Ardent American soccer fans want so badly for their fellow Americans to catch the fever that they are sometimes obnoxious about it.
I try not to go there but when I’m in a casual conversation with another sports fan and they start the usual condescending spiel about not ‘getting’ soccer or how can a goalless game be entertaining or, the worst of all, it’s a sissy sport, well it’s hard to hold back.
I usually come back with the reply that in soccer the tension builds until there finally is a goal and while the goals don’t occur as often, they are usually more rewarding to the fans that have waited for the big moment.
But hey, I’m usually talking to someone who would like to see Hal Mumme return to UK just so they could see a lot of touchdowns and maybe the occasional win.
It’s like the rat experiment where the rat is rewarded with food when it rings a bell. The rat finally figures it out and won’t quit ringing the bell until it has completely gorged itself to the point of death with food. We want more, more, more!
I was in Louisville on the day of the Americans’ big game with the Germans and everywhere I went people were talking about the game, but not in a positive way. Most of the talk was ambivalent, punctuated with shoulder shrugs and raised eyebrows. “I don’t get it’” people would say. “How can we lose and still advance in a tournament? Soccer is a strange game.”
There is nothing strange about a large tournament starting with a round-robin group stage that allows the top two from each group to advance based on their record against the other three teams in their group.
There is nothing strange about using goal difference or point difference to break ties in the group stage. But people don’t want to try to understand soccer. It’s easier to just turn the channel and find a sport where they score every three or four seconds.
Some of the talk was outright negative. I can almost take the negative folks better than the ambivalent folks. At least the negative folks are positive they don’t like soccer. They don’t try to be kind and engage in conversation about the sport. If you bring it up to these folks they will wave it off and say something like, “I can’t stand soccer. I would rather watch paint dry.” At that point you don’t need to try and explain the game’s appeal. You just move on to the next topic.
It’s kind of like being a Bruce Springsteen fan. The legions that love his music and concerts can have a whole conversation with whoops and hollers and high fives with only song titles and concert locales interspersed in between. But there are no casual Springsteen fans. Those who don’t care for him can’t be convinced. They don’t understand what the big deal is.
All this brings me to this year’s World Cup, which has been, for the most part, a very entertaining one. There have been more goals at this Cup than any since 1998 when a record 171 goals were scored. It will probably never threaten the 1954 tournament for goals per game record, which was 5.28, but that tournament only had 16 teams, which means half the number of games as the current tournament and half the number of chances for a 0-0 draw.
Like many avid soccer fans in this country I had high hopes that this tournament would win some new fans to the sport in our country. And then Tuesday, June 24 happened.
The Group D games that day featured Costa Rica versus England and Italy versus Uruguay. England had no chance of qualifying for the knockout stage after they lost their first two games and Costa Rica was assured of qualifying because they pulled off huge upsets of Italy and Uruguay.
That left the Italians and Uruguayans, two of the top teams in the world, fighting it out to stay alive in the tournament. It should have been a great game. Both teams are talented and both have a strong soccer tradition. Italy has won the World Cup four times and tiny Uruguay has won twice.
But then the game started and both teams showed an utter lack of character. The Italians kept falling all over the place and writhing in mock pain every time the Uruguayans got close to them. It is a tactic they always employ to try and get the referee to hand out yellow or red cards so that they can gain a numerical advantage on the field. Unfortunately it is catching on around the world and the Uruguayans were flopping almost as much as the Italians.
The first half was played so cautiously that I actually fell asleep.
I woke up in time for all the drama of the second half. Or should I say melodrama.
With time winding down one of the world’s greatest goal scorers, Luis Suarez of Uruguay, was getting increasingly frustrated by his lack of chances on goal. With about ten minutes to go in the game Suarez did the unthinkable – he bit an Italian defender on the shoulder.
I watched Suarez do the same thing in an English Premier League game two seasons ago. He got a lengthy suspension that lasted into this past season and when he came back it was like he was a changed man. He played as hard as usual but he whined to the referees less, got involved in fewer altercations with opponents and generally comported himself well on the field. Everyone thought he had learned his lesson.
But now the World Cup will be remembered mainly for the crazy Uruguayan who bit an opponent in one of the worst games televised in this year’s tournament. The referee did not see Suarez’s moment of insanity but millions of spectators watching around the world did, including many Americans who usually don’t follow soccer but wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
So much for growing the fan base in this country. The type of people who were intrigued by Suarez’s actions are not really the ones that we soccer fans wanted to attract to the sport. They are the types who encourage that kind of behavior in athletes.
In fact, it might have lost us a few friends. I know that I was disgusted by his action and the game in general and it dimmed my enthusiasm for the tournament for a brief time.