This month, two-thirds of the world is enraptured watching the World Cup. The other third of the world is complaining about how much they hate soccer.
Being a good Canadian, I can understand both sides of the debate. I like soccer, and I’ve watched an inordinate number of World Cup games. But, I can appreciate the hatred as well, because there are parts of ‘the beautiful game’ often make it ‘the shameful game’.
Here, then, are the Good, the Bad, and the Unforgivably Ugly of soccer.
Unlike sports like the other football (which can consume 3 ½ hours of your time, which may or may not be important to you) or baseball (which, conceivably, can last forever, or sometimes just seems like it), soccer is a compact two-hour experience. To its eternal credit, soccer has not made allowances for TV: there are no interminable commercial breaks. The average NFL game takes 3 hours and 12 minutes to play, of which there are only 11 minutes of real playing. (An NFL broadcast spends more time on replays — 17 minutes — than on live action.) A study of actual playing time in an average English Premier League game in 2010 showed the ball was in play for 62½ of a game’s 90 minutes. That’s value for your money, and for your time.
A solid 90-minutes of soccer time can seem like 90 hours when the game is bad. Soccer can, and often does, lapse into a Simpson-esque scene of holds it, holds it, holds it … Even the most devout of soccer fans will admit that the game can be dreadfully boring. (This can happen in any sport; the worst sports event I ever attended was an Edmonton Oilers game.) Non-soccer fans will say that every soccer game is boring, but that’s simply an ingrained, North American-style anti-soccer bias. The anti-soccer crowd should relax. I mean, I hate baseball — it’s simply excruciating to watch, tedious in the extreme — but I can understand its appeal. While I couldn’t be bothered to watch baseball, I’m happy for anyone who enjoys it. I just wish the anti-soccer faction would have the same attitude.
The World Cup features a world of hilarious names. I have nothing but admiration for the stellar British soccer announcing crews who somehow manage to get their thick British tongues around Sokratis Papastathopoulos, or Azubuike Egwuekwe. (I recommend a very amusing blog posting called The Blog of Funny Names, which has a fairly comprehensive list of hilarious monikers.)
While most non-soccer fans know soccer announcing only from the oft-parodied ‘GOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLL!!!!” of Latin American announcers, for my money the best sports announcers on the planet are British soccer announcers. At times wry and witty, other times scolding of poor play or poor players, and simply marvelous at calling a big moment, a great British soccer announcer can make the dullest game watchable. Working alone, their announcing is often more in the form of commentary than play-by-play. I was watching a game the other day where the announcer called a particularly beautiful pass “delectable”. Can you imagine a North American announcer calling anything other than the pre-game buffet delectable?
I’m old enough to remember when watching a live sporting event from another country was a rarity, where the picture was fuzzy at best and the televising second-rate (just watch any of the Canada-Russia 1972 games from Russia and you’ll see what I mean). Today, televising of World Cup games is the best of any sport, anywhere. The cameras miss nothing. Super slow-motion catches every moment in muscle-rippling close-up. Crowd shots catch the agony and ecstasy of the fans. Soccer TV is aided greatly by the fact that the faces (and often the hairstyles) of players are not hidden under helmets or behind face masks, making it that much better of a TV experience.
In soccer, there are far too many truly repugnant players. Egos are colossal in soccer, where a star player probably could demand his personal hairdresser attend games on the sidelines. The list of hated soccer players and their myriad transgressions is too long to list here, but let’s just say that one of the most hated, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, bit opposing players —not once, but twice!
Again with the players, the ‘war is over’ celebration of every goal is embarrassing to watch. The players always run to the side where the TV cameras are so they can mug and dance and blow kisses. The celebrations are so off the charts, I feel like telling them to get a room. Next time you score a goal, guys, act like you’ve done it before. And when you’re called for a foul, take it like a man instead of gesticulating wildly and complaining.
AND THE UGLY
And finally, the ugly side of soccer. It’s so ugly to me, so reprehensible, that it will always prevent me from fully embracing soccer.
It’s diving. Soccer likes to call is ‘simulation’, because that doesn’t sound quite as unsporting. But whatever you call it, diving is soccer’s shame, and it will ensure that soccer never really becomes a major sport in North America.
We here in North America have been conditioned to believe that sports should be played in the most fair, most manly manner possible. In soccer, a glancing slap across the face that wouldn’t topple a toddler results in players clutching their heads and going to ground like a sniper has picked them off. Diving goes against everything we believe in here, but this disease has infected North American sports. Hockey is getting progressively worse, and basketball is facing a crisis of simulation.
In most soccer nations (some more than others) diving is considered part of the game. The best divers are admired for their fakery skills. Games, indeed championships, can be decided not on the quality of the players, but on their ability to convince the referee they’ve been fouled.
Diving is unsporting, unmanly, and unforgivable. It is so ingrained in the sport that it will never go away. And it’s why, despite all the good and great on the pitch, I’ll never fully accept ‘the beautiful game’.