“How long does it take to forever change history? To mend a lifetime of broken hearts? To turn the doubtful into the faithful? To turn a nation of nonbelievers into the converted? Well, if you do it right, it takes just one second.”
— AT&T World Cup Commercial
I am a soccer fan, I admit. I love the game, and have for nearly a decade now. It began for me back in 2002, with my then-roommate watching World Cup games on ESPN. At first, like many American sports fans, I scoffed at him, belittling it as boring and slow. These judgments I passed without ever even watching a full game.
But slowly, surely, the competition reeled me in. I began to understand the flow of contest, and how it was different from any other sport. How hard-working and athletic the players had to be. How rabid and enthusiastic the fans were. How, though the game was timed, it was not ruled by the clock alone. And, though goals may have been hard to come by, how magical they were when they occurred.
So, I became a fan. Not an over-the-moon die-hard, mind you, but a fan. I began watching games as often as I could, mainly on the Fox Soccer Channel, which is basically the only place you can find soccer 99% of the time. I awaited World Cup season every four years like it was Christmas morning.
And, like every American soccer fan, I endured the endless criticism from other American sports buffs. My own ill-informed views from years past now sting as I hear a game I love mocked by people who, like me back then, often have never even bothered to watch it.
The reasons they give for their disdain really don’t stand up to any scrutiny. Soccer is boring, they say. Yes, there are boring soccer matches, just like there are boring events in any sport. But there are also tremendously exciting ones, too. And much of what we consider “exciting” in American sports is much more dull than we acknowledge.
I mean, our version of football consists of 4 seconds of guys pushing each other, 40 seconds of players standing around, then 4 more seconds of guys pushing each other. Studies show that for every 60-minute football game, on average there’s only eleven minutes of actual, physical action. Eleven minutes of game spread out over three hours of telecast. And soccer, which is practically non-stop movement, is the “boring” sport.
This doesn’t even begin to address baseball, which is an even greater offender in the “nothing is happening” area. And I’m not trying to bury either of these sports — I love baseball, and I certainly enjoy American football, as well. I’m just pointing out how, when you really look at what our society finds exciting, soccer would seem to fit right in.
The criticism continues: Nothing happens in soccer, they say. If by “something happening,” you mean “goals,” then yes, goals are at a premium. But there’s almost always something happening, and in this sport, a draw can be just as much of a victory as a win. The rules are hard to understand, they say. Not at all. In fact, they’re refreshingly straightforward. And how often has an exciting touchdown been negated by an obscure penalty that happened far away from the ball?
Really, when it comes down to it, I think there is one big reason why soccer hasn’t made any headway in the American imagination: We’re not very good at it yet. As Patton said, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” Every four years at the Olympics, we pump tons of money in an effort to prove that we have the best basketball/hockey/etc. players around. Our football may not be that popular elsewhere in the world, but if it was, we’re still confident we’d whip everyone’s butts.
American soccer hasn’t had that. We came close to a breakthrough last Wednesday, with Landon Donovan’s breathtaking goal against Algeria. Then the USA lost to Ghana in the round of 16, and everybody came back down to Earth.
But a funny thing happened — people I never heard talk about soccer were watching that game. Commenting on it, interested in it. And when the USA lost, their attitude was not dismissive, but hopeful. “We’ll see you in four years, world!”
Soccer isn’t a major sport stateside yet. And it won’t take “just one second,” as that commercial claims. It’ll take a lot longer. But with each passing World Cup, perceptions are changing. And the more popular the sport becomes, the more athletes will try it, and American teams will get better. And the day comes closer where an American team will make a real impact on a World Cup tournament.
It may take a lifetime of work and support. But that one second of glory would make it all worth it.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.