Saturday, July 01, 2006

Why Do Americans Hate Soccer?

As I write this, six teams are remaining in world sports’ most (or maybe second-most, behind the Summer Olympics) popular event – the FIFA World Cup. Meanwhile, in what is allegedly one of the world’s most globalized nations, 69 percent of Americans said before the tournament they would not watch any games. As it was going on only six percent were following it closely. When the U.S. team played the streets of American cities were indistinguishable from any other hour of the day, something that would be inconceivable in soccer-mad (which is to say most) countries. When the final is going on many fans all over the country will be more absorbed by NASCAR or baseball.

What explains this peculiarity? Americans seem immune to the global hysteria over this sport. (Contrary to some claims, there are a few other countries where soccer is second fiddle – e.g., India, where cricket rules, and Australia. But it is clearly the world's most popular sport, save here.)

A number of suspects have been offered. Three have to do with the nature of the game:

1. It’s too boring.. Sports can be exciting because of suspense – the uncertainty of an athletic contest is appealing for the same reason a movie thriller is. And suspense depends on the likely outcome of the game being subject to change in the very near future. (Three economists have actually modeled optimal sporting suspense.) In this theory of soccer-hating, the soccer-loathing American says that soccer is boring because there is so little chance for the direction of the game to change; most of the action, such as it is, takes place very far from the net.

The soccer fan responds that while soccer is continually in motion save for halftime, American sports are filled with stoppages of play, many of them purely for TV purposes. There is a lot of truth to this. In a single 40-minute televised college basketball game, there are 14 timeouts allotted to the two teams, plus eight extra ones inserted just for TV purposes. The NFL is just as bad, the NBA only a little better.

But TV interruptions aside, I think this argument on behalf of soccer fails. Suspense doesn't require ongoing action. If there is a stoppage of play with 1:30 left in a close NFL game, there is still a lot of excitement as the announcers and the fans speculate on what will happen next. It is the nature of baseball and American football that as long as the game itself is close the lead could change on the very next play. With soccer this is less true. Along those lines...

2. There’s not enough scoring.. One goal in soccer is huge, two is often decisive. The absence of scoring opportunities means that on the rare occasions when it happens suspense is diminished. A baseball team two runs or a hockey team two goals down can easily come back. Even an NFL team two touchdowns down is not out of it. In soccer, two scores are far more difficult to overcome. The scoreless tie (far more common in soccer than in hockey; baseball cannot have ties, and so play goes on until someone wins) is arguably the most eye-glazing example of this phenomenon.

This absence could arguably be part of the game's appeal, in that goals are supreme achievements, requiring long periods of striving and near-misses. Soccer is a game then of tragedy and achievement.

But the flip side of this is that often game outcomes are random, in that it is perhaps hard to say that in a 1-0 game the team that scored on a penalty kick is better than the one that had two shots hit the post. The more difficult scoring is, the greater the likelihood that the outcome is not a true reflection of team quality.

But whatever the truth, that soccer is a game full of agonizing near-misses and the inability to improve one's own fate by using one's hands suggests that it is the sort of game that only the English could invent.

3. The pitiful fake fouls. Flopping is a big part of soccer, with players faking having been fouled in an attempt to get a penalty called. This is certainly dishonorable, and lowers the appeal of the game. This doesn’t much exist in baseball or American football (punters faking roughing penalties aside), although basketball players flop a lot.

And so the argument goes that Americans just don’t care for these kinds of things. (See here for an example of this kind of argument.) But for any of these hypotheses to be true requires a very dramatic American exceptionalism – Americans have to be far more upset about these things than most of the rest of humanity, which loves the game. So it seems hard to accept any of them.

Other possibilities:

4. Violence. The amount of violence in the stands and in the streets that occurs over soccer - it's just a game, for crying out loud - strikes many non-fans as absurd. That European countries have a class of professional hooligans with nothing better to do than travel around and engage in mayhem during and after games also seems ridiculous upon just a moment's reflection. (Although in fairness it is not clear whether this is worse than the violence – low-level arson and looting, mostly – that has in the past sometimes accompanied American sports championships. It doesn't happen much, but in at least one city, Detroit, it has been somewhat serious.) Be that as it may, a related problem emanating not from the players but the fans is...

5. Racism. To the American observer the racism coming from the stands at European soccer games is nothing short of revolting. When the Dutch team Ajax, which has some historical association with Jewish ownership, goes on the road, fans commonly chant some variation on “Jews to the gas chambers.” Black players in various European leagues are taunted with monkey chants and fans waving and throwing bananas. The coach of the French national team says that this is even going on now in the World Cup. The problem is so obvious that FIFA has had to make anti-racism a theme of the current tournament, with announcements on its behalf before every game. This, recall, is happening in 2006. It is almost as if every single black player in Europe of any dinstinction must go through what Jackie Robinson got out of the way sixty years prior.

But both of these objections are not intrinsic to soccer, but are a peculiarly European problem. Racial taunts and hooliganism are not a problem when Tunisia plays Nigeria, or Brazil plays Chile. The racism and violence probably say more about contemporary Europe than about soccer.

What does that leave us with? I can think of two possibilities. The first is violence not in the stands but in the game. American sports are quite rough, at least in certain well-choreographed circumstances. Baseball has its brushback/beanball protocol, basketball its hard fouls, and American football is brutal from top to bottom. Soccer is just not a rough game at that level; no matter what the fouling, there is nothing comparable to a wide receiver getting clotheslined on a route across the middle, or a hitter getting drilled after the one before him homered. This too is an exceptionalist argument, but that Americans like rough sports more than everyone else is more tenable than an argument that they like, say, scoring more than everyone else.

Finally, a possibility is one I have never seen before - we don't like soccer because we didn't invent it. In this view, like everyone else Americans prefer the sports they invent, not necessarily out of chauvinism but because the sports are implicitly designed to or evolve to fit American tastes, even if the entrepreneurs don't explicitly know what those tastes are. (This is an evolutionary-fitness argument.) (Update: Having watched several games on American TV, I can add one other observation on this theme. The announcers for World Cup games go out of their way to use British sports terminology, which is also likely to turn American novice viewers off. Perhaps they are signaling their cosmopolitanism, I problem I have discussed here. In any event, when American announcers are broadcasting to American viewers, they should remember that American sports are played on a "field," not a "pitch"; American defenders "guard," they don't "mark"; and so on.)

Because the U.S. is both a big and wealthy country, there are many opportunities to invent sports and opportunities for the good ones to take advantage of a gigantic market. Some of the sports Americans invent – American football, basketball, baseball – become huge. Some of them – volleyball, lacrosse – become modest successes. Some of them – roller-blade hockey, triathlon (which I assume, because I associate it with the Hawaiian Iron Man event, is American-made) – remain the province of enthusiasts. An implication of this love-your-own-sports theory is that as other populous countries – China, India – become rich they will invent and begin to pay more attention to their own sports. I think I favor some combination of this and the rough-action-on-the-field hypotheses.


Blogger Vigilante said...

My gripe numero uno:

As long as World Cup soccer resolves its draws with a shootout tie-breaker, it is not The Beautiful Game.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I agree. First, penalty kicks are often about randomness - did the goalkeeper guess right or not? When not, it's more about conspicuous failure - a player simply missing the goal - rather than conspicuous success, i.e. athletic greatness.

Every other sport (at least in championship tournaments) makes people play until a conventional score happens.

12:24 PM  

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