Belmont Club

The (Soccer) Ball is Round

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

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Nothing brings out irrationality so much as a national sports competition. The most gracious commentary on the US-UK World Cup match is probably in the American media, probably because comparatively few understand the game at all. Who can get excited about a sport they can barely understand? Some half-serious comments in the AFP article describing the match are in the tenor of, ‘who won? What do you mean, nobody won?’ And ‘what kind of game is that?’

‘So far my favorite play was when they all ran up the field and then ran back down it.’

‘Any ‘sport’ that can end in a nil-nil tie isn’t a sport, it’s a waste of time.’

This means there probably won’t be any rioting in American cities whether the US wins or loses. A pitiful facsimile of the European football fan riot was attempted in Columbus, Ohio, and even that involved a British team. “Highway Patrol officers arrested one fan outside the stadium for disorderly conduct, Patrol spokeswoman Anne Ralston said. A dispatcher didn’t know whether Columbus police had made any arrests inside the stadium.” If anyone actually starts a soccer riot it will be in the hope that it will prove their European sophistication. As a statement of ‘passion’, uh-uh. The Columbus incident is a pale shadow of the genuine article, the full-blown riot which can involve deaths, cause international incidents and arouse the ire of people like Margaret Thatcher.

The high pitch of excitement actually experienced by non-American fans be inferred from the fact that North Korea has decided to broadcast a pirate signal to its people. Nothing can break through the iron curtain of censorship it seems, except a game where people run up and down the field and finish up playing to a draw. For that Pyongyang is willing to run grave risks. South Korea had warned of dire consequences in the wake of a loss of a naval vessel to the Norks but nothing was forthcoming. Maybe this time they’ve gone too far. Pyongyang has messed with football.

Yonhap, quoting South Korean broadcaster SBS, reported that a recording of South Africa and Mexico’s 1-1 draw on Friday had been broadcast via the North’s Korean Central Broadcast Service.

“The North’s broadcast was unauthorised as we have the broadcasting rights for entire Korean peninsula,” Yonhap quoted an SBS official as saying, adding that the company considered itself a victim of piracy.

“The company will decide its measure after determining how North Korea secured the footage,” the official told Yonhap. …

However, SBS said that its negotiations to provide North Korea with World Cup broadcasts had been halted amid tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

Seoul has concluded that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the 1,200-tonne corvette Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives, and is now pushing for the UN Security Council to censure the North.

Pyongyang has vehemently denied it was responsible and has warned of reprisals should it be punished.

The American inability to get excited about soccer has been the subject of much debate. Dave Eggers, writing in the Guardian thinks the phenomenon is all the more surprising considering the fact that many American parents go to great lengths to teach their children the sport. However despite this massive promotion at some point it all goes wrong. As kids grow into adolescence, they leave behind soccer for baseball, football and basketball. The question Eggers wrestles with is why this happens?

When children in the United States are very young, they believe that soccer is the most popular sport in the world. They believe this because every single child in America plays soccer. … On Saturdays, every flat green space in the continental US is covered with tiny people in shiny uniforms, chasing the ball up and down the field, to the delight and consternation of their parents, most of whom have no idea what is happening. …

But at about age 10, something happens to the children of the United States. Soccer is dropped, quickly and unceremoniously, by approximately 88 per cent of all young people. They move onto baseball, football, basketball, hockey, field hockey, and, sadly, golf. Shortly thereafter, they stop playing these sports, too, and begin watching these sports on television, including, sadly, golf. …

His answer is that the inability to like soccer is due to two characteristics in American culture: an inability to appreciate sport not invented in America and the unaccountable distaste for shamming an injury on the field which seems underhand, unsportsmanlike … and dare one say it … unAmerican?

But diving in soccer is a problem. It is essentially a combination of acting, lying, begging and cheating, an unappealing mix. The theatricality of diving is distasteful, as is the slow-motion way the chicanery unfolds. First there will be some incidental contact, and then there will be a long moment – enough to allow you to go and wash the car and return – after the contact and before the diver decides to go down. When you’ve returned from washing the car and around the time you’re making yourself a mini-bagel grilled cheese, the diver will be leaping forward, his mouth Munch-wide and oval, bracing himself for contact with the pitch. But this is just the beginning. Go and do the grocery shopping and perhaps open a new account at the bank, and when you return, our diver will still be on the ground, holding his shin, his head thrown back in mock-agony. It’s disgusting, all of it, particularly because, just as all of this fakery takes a good deal of time and melodrama to put over, the next step is so fast that special cameras are needed to capture it. Once the referees have decided either to issue a penalty or not to our Fakey McChumpland, he will jump up, suddenly and spectacular uninjured – excelsior! – and will kick the ball over to his team-mate and move on.

So Eggers believes the whole shamming business is so disgustingly greasy that US audiences would rather watch other kinds of fakery, maybe at a pro wrestling match, than endure this. Other theories suggest the American dislike of draws or tied games is behind the inability of soccer to make it into the adolescent gaming world. Games are considered events at which one wins or loses. Matches in which nobody is the victor seem pointless. In either case the reasons for the American inability to like a game which inspires fanatical passion around the world is put down to the notion to an inability to slot its peculiar dramatic structure into the national psyche.

There are certain narratives that don’t travel well. Art house movies, certain kinds of Japanese movies, films with racial themes that are very peculiarly American do not always travel well across cultures. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Western, detective and action genres did so well in the past is that they were based on storylines with a universal appeal. Movies that got more ‘sophisticated’ and self-referential also became more difficult for other cultures to understand. Sporting events, like the movies are a kind of drama. Soccer football is certainly an interesting story, may it is just the kind of story that few in America care about.

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One perception of soccer football.


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