, after time, for the entire game… no passing, no field goals, just a handoff to a running back who hits the middle of the defensive line. What spectators would see for an hour is three-and-out, punt, three-and-out, punt, over and over again. The excitement of it would compare well with a soccer match. Boooring!

On Wednesday, June 25, columnist Ann Coulter, not a soccer fan, expressed herself on the subject of European-style “football.” She wrote, “If more ‘Americans’ are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.”

Coulter surmises that, if Michael Jackson had treated his chronic insomnia by viewing a taped replay of Argentina vs. Brazil, instead of injecting himself with Propofol, he’d probably still be alive today… but bored.

We can all hope that an American soccer “fetish” will not evolve into the sort of hooliganism associated with European-style “football.” In Europe, the violence created by soccer “hooligans” became such a problem that British soccer fans were banned from some matches on the continent.

In recent days, at the World Cup finals in Sao Paulo, masked hooligans singled out the British fans who’d hung British flags from the awning of a bar where they were drinking prior to the match between Uruguay and Great Britain. The anti-British hooligans ran into the bar, smashed glasses, turned over tables, and ripped down the flags. After throwing missiles at the fans, the attackers fled and tried to board a bus, but were chased down by police. Fifteen were arrested.

So the question remains, why is it that soccer attracts so many acts of hooliganism? It probably has something to do with the fact that watching a soccer match is about as exciting as watching paint dry or watching grass grow. I suspect I’d be angry too if the only major sporting event available to me was soccer and the only beer I had to drink was Guinness Stout. Sitting through ninety minutes of watching a bunch of guys running up and down the field, kicking a ball, not touching it with their hands, while swilling that evil-tasting concoction would be enough to drive anyone insane.

Never before has such a boring event been the root cause of so much violence. That it should stir as much excitement as it has among so many American millennials is a complete mystery. If we could figure what it is that has caused so many of them to go absolutely bonkers over World Cup soccer, we could probably also understand why so many of them voted for Barack Obama. | July 4, 2014

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