Every four years, people who couldn’t identify Ronaldo from Ron Howard suddenly become soccer experts. It’s the World Cup, an event so important, so famous, that it doesn’t even have to name the sport. World Cup.. ’nuff said.
I’m not a huge soccer fan, but I have three sons who have played the game their whole lives (they somehow overcame my very early coaching), and follow the English Premier League with a devotion that would rival any lager-swilling Limey lad. Me? I’ll watch it during the World Cup, and a few EPL games just because I have nothing else to do on Saturday mornings, but that’s about it.
But the game is captivating at this level. Even thousands of miles away, and on television, the excitement pulsates through the screen.
Of course, not everyone likes soccer, but it’s close. According to the polling firm Nielsen Sports, nearly half the people of the world are interested in soccer, and one-fifth actually play the game. (The most football mad country in the world is Nigeria, where 83% of the population say they are interested in soccer. Here, according to the poll, it’s 31%.) Probably the biggest complaint about soccer is the lack of scoring. Scoreless draws are impossible in most sports, almost unheard of in others, but not uncommon in soccer. While nobody particularly likes to see a game where nothing really happens, the rarity of goals in soccer is what makes them so special. A goal in soccer is often explosive, a come-out-of-nowhere moment that can make your jaw drop. And owing to the nature of the sport, you rarely see a truly lousy goal … it’s HARD to score in soccer. It often takes almost superhuman skill to get a ball past a goaltender, and that’s a good thing. It’s the main reason I don’t care for basketball; it’s just too damn easy to score. If the most valuable thing you can do in basketball is a 3-pointer, and an out-of-shape 62-year-old white Canadian (me) can do it, how hard can it be? (Admittedly, I wouldn’t have some 7 foot tall guy with 9 foot wingspan blocking me, but still…)
Another great thing about the World Cup is the quality of the televising. It’s really second to none in sports, and thanks to the lack of equipment, soccer players can be identified on TV by face, not by number. If I may get sexist for a moment (and I may… it’s my blog) one of the things I enjoy the most about the televising is that the directors are not afraid to seek out the hottest chicks in the crowd and linger on them in slow motion. I don’t know what it is about soccer (maybe it’s just because there are so many European women in the crowd), but there is never a shortage of hot soccer fans. (I have never noticed close-ups of hot guys, ever.)
Also, nothing speaks to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat better than crowd shots of ecstatic or crestfallen fans. When Argentina lost a game last week, the cameras caught a little boy weeping inconsolably on his daddy’s shoulder. It was heartbreaking, and wonderful at the same time.
Maybe it’s just the accents, but I’m a huge fans of British soccer announcers. I admire their use of language, even when it is excessively florid and tinged with a kind of “World War III has broken out” seriousness.
“He gave away possession, and he has paid the ultimate price,” the announcer in the Germany v. Sweden said after Sweden scored a shocking goal. But at the same time, he exhibited the flaw in their announcing that drives me crazy: the habit of writing off a game with lots of time to go. For example, after the goal mentioned above, the announcer said it “had put Germany on the brink of a humiliating exit.” Wait a minute, chum. The goal came in the 32nd minute of a 90-minute game, making the score 1-0. The announcer was ready to give up the game with 58 minutes to go. It’s almost as if they want you to stop watching. (Germany, as you know doubt know, came back to win the game.)
But it’s not all good. There are two flaws in soccer that are so serious they have prevented me from becoming a full-on fan.
First – penalty shots. This is where common sense escapes soccer. If a player if fouled (or faux fouled, as is often the case) one centimetre outside the penalty box, they may or may not get a yellow card and a free kick. One centimetre inside the box, there could be a yellow card and a penalty kick. The punishment for a foul inside the box – which can be inadvertent or inconsequential – is grossly out of proportion to the actual foul, which encourages the worst aspect of soccer … diving.
Diving is a brazen act of cheating. It is grotesquely unsportsmanlike and unmanly conduct that is, for reasons that escape me, tolerated in soccer. Take Ronaldo, for example, the world’s reigning soccer megastar. The guy is built in superhuman fashion. A mere six-pack isn’t enough for Ronaldo; he has an eight pack. And yet, this chiseled in granite man falls like a leaf in autumn. He is a terrible example for young soccer players. Big time professional soccer could immediately eliminate diving by handing out retroactive diving penalties, no matter how big the star. Just have officials watch a game after the fact, and any divers will be handed a retroactive yellow card. Get two of them in a season, and you miss a game. Problem solved.
But still, while I can, and do, hate the players, the game itself can be, as the British would say, sublime.