WASHINGTON, D.C. — Soccer is easy to mock. In what other sport can we compile a scorecard of the number of ersatz “injuries” or the time the supposedly injured players spent writhing on the ground.
Or in which “injured” players are regularly carried off on stretchers — when’s the last time you saw that in any American sport? — only to return to the game seconds later.
But I am not here to mock. I’ve tried to like soccer. It seemed like the open-minded thing to do.
Let me set the stage: it is the summer of 1994 and I am a graduate student living in London. Each summer, the dormitory in which I lived had an influx of Italian students who, in a gratifying example of international outreach, insisted that I watch the World Cup with them.
I did so, game in and game out, as an ambassador of sportsmanship and good will. And, to the joy of my newfound compatriots, Italy progressed all the way to the final against mighty Brazil.
And so we watched what I was told would be the pinnacle of sporting endeavor. For 90 minutes we watched. And no one scored. We watched through extra time. And still no one scored.
At last the game was settled through a shootout, in which the goalie guesses at which side of the goal the opposing player will kick the ball and dives in that general direction. Italy’s goalie guessed wrong and Brazil walked off the World Cup champions. A coin flip might have been slightly less dramatic, but the effect was pretty much the same.
This helps explain why soccer may be the world’s sport, but not yet America’s. I don’t begrudge my foreign friends’ love of soccer. And I am honest enough to admit that baseball is pretty dull.
But while soccer is a fine game, American football and basketball are a battle, based on deception, initiative and the repeated attack on the opponent’s weaknesses.
When a football or basketball coach isolates a gap in the opposing team’s strategy or a mismatch of players, he will exploit that weakness again and again. And his team will score points a result.
The level of teamwork and coordination demanded of athletes, and strategic thinking of coaches, is simply far higher in American sports. And a strategic error by coaches or a substantial playing mistake by athletes on the field will almost always cost that team at the scoreboard.
Sure, a basketball or American football game can be decided by a lucky play or a bad call, if it’s very close. But the relative ease by which teams can score in the most popular U.S. sports makes it very unlikely that the better team will lose the game. Not so in soccer, which is replete with fine plays that go unrewarded and terrible errors that go unpunished.
Or simply consider basic statistics such as time of possession, which measures which team controls the ball throughout the game.
Controlling the ball is a basic measure of a team’s dominance, and in American football the team that wins the battle for ball control wins the game around two-thirds of the time. In soccer, by contrast, time of possession appears to be unrelated to victory. American sports are famously buried in statistics, but all these stats are meaningful in understanding who won and why.
At the end of the day, sports are entertainment — not a matter of life or death, unless you’re the Colombian defender who was murdered after scoring an own-goal in that same 1994 World Cup by deflecting a U.S. shot past his own goalie. He would have been 47 this year.
If millions of people want to watch a bunch of men kick a ball around for 90-plus minutes only to end in a scoreless tie, that’s OK by me.