The Right Hates Soccer? Really?

Scribe Dave Zirin recently published a few thoughts on why right-wingers despise soccer. His rant was published on NPR's website, curiously in the form of "content sharing" with The Nation, for whom Zirin often writes. Our tax dollars indirectly supporting The Nation is perhaps fodder for another article at another time.

Anyway, Mr. Zirin writes that, like clockwork, we Neanderthal conservatives (though I repeat myself) can be counted upon to heap scorn and derision upon the quadrennial competition known as the World Cup, this year being played in South Africa.

From what deep well of evidence does Mr. Zirin conclude that the whole of the vast conspiracy that is the right wing despises soccer? A couple of sentences from Glenn Beck and G. Gordon Liddy, that's what. To wit:

"It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us," yipped the Prom King of the new right, Glenn Beck. "It doesn't matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn't matter how many bars open early, it doesn't matter how many beer commercials they run, we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it."

And what of the G-Man? Mr. Zirin points us toward Mr. Liddy's recent on-air comments:

"Whatever happened to American exceptionalism? This game ... originated with the South American Indians and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior."

Compelling evidence, that!

Mr. Zirin, having diagnosed the problem, delves as only he can to the root causes of the disease. His conclusion is that, of course, Beck, Liddy, and the rest of us profess mouth-frothing hatred for soccer because those dark foreigners play it and the United States has had little success in the sport on the world stage. Mr. Zirin posits that it is likely that, should the United States ever win a World Cup, Glenn Beck would be dancing in the streets with patriotic fervor. That is highly doubtful, and any observer of American sports over the last forty years knows why.

Professional club soccer has been offered to the American public in almost every conceivable form since the 1960s. The North American Soccer League and, more specifically, the New York Cosmos, attracted some of the world's greatest talent in order to generate interest in the 1970s: Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Franz Beckenbauer, among others, did attract fans to Giants Stadium and elsewhere. But the league fizzled for lack of television ratings and general disinterest in the long run. The American Soccer League suffered much the same fate. Professional indoor leagues came and went like in a revolving door.

The current manifestation of the outdoor club league model, Major League Soccer (MLS), does decently. But the league has trouble retaining even top-shelf native-born players, who choose to play for clubs in England or elsewhere in Europe -- clubs that have massive followings, which leads to revenue, which leads to television, which leads to more revenue.

Soccer's governing body, FIFA, acceded to the pleas of American soccer boosters by awarding the 1994 World Cup to the United States, in part because FIFA was assured that a viable professional league would take root soon thereafter. The World Cup competition on American soil was meant to finally establish soccer as a major American sport. The crowds swelled, and the final in the Rose Bowl was memorable. But once Brazil lifted the trophy in victory and everyone left, American soccer had not advanced beyond the promise to found what became the MLS.

Were a new throng of Americans introduced to the game via the 1994 World Cup, and had they decided to follow professional soccer in Europe and elsewhere, they would have seen some breathtaking players, wonderful teams, and amazing feats of athleticism unique to the game.

But they also would have seen an annoyingly pervasive scourge known as "flopping," in which a player mildly fouled crumples to the field writhing in feigned agony, hoping to draw a penalty or harsher form of punishment on the alleged perpetrator. For fans accustomed to Willis Reed limping out onto the floor in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals or Kirk Gibson hobbling to the batter's box in the 1988 World Series -- or any NFL contest ever -- this sort of thing is a major turn-off. By the inception of the MLS a few years after the Cup, interest was minimal at best.

In the 2006 World Cup final, France's Zinedine Zidane made like Macho Man Randy Savage and delivered a head-butt to an Italian opponent (who, it should be said, did not flop). Eric Cantona uncorked a karate kick on a fan during a match. How many reports has even the most casual sports fan seen and heard about some sort of riot inside or outside a soccer stadium? This is the sport of the sophisticates? Fair or not, given the occasional boorish behavior by American athletes and fans, these are the sorts of things that turn Americans away from the game.

There are many other reasons for soccer's unpopularity relative to other major sports. For one, the expanse of the field makes television viewing difficult; the field is 110 yards long, and unlike American football, the play can shift so swiftly that the camera shot must almost always remain very wide -- much wider than an American football game. The only thing more straining to the eye than watching soccer for most casual fans is attempting to follow the puck in a hockey game. And ratings for the National Hockey League are gangbusters in the States, right?

