Thursday, June 24, 2010
The World Cup, From The Outside Looking In
I have never been a soccer fan, though not for a lack of trying (more on that later). I have no bias against the sport. I do not hate soccer. I do not hate soccer fans. Or soccer balls. Or soccer moms. On the show this week, we've taken a lot of grief from irate soccer fans who think we deserve a red card for our take on the world's most popular sport. Allow me some time to explain...
I have always been a fringe sport/Olympic sport fan. Like any good American, I've always enjoyed football, basketball and baseball. But I've also always loved learning about sports that most Americans don't know much about. If you've listened to our show for any amount of time, or read this blog, you know that cycling is my passion. Since childhood, I've also always followed and/or played tennis, golf, World Cup skiing, track and field, triathlon, surfing, motorcycle racing, F1--you name it, and I'm open to watching it, learning about it, and trying it.
I would stack my love for and knowledge about international sports up against anyone at The Ticket. Nobody was more into the Winter Olympics than I was. Bob has me on soccer, boxing and hockey. Corby has me on soccer and golf. George has me on golf and swimming. Norm has me on horse racing and gambling. But I'm guessing I've got everyone on most of the sports I listed above, and then some. As a kid, I thought it was great that everyone in school knew who Roger Staubach was, but that I was the only one who knew who Bill Rodgers was. Everyone knew of Larry Bird, but I was the only one who knew of Dave Scott. Everyone had heard of Pete Rose, but no one had heard of Niki Lauda. Walter Payton, Reggie Jackson, Dr. J? That's easy. But how about Laurent Fignon, Gustav Thoni and Guillermo Vilas? I knew them all, because I loved all sports.
Which brings us to soccer. I tried to play it as a kid. I lost interest in a hurry. Not being able to use your hands was a big drawback, I thought. It just didn't have the constant, hands on (sorry) excitement that other sports did. As an adult, I tried watching it, but it never hooked me. I tried getting into the World Cup in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the event--I even went to a game at the Cotton Bowl. Fun atmosphere, but it never grabbed me. I've tried (maybe not hard enough--still more on that later).
So, against that backdrop, and armed with that information--here are my unbiased, non-sarcastic, from the heart observations on the sport of soccer and the World Cup.
THINGS I LIKE
1. Commercial free halves. Greatness. No other sport gives you that bang for the buck. You invest 110 minutes total and it's over. You have zero commercials per half. There is not another sport in the world that can make that claim. I love it.
2. The passion. I would stack the passion of the soccer fan up against the passion of any other fan from any other sport. I've never experienced anything like standing on the side of a mountain road during the Tour de France--the fans are insane. But I hear that the soccer fans at a Premier League game are just as nuts, if not nuttier. I would like to experience that one day.
3. The international flavor. I love any event where, in the stands, you will hear 10 different languages being spoken and see 10 different flags being waved. I enjoy the political/geographical rivalries. I enjoy countries whose hatred for each other goes back centuries. You don't get that in many sports. I also love the color--the jerseys and logos, etc. Very rich.
4. The history. While the game itself doesn't reel me in, the history of the sport does. I like reading about Pele and Beckenbauer. I like looking at the list of the Cup winners. I like the stories behind the stories. Any sport with a thick, global history and with lots of characters and intrigue is ok by me.
5. The United States climb to dominance. Soccer is one of the few sports remaining that we haven't figured out. We've reached the top of the mountain in just about everything else, but the road map to international soccer success is still confusing to us. I like that we are a hungry nation. America is usually at it's best when it's hungry.
THINGS I DON'T LIKE
1. The lack of scoring opportunities. My biggest beef with the sport. There is too much time where the ball is being kicked around at midfield, or kicked out of bounds, or when play just bogs down to the point that you realize nothing exciting is going to happen in the next minute, guaranteed. However, in other sports, there is almost always a chance for a score or something dramatic at any moment. In baseball, every pitch gives you a scoring opportunity. In football, every snap delivers the promise of something big. In basketball, almost every trip down the floor results in a payoff. Even in a slow sport like golf, every single stroke for Tiger counts towards his score--every swing could win or lose the tournament. Every one. Yet, in soccer, I would estimate that you get a legitimate scoring chance once every 5-10 minutes. Not enough, for this reporter.
2. The clock. "Extra time" is the most unstable thing in international sports. Can you imagine watching an NFL game where time was kept on the field and basically hidden from the players and fans? How outraged would we be? I don't understand why the clock can't start at 45:00 and count back, and be stopped when the official wants it stopped. It would make the game much easier to follow, instead of forcing fans to constantly do math and then guess at how much time might remain.
3. The flopping. I don't like it in the NBA, and I like it even less in soccer. At least in the NBA they get right up. In soccer, they bring out a stretcher. Really??
4. The ABC/ESPN announcers. The American announcers (save for a few) act like they've been around the sport forever--they haven't. The Euro announcers that they've imported for this event sound like they would rather be somewhere else. That doesn't get me fired up. Heck, we get so few scoring opportunities, I want those announcers losing their sheet in those moments.
5. The hyperbolic soccer media and fandom. Claiming that the extra time goal against Algeria was one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history is a bit of a stretch to me. Likening it to the Miracle on Ice (Mike and Mike, Matt Laurer, and dozens of spare soccer scribes) is a joke. The Miracle on Grass? Come on. Should the U.S. beat Spain in the semi-finals on a last-second goal, then yes, let's all roll out the Lake Placid comparisons. But not beating Algeria (who didn't score a goal in any of their three World Cup games) in the preliminary round. As one listener said, it was the equivalent of Texas beating Iowa State 3-0 on a last second field goal. Nice, exciting win--but not epic.
Then again, maybe it's me. So, as an olive branch to the soccer fan who thinks I haven't given the sport a chance or who thinks I haven't thought out my "soccer is boring" opinion, I offer this...
I've been told by many of you via email that the World Cup is not the best soccer to watch--that big-time European pro soccer is. So, I will get into Euro soccer for a season and see if it grabs me. I'll pick one team to follow (suggestions, please), and I will watch all of their games. I will read about it. I will talk about it. I will corner Bob at work and make him answer my questions, at gunpoint if that's what it takes. I will give it an honest effort. I will update my findings along the way. If, at the end of that season, it still hasn't grabbed me, then you'll just have to accept that one of the worlds best sports reporters finds the world's most popular sport boring.
So, let's get going. Let me know which league and team I should follow. Let me know when and where I can watch them. Let me know which websites are the best to keep up with them. I even pledge to attempt to see a game in person, if possible. It's just my way of showing you that I don't hate international sports, and that I don't hate soccer. I just don't get it. Yet.