Who gives a flying kick?
By the time you read this, the quadrennial World Cup hysteria should be behind us, with Uruguay or Ruritania or Latveria or some other postage-stamp power crowned the champion of the world's lowest-scoring and most inexplicably popular sport. American fans who flirted with what the rest of the globe calls "football" during the dog days of the baseball season, with the interminable NHL and NBA playoffs finally in the books, can return their gaze to the One True Football of the NFL. (Never mind that only occasionally do feet rather than hands touch the ball in the NFL, and then only in the game's duller moments of kickoffs, field goals, punts and extra points.)
What was notable — and troubling to a jingoistic, er, patriotic US football fan — about this year's World Cup was the attention paid by Americans. It's all well and good for Brits and Spaniards and denizens of countries too obscure for the Geography Bee to cheer their lungs out over "soccer." But we saw red-blooded Americans actually giving a damn about the pointless gyrations of shorts-clad foreigners (as well as the plucky if doomed US team, of course) chasing a ball across the vast swards of soccer fields. (I'm told these are called "pitches" — now which sport has screwy terminology?) In the unlikely event that a player actually scores a goal — snapping the tedium of zero-zero ties that gives the sport its zen-like quality of nothingness — Americans were even heard to shout "Goooooal!"
Yes, Americans. These folks — male and female alike, of all hues and ethnicities — looked like otherwise upstanding citizens, who could just as easily be watching reruns of Super Bowl XII on the NFL Network. What were they thinking? What got into them? The right-wing commentator Ann Coulter had a suggestion: "Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay."
Tempting as it is to follow Coulter into loony-land on this subject, I think the explanation is more generational. I noticed that most of the fans defiling sports bars by watching soccer (the bartenders must have lost control of the clicker, or the TVs would have been tuned to, at worst, golf) were too young to even remember Super Bowl XII (Cowboys 27, Broncos 10). This leads me to suspect that most belong to what some call Millennials or the older Generation X but what can be more broadly dubbed the Played Soccer as Kids Generation. They grew up playing the sport and thus can be gulled into watching it.
My generation, of course, like generations of Americans dating back to Abner Doubleday and Pop Warner, grew up playing baseball and football, going inside to play basketball only when the weather got too blizzard-y. I took plenty of lumps in recess-time football scrimmages, and dutifully signed up for Bantam League baseball when school let out for summer. (Bantam League was the gateway to Little League, at least in my hometown.) My baseball career was cruelly cut short, alas, when I was bumped from the team simply because I was incapable of throwing, batting or fielding. (The fact that I was not cut until after humiliating myself further trying to sell fundraising candy door to door galls me to this day. Bastards!)
By the time our daughter toddled onto the nation's playing fields, however, the youth of America had somehow discovered soccer. My theory is that parents began pushing soccer because it required less equipment and expense than baseball or football, was suitable for girls as well as boys, and did less damage to youngsters' self-esteem than sports in which, well, stuff happens. In the endless back and forth of children's soccer games, it's possible to yell encouraging phrases at your offspring ("Good kick, Jennifer!") without the harsh reality of action on the field making a liar out of you ("Nice strikeout, Noah!").
Heck, if I'd been able to play soccer as a lad, I might even have stayed on the field after candy sales were completed. I could dash pointlessly across the "pitch" in pursuit of what might loosely be called "action" as well as the next boy. So what if I never scored a goal? Whole games go by in which no one scores! I might be inept, or it could just be good defense — who can tell?
The exception to this self-esteem-basking engendered by soccer is, of course, the child roped into playing goalie. Unlike the kids parading haplessly from one end of the field to the other, often without ever coming into contact with the ball, the goalie can clearly be seen as the hero or — more likely — the goat. A great save might earn some cheers, true, but the credit for a win if a point somehow gets scored goes more readily to the scorer. In the event of a loss, however, no one blames the defender who let the opposing player break free: Why didn't the goalie stop that shot?
Our daughter, as you might have already guessed, most often played goalie. No amount of post-game ice cream can make up for that emotional pain.
Or the physical pain, for that matter. The goalie gets stomped on, kicked in the head or shins, driven to the turf. We knew the emergency rooms nearest each soccer pitch as well as we did the fields themselves.
As spectator parents of a goalie, we couldn't even enjoy the vague "Good try, honey!" pleasures of watching our offspring compete. Only when the ball was far on the opponent's end of the field could we even breathe. Once it crossed midfield, our daughter became Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Sure, she made some saves — quickly forgotten. But it was the goals she let through that her teammates and their parents remembered, particularly if the team lost.
A good day was a zero-zero tie with zero trips to Urgent Care.
So my theory is that the audience for today's televised soccer is composed mostly of twenty- and thirtysomethings who grew up playing soccer (mostly not as goalies — our daughter was watching the College World Series instead of the World Cup). They are reliving their own youthful sporting glories (if you can call "Good kick, Caitlin!" a glory) on the pitches of the World Cup, watching mighty Madagascar edge out Madripoor, one-zip.
The interminable back and forth of youth soccer so numbed them that they think World Cup action is, well, action. We're talking about games, keep in mind, whose highlights and complete scoring can be shown in a 15-second clip. With time for bloopers.
Baseball can be pretty slow, I'll grant you, but at least the ball is hit out of the infield in most innings and you can briefly hope for something meaningful to scribble on your scorecard. Hockey, it's true, is essentially soccer played on ice with sticks, but there's a lot more smashing and blood. Water polo, another soccer-like contest, at least offers the remote possibility of drowning.
How, then, do I explain the popularity of soccer almost everywhere else? People in other countries, like the new breed of US soccer fans, grew up playing the sport themselves. No doubt they associate it with self-esteem and parental approval, too ("Good kick, Hans!" "Nice try, Eduardo!").
The older soccer fans in these benighted countries, if they didn't grow up playing, are no doubt former soccer moms and dads. They're cheering just because they didn't have to bring snacks and juice boxes to the game.
Oh, and the older fans in the World Cup stadiums who are covering their eyes with their hands instead of cheering? Those are the parents of the goalie.
David A. Fryxell edits Desert Exposure in-between NFL games.