Kareem Abdul Jabbar's critique of soccer

In a recent Time article, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offers some interesting thoughts why, as he put it, “soccer will never be a slam dunk in America.” Here’s a key passage:

[S]occer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse. We also celebrate rugged individualism, the democratic ideal that anybody from any background can become a sports hero. We like to see heroes rise, buoyed by their teammates, but still expressing their own supreme individual skills.

Though I agree with this diagnosis, I’d like to mention other reasons why soccer has failed to resonate in America at the same level as our most popular sports, football, baseball and basketball, and why that won’t change any time soon.

Americans are fundamentally optimists and hate, positively hate failure. Yet, failure is what really happens during a soccer game, often for most of the 90 minutes a game lasts. There are lots and lots, and lots, of missed opportunities. A team will mount an attack, get past the defense and at the last second the player with the ball will slip and fall or some such silly thing. The average American sports fan wonders, “Why can’t these guys get their act together and score a goal?”

A related reason has to do with competence. We expect professional athletes to be supremely good, significantly better than any amateur. Most of us can’t catch a pass in the end zone like Jerry Rice; throw someone out from deep right field like Dwight Evans; or execute the sky hook that made Jabbar famous. We admire these guys because they could do these things. Rightly or wrongly, we infer that soccer players can’t score more goals because they aren’t very good at what they do. Why watch ineptitude? (The Obama Administration is acting more and more like a soccer team.)

A third reason has to do with accountability, which Americans value highly in virtually all walks of life. We expect penalties to follow failure. When the short stop boots the ball, he is assigned an error. It goes on his record and may cost him his job. A quarterback who throws too many interceptions likewise will be warming the bench. A golfer won’t stay on the PGA Tour for long if he misses too many cuts. Quantifiable performance in terms of points scored determines a basketball player’s employment.

In soccer, the link between error and penalty is, well, loose. The ball is turned over time after time, passes are missed, the ball is kicked wildly over the goal for no obvious reason and yet all these goofs (and lots more) are considered normal, part of the game. Why bother with a game where familiar performance statistics are meaningless?

Finally, Americans like structure, in sports and in general. Baseball is divided into innings where each team gets a chance at bat. In football, teams take turns playing offense and defense. Basketball players each have specific jobs, the center usually being the tallest player. Golf has 18 holes and par is predetermined. To the untrained eye, soccer looks like so much chaos, just a bunch of guys running around kicking a ball, “a lot of movement but not much action,” as Jabbar put it.

“Ah, but Arnold, you’re missing the point of soccer. Goals are like diamonds. They are valued highly precisely because they are rare.” My response: The 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt is considered by many the greatest soccer match ever played – available on DVD. A key reason is surely the score: Real 7, Eintracht 3. Four of Real’s goals were scored by a Hungarian player as great as Pele and Beckham, Ferenc Puskas. I can honestly say that the 1960 Real squad would have scored seven goals against any of the teams competing this year for the Jules Rimet Cup.

It’s food for thought why soccer is not popular in the most successful and powerful country in the world, while being adored everywhere else as “the beautiful game.” Do they know something we don’t?  I think it’s the other way around.

In a recent Time article, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offers some interesting thoughts why, as he put it, “soccer will never be a slam dunk in America.” Here’s a key passage:

[S]occer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse. We also celebrate rugged individualism, the democratic ideal that anybody from any background can become a sports hero. We like to see heroes rise, buoyed by their teammates, but still expressing their own supreme individual skills.

Though I agree with this diagnosis, I’d like to mention other reasons why soccer has failed to resonate in America at the same level as our most popular sports, football, baseball and basketball, and why that won’t change any time soon.

Americans are fundamentally optimists and hate, positively hate failure. Yet, failure is what really happens during a soccer game, often for most of the 90 minutes a game lasts. There are lots and lots, and lots, of missed opportunities. A team will mount an attack, get past the defense and at the last second the player with the ball will slip and fall or some such silly thing. The average American sports fan wonders, “Why can’t these guys get their act together and score a goal?”

A related reason has to do with competence. We expect professional athletes to be supremely good, significantly better than any amateur. Most of us can’t catch a pass in the end zone like Jerry Rice; throw someone out from deep right field like Dwight Evans; or execute the sky hook that made Jabbar famous. We admire these guys because they could do these things. Rightly or wrongly, we infer that soccer players can’t score more goals because they aren’t very good at what they do. Why watch ineptitude? (The Obama Administration is acting more and more like a soccer team.)

A third reason has to do with accountability, which Americans value highly in virtually all walks of life. We expect penalties to follow failure. When the short stop boots the ball, he is assigned an error. It goes on his record and may cost him his job. A quarterback who throws too many interceptions likewise will be warming the bench. A golfer won’t stay on the PGA Tour for long if he misses too many cuts. Quantifiable performance in terms of points scored determines a basketball player’s employment.

In soccer, the link between error and penalty is, well, loose. The ball is turned over time after time, passes are missed, the ball is kicked wildly over the goal for no obvious reason and yet all these goofs (and lots more) are considered normal, part of the game. Why bother with a game where familiar performance statistics are meaningless?

Finally, Americans like structure, in sports and in general. Baseball is divided into innings where each team gets a chance at bat. In football, teams take turns playing offense and defense. Basketball players each have specific jobs, the center usually being the tallest player. Golf has 18 holes and par is predetermined. To the untrained eye, soccer looks like so much chaos, just a bunch of guys running around kicking a ball, “a lot of movement but not much action,” as Jabbar put it.

“Ah, but Arnold, you’re missing the point of soccer. Goals are like diamonds. They are valued highly precisely because they are rare.” My response: The 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt is considered by many the greatest soccer match ever played – available on DVD. A key reason is surely the score: Real 7, Eintracht 3. Four of Real’s goals were scored by a Hungarian player as great as Pele and Beckham, Ferenc Puskas. I can honestly say that the 1960 Real squad would have scored seven goals against any of the teams competing this year for the Jules Rimet Cup.

It’s food for thought why soccer is not popular in the most successful and powerful country in the world, while being adored everywhere else as “the beautiful game.” Do they know something we don’t?  I think it’s the other way around.