The 2006 World Cup is underway and once again Americans are ignoring the spectacle in droves. And it’s certainly not for lack of trying. The big consumer machine that drives every aspect of American society from politics to sex has been doing its level best for the last two decades to turn Americans onto soccer. But it just doesn’t work. Unlike just about everything else, no matter how ridiculous-from bell bottom pants to tattoos-the consumer machine hasn’t been able to sell soccer as something either massively desirable or rebellious. So while one-fourth of all Americans between 18 and 50 are now proving their rebelliousness and non-comformity by sporting relatively identifical tattoos, and while bell bottoms have made their requisite comeback despite making anyone who wears them looking like the world’s biggest dork, Americans still overwhelmingly reject the one sport that is huge business in just about every other country in the world.
And not just played, either. From Australia to Austria, soccer isn’t just a sport, but a religion. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in the southern US during the fall months, you’ve been exposed to sport as religion. No matter how popular the rest of the country may think NFL football is, nothing compares to college football in the South. I don’t even live in a town with a college football team; in fact, the nearest town with a major college footbal team is a good two hours away. And yet every Sunday from September through November the headline-I mean the top of the page headline on the front page of the paper, not the sports section-is invariably related to college football. And, for the record, of the five teams that receive this honor, three are far more than two hours away; one is an all day drive, in fact. You get what I’m saying, right? Football in the South is not only a religion, it’s big business.
And yet it pales in comparison to soccer around the world. Or football-or futbol-as it is called everywhere but here. It’s really odd, isn’t it? Here we are, a nation of immigrants-despite what the GOP leadership in the House and the man in the Oval Office would have us believe-and most of those immigrants have been here for decades, but still soccer is a blip on our radar. Why?
I recently read a column that blamed the fact that soccer lacks action; the guy writing this said that American prefer fast-paced games and therefore soccer just doesn’t fit the bill. I can only assume this guy doesn’t turn his TV on during the football off-season. Because if he had, then he’d notice that Americans are not just interested, but obssessed with a little game called golf. And the last time I checked, golf wasn’t particularly fast-paced. If there is anything more boring to watch than soccer it would have to be golf. And yet golf is huge, huge, huge business in America. (Okay, maybe watching someone fish is more boring than golf, but we all know fishing isn’t a sport, at least not the kind of fishing usually shown on Sunday morning fishing shows.)
Another culprit for why Americans don’t like soccer is the violence. It’s such an integral part of the game that there’s even a name for it: hooliganism. Yeah, I know, you can still be a hooligan and never come near a soccer ball, but when Americans hear the word hooliganism, we instantly think of soccer. Sorry, but that doesn’t fly, either. If fan violence was a reason for halting the popularity of a sport in America, there would never be another Little League baseball game played here again. Our sports are just as prone to rowdy, offensive and violent behavior as soccer.
Then, of course, there’s the boredom quotient. Nothing but guys in shorts running back and forth and back and forth kicking a ball. Well, forgive me, but tennis, Nascar, bowling, and even basketball have all at one time or another bored the tears out of most Americans and yet all either are now or have been enormously popular sports.
Which leads me to conclude that there is only one reason why soccer isn’t embraced by America. I’m sure I’ll be ridiculed by this; I’m sure that I’ll be accused of simplifying the situation, and I’m sure I’ll deserve some of that. I’m also sure that my deduction has some merit. Think about what all the other sports that America has embraced share in common and distinguishes them from soccer. It’s not the boredom quotient and it’s the lack of action. So what is it?
America is a young nation yet. We still have the memory of our pioneer genesis close to the surface of our society. This country was literally built from the ground up. We love to do things with our hands. In soccer, you don’t use their hands all that much. It’s a foot-based sport and somewhere deep inside our pioneer psyche, I think we just don’t care for that. As Hank Hill might say, “That sport ain’t right.” We look at a sport where you aren’t required to do much with your hands and we just don’t think of it as being, well, American.
So here is my unsolicited to Nike and all those other corporate behemoths that run America and are spilling a river of tears over their continuing inability to turn the sport of soccer into another viable commercial enterprise that will rake in billions of profits by making Americans suddenly decide they absolutely love something they’ve been able to live without all their lives. Simply get FIFA to change the rules. Change the rules so that players can use their hands somehow. It can’t be that hard. Rules are changed in sports all the time. Look at basketball, a perfect example. Basketball has been the fastest growing sport in America for the last twenty years unless you include Nascar, which you really can’t because it’s not really a sport. (Think about it. If Nascar was a sport that would qualify Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart as athletes. You really want to do that? I didn’t think so.) And why is basketball so much a bigger sport in American now than it was in the 70s, 60s, 50s and so on?
Because officials no longer call the whistle for double dribbling, palming, or traveling. Do you think Michael Jordan would have become the most famous athlete of his era if he hadn’t also been an exciting scoring machine? And do you think that Michael Jordan would have scored nearly as many points as he did if the whistle had been blown every time he palmed or traveled, which was basically every time he drove to the basket? The NBA and the corporate machine realized that the quickest way to turn basketball from a second-rate sport in America to one of its big three was to change the rules. So don’t tell me it can’t be done.
To stop Americans hating soccer and for soccer to ever become as anywhere near as popular in America as it is everwhere else, only one thing must be done: Change the rules so you players can throw the ball.