Mr. Zirin is correct on one point: Soccer is probably the most popular youth game in the United States. But most players gravitate toward sports like football, baseball, basketball, and the like in high school. If soccer had the rabid following, television ratings, and financial support of, say, only those who would be inclined to vote for Jimmy Carter, or Walter Mondale, or Barack Obama, would it not follow that the MLS Cup would be akin to the NBA Finals, or the NCAA soccer tourney would have the following that the basketball tournament does? If, as Mr. Zirin is suggesting, the left is so sophisticated and cultured that only they can appreciate the intricacies of the game that we morons cannot, professional and collegiate soccer should be powerhouses on the American sporting scene.

Professional soccer does not thrive in the United States because over and over again, the market has spoken. Right-wing and apparently left-wing alike have failed to support various professional leagues in America. Right and left do not attend NCAA soccer in the sorts of throngs that crush turnstiles at giant stadiums in Ann Arbor, Columbus, and Pasadena on autumn Saturdays.

This will confound Mr. Zirin's typical intellectual haze when it comes to his political worldview, but Mr. Beck and Mr. Liddy do not speak for me. Despite soccer's flaws, this conservative enjoys the World Cup. Some of my best memories of watching and playing sports have come from what many call "the beautiful game." Here is Zico for Brazil in the 1982 World Cup; Maradona's "Hand of God" goal against England in 1986; the U.S. team gamely competing in 1990 in Italy; and more. I had a blast with my friends winning league titles and shared misery after bad defeats on the pitch. If the United States were to win a World Cup, it would be great, and cause for a smile, but not much more. 

The interest is passing. Soccer is a beautiful game. But, in one humble opinion, basketball is more beautiful and complex, and it will always occupy a more valued spot in the hierarchy that, despite all efforts, soccer could never eclipse.

In Zirin's world, that simple statement based on nothing more than personal preference makes me a rabidly xenophobic hatemonger. Judge for yourself.

Matthew May welcomes comments at matthewtmay@yahoo.com.

Scribe Dave Zirin recently published a few thoughts on why right-wingers despise soccer. His rant was published on NPR's website, curiously in the form of "content sharing" with The Nation, for whom Zirin often writes. Our tax dollars indirectly supporting The Nation is perhaps fodder for another article at another time.

Anyway, Mr. Zirin writes that, like clockwork, we Neanderthal conservatives (though I repeat myself) can be counted upon to heap scorn and derision upon the quadrennial competition known as the World Cup, this year being played in South Africa.

From what deep well of evidence does Mr. Zirin conclude that the whole of the vast conspiracy that is the right wing despises soccer? A couple of sentences from Glenn Beck and G. Gordon Liddy, that's what. To wit:

"It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us," yipped the Prom King of the new right, Glenn Beck. "It doesn't matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn't matter how many bars open early, it doesn't matter how many beer commercials they run, we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it."

And what of the G-Man? Mr. Zirin points us toward Mr. Liddy's recent on-air comments:

"Whatever happened to American exceptionalism? This game ... originated with the South American Indians and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior."

Compelling evidence, that!

Mr. Zirin, having diagnosed the problem, delves as only he can to the root causes of the disease. His conclusion is that, of course, Beck, Liddy, and the rest of us profess mouth-frothing hatred for soccer because those dark foreigners play it and the United States has had little success in the sport on the world stage. Mr. Zirin posits that it is likely that, should the United States ever win a World Cup, Glenn Beck would be dancing in the streets with patriotic fervor. That is highly doubtful, and any observer of American sports over the last forty years knows why.

Professional club soccer has been offered to the American public in almost every conceivable form since the 1960s. The North American Soccer League and, more specifically, the New York Cosmos, attracted some of the world's greatest talent in order to generate interest in the 1970s: Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Franz Beckenbauer, among others, did attract fans to Giants Stadium and elsewhere. But the league fizzled for lack of television ratings and general disinterest in the long run. The American Soccer League suffered much the same fate. Professional indoor leagues came and went like in a revolving door.

