I am not a sports enthusiast. When I gave up cable a little over a year ago, I told my brother Dan about it. I explained that most of what I wanted to see was available on the Internets for free. Why should I pay DirecTV for it? He said “What about ESPN?” I replied that I don’t watch sports. That did (and probably continues to) blow his mind.
I just don’t care about any of it, with the exception of World Cup.
See, 16 years ago, Dollie and I were on our honeymoon to Washington, D.C. Later that summer the U.S. was about to host World Cup. Everywhere we went were reminders that World Cup was coming. D.C., being the international city that it is, had people from all over the world getting excited. We left for home before the first match started, so I watched my first World Cup on television. I cheered the U.S. team as it made it to the second round (thanks in part to being the host country). I watched as the entire tournament was decided by a series of free kicks because the final match ended in a tie. It was thrilling and it would be four years before it came around again. This, I thought, was my kind of sporting spectacle.
My buddy Badger constantly tries to get me enthused about whatever sport he’s watching (he currently sports a Celtics cap and ends most of our conversations with “Go Celtics”). He assigns me teams that I’m supposed to care about and gives me updates. He fully believes in the power of fandom to push a team to victory. He believes it matters who wins and who loses.
So when World Cup came around this year, I tried to engage Badger and give him a taste of what I’ve had to endure for years.
“USA vs. England coming up,” I said. He sneered and spat dismissively.
“I hate soccer,” he said. “I hate anyone who likes soccer.”
“This is World Cup,” I replied. “Everywhere else in the world, this is the biggest of deals. They play the matches on giant screens in the public square. Entire communities take the day off to cheer on their national teams. The upcoming match between the US and England is historic.”
No dice. So I tried to get to the bottom of it.
“You used to play soccer!” I reminded him.
“I know,” he said.
“This is our national team,” I tried. “You find the flimsiest of excuses to support whichever team you like in the playoffs. This is our country.”Appealing to patriotism didn’t work.
“Sports shouldn’t end in a tie,” he said.
And there it is. And it isn’t just Badger. I’ve seen all kinds of complaints along this vein: not enough scoring, why can’t they use their hands? Can’t take the name “FIFA” seriously.
We have to stop thinking of soccer the same way we think of football. It is a different game with different rules and strategies. Tie matches are part of World Cup and, due in part to the low scoring, are important part of the strategy.
That’s the thing about soccer at this level. These teams are so good that the goals are going to be rare. At the same time, everything that happens is way more significant than in other sports.
Take basketball. If someone gets a luck basket and scores two points, you cheer the guy and move on because you’re going to see that another dozen times or more. Same with fouls. A foul against a player isn’t all that significant because you’re going to see a bunch of them.
But in Soccer, every yellow card will change the dynamic of the game. Every goal changes the balance significantly.
In this morning’s match, New Zealand played Slovakia. Slovakia scored a goal around minute 50. They battled it out for the next 40 minutes, with each side getting a yellow card. It looked like Slovakia was going to take the match and jump to the lead in the group, but during the last minute of the match New Zealand scored, ending the game 1-1. Badger would call that a bad result because there was no “winner.”
But that’s not the case. New Zealand and Slovakia are in Group F along with Italy and Paraguay. Yesterday Italy and Paraguay tied, giving each of them a point. Today New Zealand and Slovakia tied, meaning Group F is all tied up at 1 point each. Had Slovakia won, they would have gotten three points and led the group.
“That’s too complicated and stupid,” said Badger.
“It isn’t any more complicated than the point system in NASCAR and you watch that every week.”
“There isn’t enough scoring.”
What about a pitcher’s duel in baseball? One of the most boring nights I’ve ever spent at a ballgame was at the Nashville Sounds. My buddy Chris and I went to see the game and couldn’t believe how slow it was. When we got back to campus we mentioned it to the sports writers at the newspaper.
“Ooo pitcher’s duel,” they said. “Those are the best games.”
Badger agreed that pitcher’s duels were great and didn’t see the connection between a low-scoring baseball game being exciting despite the fact that there were only two players actually doing anything and soccer being dumb because he doesn’t understand how a 1-1 match can be interesting at all.
So I gave up. In fact, I’m giving up talking to him about sports at all. In truth I was barely hanging on anyway. It used to amuse me at how frustrated he would get when he would ask me something like “who do you like in the playoffs” and I would reply with “which sport is having playoffs?” or “Is that still going on?”
Let’s be clear. My knowledge of soccer is minimal at best. I don’t follow any of the professional teams and aside from World Cup I could care less. But World Cup is different from professional soccer. It is a contest between countries, not clubs. The entire world is cheering their country (or at least continent) on and America can barely manage a collective “meh.”
Fine. Whatever. I’ll watch as many matches as I can and get updates on my phone for those I can’t. Oh, and now ESPN is streaming World Cup matches, so my lack of cable TV isn’t a problem. In fact, Microsoft announced yesterday that they will offer ESPN content as part of the Xbox Live membership.
America is slowly warming to the game. Aside from the South Africans, Americans bought more World Cup tickets this year than anyone. At the historic US-England match, American fans outnumbered the English 9,000 to 7,000. The US hasn’t played England in a World Cup match since 1950 in which the US won what has since been dubbed the “Miracle on Grass.” This year’s tie keeps us in it and may help us squeak into the next round.
Drama. Excitement. Spectacle. What more could you want in a sporting event?