Sock me Some Soccer

All Right!! I’m tired of listening to some people say that soccer is too boring, too long, etc., so here’s my take on the beautiful game, adored by millions the world over. The loveliness of soccer lies in its endless creativity and Americans who hate it because of its low scores just don’t understand its gorgeous design—a free-flowing, constantly changing game where players describe several new patterns instantly with their movements. The complexity of soccer lies not with the player who has the ball, but in the choreography of everyone else as other players attempt to move into open spaces to receive the ball and the defense tries to second guess, cover, and thwart those movements. Of course, goal scoring is the ultimate “goal” but the wildly adventurous journey to get it is what imbues soccer with its thrilling moments. Some teams are better than others at doing this and, obviously, some players have greater imaginations, because it demands instant creativity.

It is interesting to me that this central matrix of interconnectedness through movement without the ball also characterizes hockey and basketball—to really enjoy these games we have to understand and appreciate not just what the ball or puck handler is doing from moment to moment but what also everyone else around him (or her) is trying to do—exploiting and possessing the open spaces on a rink, court, or field. In the final analysis, acculturation aside, the playing of soccer AND the enjoyment of it, demands imagination.

Consider this for a moment—the most exciting moments in American football is when a “set play” breaks down and a quarterback or some other player has to scramble, improvise, and find an open man. Well, that’s what happens throughout a soccer match—at least, in the good ones! So much time in American Football is filled with standing in a huddle, calling plays, sending in plays, walking to the” ball”, calling timeouts, breaking for commercials, etc. Now don’t misunderstand me—I enjoy American Football (being the son of a sports journalist, I love all sports) but, in comparison, to suggest that soccer is boring is just risible!

To continue in that vein, I would add that the excitement in baseball lies not in a routine put-out or sacrifice fly but again when something breaks down or someone improvises—a runner attempting to stretch a single into a double or triple, a misfield forcing a scramble, an awkward bounce off the wall or, more amusing, a ball lost in the ivy. Besides, as I’ve written elsewhere, for me the greatness of baseball lies not in home runs (I actually find triples much more exciting), but in the mind games between pitcher and batter as each tries to outwit the other—that’s why Greg Maddux will always be my favorite player!

As far as low scores are concerned—please!!!! Hockey and baseball have low scores and a 21-14 American football score is for all intents and purposes just 3-2!! But of course we have to inflate it to accommodate field goals—interesting how we do that, isn’t it? We love putting a “grandiose face” on things; thus, a batter who gets a hit 30 percent of the time (that’s 0.30) is said to “bat 300;” when I first heard that I thought it meant 300 percent. But, of course, that’s the idea, isn’t it? To make it sound grand—we wouldn’t want to suggest that America’s pastime is a game predicated on failure, where the best players fail 7 times out of 10. That would be like admitting that we are preoccupied with failure—not a good thing for our national psyche. And yet that is precisely what makes baseball so fascinating for me—a game where players fail constantly, get into huge slumps, yet grit their teeth and persist. It is heroic in itself and doesn’t need a “smiling face;” it’s slow, precise, and even intellectual in some ways!

But back to soccer. There are no timeouts except for injuries, no coaching from the sidelines, and no unlimited substitution of players. If you don’t like what the opposing team is throwing at you, you can’t take a moment to talk about it. Once you get onto the field you live or die by your talents and your ability to improvisefor ninety minutes. Requiring no fancy equipment, the game flowers as easily on a cow pasture in Bangladesh, a back street in Colombia, a beach in South Africa, or a meadow in Portugal. Starving, thirsty, barefooted children on a dirt strip in South America or sub-Saharan Africa seek the harmony of this beautiful game in the midst of abject poverty with the same devotion as brightly uniformed boys and girls in Munich or suburban America do in the presence of their soccer moms! Played with an aerodynamic ball at the World Cup or oranges in a backstreet in Brazil or a bundle of socks in an Indian village, it is the ultimate leveler, this ballet with a ball, a great exercise in democracy (much like basketball in the US), where some dreams come true, passions run sky-high, and the world stops for 90 minutes!

Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan may be famous, their names are certainly familiar to people around the world, but they will never know the godlike worship that follows the Brazilian soccer star, Ronaldinho. From the tiniest hamlet in Eastern Europe to the tip of South America, the jungles of Africa, and the small islands of Southeast Asia, soccer stars are greeted as messiahs. Their names are mentioned breathlessly like a litany of saints. The mercurial Brazilians, known only by single names in the tradition of their god Pele Kaka, Maicon, and Lucio; Messi of Argentina coached by Maradona the magnificent madman; Ronaldo of Portugal, Carlos Vela of Mexico, the Dutchmen Van der Vaart and Van Persie; Rooney and Gerrard of England, Keisuke Honda from Japan, Drogba from The Ivory Coast, Zambrotta the Italian, and Landon Donovan of the United States. Amen!






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