The current manifestation of the outdoor club league model, Major League Soccer (MLS), does decently. But the league has trouble retaining even top-shelf native-born players, who choose to play for clubs in England or elsewhere in Europe -- clubs that have massive followings, which leads to revenue, which leads to television, which leads to more revenue.

Soccer's governing body, FIFA, acceded to the pleas of American soccer boosters by awarding the 1994 World Cup to the United States, in part because FIFA was assured that a viable professional league would take root soon thereafter. The World Cup competition on American soil was meant to finally establish soccer as a major American sport. The crowds swelled, and the final in the Rose Bowl was memorable. But once Brazil lifted the trophy in victory and everyone left, American soccer had not advanced beyond the promise to found what became the MLS.

Were a new throng of Americans introduced to the game via the 1994 World Cup, and had they decided to follow professional soccer in Europe and elsewhere, they would have seen some breathtaking players, wonderful teams, and amazing feats of athleticism unique to the game.

But they also would have seen an annoyingly pervasive scourge known as "flopping," in which a player mildly fouled crumples to the field writhing in feigned agony, hoping to draw a penalty or harsher form of punishment on the alleged perpetrator. For fans accustomed to Willis Reed limping out onto the floor in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals or Kirk Gibson hobbling to the batter's box in the 1988 World Series -- or any NFL contest ever -- this sort of thing is a major turn-off. By the inception of the MLS a few years after the Cup, interest was minimal at best.

In the 2006 World Cup final, France's Zinedine Zidane made like Macho Man Randy Savage and delivered a head-butt to an Italian opponent (who, it should be said, did not flop). Eric Cantona uncorked a karate kick on a fan during a match. How many reports has even the most casual sports fan seen and heard about some sort of riot inside or outside a soccer stadium? This is the sport of the sophisticates? Fair or not, given the occasional boorish behavior by American athletes and fans, these are the sorts of things that turn Americans away from the game.

There are many other reasons for soccer's unpopularity relative to other major sports. For one, the expanse of the field makes television viewing difficult; the field is 110 yards long, and unlike American football, the play can shift so swiftly that the camera shot must almost always remain very wide -- much wider than an American football game. The only thing more straining to the eye than watching soccer for most casual fans is attempting to follow the puck in a hockey game. And ratings for the National Hockey League are gangbusters in the States, right?

Mr. Zirin is correct on one point: Soccer is probably the most popular youth game in the United States. But most players gravitate toward sports like football, baseball, basketball, and the like in high school. If soccer had the rabid following, television ratings, and financial support of, say, only those who would be inclined to vote for Jimmy Carter, or Walter Mondale, or Barack Obama, would it not follow that the MLS Cup would be akin to the NBA Finals, or the NCAA soccer tourney would have the following that the basketball tournament does? If, as Mr. Zirin is suggesting, the left is so sophisticated and cultured that only they can appreciate the intricacies of the game that we morons cannot, professional and collegiate soccer should be powerhouses on the American sporting scene.

Professional soccer does not thrive in the United States because over and over again, the market has spoken. Right-wing and apparently left-wing alike have failed to support various professional leagues in America. Right and left do not attend NCAA soccer in the sorts of throngs that crush turnstiles at giant stadiums in Ann Arbor, Columbus, and Pasadena on autumn Saturdays.

This will confound Mr. Zirin's typical intellectual haze when it comes to his political worldview, but Mr. Beck and Mr. Liddy do not speak for me. Despite soccer's flaws, this conservative enjoys the World Cup. Some of my best memories of watching and playing sports have come from what many call "the beautiful game." Here is Zico for Brazil in the 1982 World Cup; Maradona's "Hand of God" goal against England in 1986; the U.S. team gamely competing in 1990 in Italy; and more. I had a blast with my friends winning league titles and shared misery after bad defeats on the pitch. If the United States were to win a World Cup, it would be great, and cause for a smile, but not much more. 

The interest is passing. Soccer is a beautiful game. But, in one humble opinion, basketball is more beautiful and complex, and it will always occupy a more valued spot in the hierarchy that, despite all efforts, soccer could never eclipse.

In Zirin's world, that simple statement based on nothing more than personal preference makes me a rabidly xenophobic hatemonger. Judge for yourself.

Matthew May welcomes comments at matthewtmay@yahoo.com.

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