The Kind of Better Looking Game

The last time I can remember playing soccer was in graduate school.  I was a pretty reasonable scholar-athlete at the time and used sports as a good stress reliever from having a lot of work, not a lot of money and the occasional crazy girlfriend.  I played softball, volleyball, tennis and racquetball pretty regularly – and we would even get up a yearly tackle football game, which would get played in the mud – usually until someone had to get taken to the emergency room.  Good times.
Anyway, one day Philippe – a doughy French grad student – was scouting up people to play soccer.  Now my experience with soccer was relegated to torturous phys-ed periods in high school, but I’d seen Philippe break into a sweat walking an NMR sample down the hall, so I was like – how hard is this gonna be?  Sure, Philippe, why not?
So one Saturday morning, I showed up to a field and there’s Philippe and like 15 guys who are all five-foot-five and weigh about half of what I do.  No one seems to be speaking English.  We start and of course I have no idea where to go, but it seems like I’m running a lot.  And the ball always seems to be on the other side of the field.  And I’m slower than these guys.  Some smirking Asian guy whizzes past me with the ball like my feet are glued to the ground.  The next time he tries that, I send him flailing to the turf with a shove from one hand.  What?  I can’t do that?  Geez.
So – you might be surprised to find out that I really enjoyed the World Cup soccer tournament that was being held for the last month in South Africa.  I’ve actually enjoyed watching the games – and not just the games involving the United States.  I watched a lot more of this than the NBA Playoffs and for the first time the World Cup has reached an "Olympic Games" type interest level for me.  In fact, recently I have been known to break into spontaneous vuvuzela.
Beloved:  How was work today?
Me:  Good.  You?
Beloved: Oh fine.  What do you think we should make for dinner?
And so, after today’s championship game (nice job Spain, thanks for scoring) I was thinking about what I like and don’t like about the world's most popular game.

Athleticism.  Dude, these guys are in shape.  And not the out of control crazy ‘roid shape of NFL players, but sort of like I imagine I could be – you know, if I ran all the time.  The ability to run around and do reasonably coordinated things – pretty much nonstop – for 90 minutes is amazing.
The TV coverage.  No sideline reporters.  No super-slow mo replay of everything that happens.  No network mandated TV timeouts.  No constant barrage of stats scrolling along the bottom or side of the screen.  The announcers are understated and don’t seem to try to be part of the action.
Philosophy.   In some ways, I think soccer is the perfect game for our times and the “regular man”.  You work really hard all the time and don’t get much for it.  Every once in a while, everything comes together and something good happens.  I’m okay with that.
Penalty kicks.  I mean, if the game ends in a tie, and the OT ends in a tie in some regular game, fine – kick away.  But something like the World Cup needs sudden-death OT.  The Golden Goal.  C’mon!  It would be one of the greatest highlights EVER!  Deciding a playoff game with PKs is like deciding a tie basketball game with a free throw shooting contest.  
Officiating.  I don’t envy the guy that is the ref for a soccer game.  Man, that’s a LOT of running and no one is ever satisfied with you – so I cut the guy a break.  But some of the missed goal scores are easily fixable.   And no I don’t mean replay – replay sucks the life out of sports.  Just put a dude behind each goal whose job it is to watch the goal – that’s it.   Given the tiny number of actual goals and almost-goals there are – it’d be the easiest job ever and remove one bad element of the game.

Flopping.  Holy crap.  This is the thing that I think will turn off most Americans.  I mean, you guys can run flat out for two hours, but if an opposing player's shoelace brushes against you, you throw yourself to the ground like you’ve been clawed by a lion.  Please.  These guys make Duke basketball players look like the Great Wall of China.  Refs should make floppers lay on the ground for like 2 minutes as a penalty.  I know soccer fans shrug and say “it’s part of the game”.  Pffft.  It shouldn’t be. 
And so it goes.  Odd to say it, but I will miss this World Cup stuff.  I’ll be interested to see if the 2011 Women’s World Cup will be able to capitalize on this tournament’s popularity.  I hope it does.
Oh, tough luck about Les Bleus this year, Philippe.

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18 thoughts on “The Kind of Better Looking Game

  1. You know I love soccer. The technicality that a really good team demonstrates is amazing – backheeling the ball at the perfect pace so that the guy you're passing it to doesn't have to break stride; splitting a pair of defenders with a through ball; the always-popular nutmeg (passing through the legs of another player); the ability of a three-back defense to stay perfectly on step to get the offside trap…even a 0-0 game is fun to watch for me.
    Flopping is gamesmanship. Sure, it gets annoying, but it happens in almost every sport. (It can even be argued that baseball players purposely don't move out of the way of an inside pitch sometimes…) But it does seem to happen more in soccer — and more at the international level (and with international teams).
    I really enjoyed the WC, too.

  2. The flopping is what gets me. In the last US game, the Uraguay guy goes up for a header, unchallenged, and then falls to the ground "in agony." He was just trying to eat up clock in overtime. Another instance I noted was a guy writhing in pain on the ground until the ref walked away and then he gets up and runs full speed toward the opposite end of the field.
    Some of the legal tackles are brutal though.

  3. I really agree on your dislikes. I was so relieved that Spain scored and felt it should be sudden death. I also kept telling DH what wussies the players were! I didn't realize there was an actual term for it (flopping).

  4. what wussies the players were They are only wussies in regards to the flopping. Which I suppose the officials let go by calling so many yellow cards when they probably should not have. These players go for 90 minutes, with no rest breaks, no water breaks, no huddles, no tv time-outs, no changing of offense and defense. They are constantly moving and running and jumping and challenging each other.

  5. "nutmeg" — see? You learn something new everyday. I'm actually curious to watch an MLS game or two to see if I can tell the difference in the level of play.

  6. H — I like the idea about reviewing the questionable flopping. Jen makes the good point that there's gamesmanship like that in nearly every sport — but the degree of it here and the way that it detracts from the flow of the game is really a bummer.

  7. Budd — that's the funny thing — there really are times when some guy comes flying in foot-first with 1/2" cleats — you KNOW that's gotta hurt. But yes, when you see some guy bounce up and sprint 30 yards after being in torment — I've actually only seen that from 4 year olds!

  8. You should try watching rugby. Fewer play stoppages than American football. "Hollywooding" (their term for feigning an injury) is frowned upon.

  9. Great post! I enjoyed esp. the French student breaking into a sweat…I also love soccer (aka football!) now. I shall have to watch every year! By the way those frakking bubuzellas…one of my neighbours has one! Between that and the ice cream truck…

  10. Okay, maybe I should give this World Cup business a chance next time. My major dislike was having to see non-stop FB status updates from friends who usually have no interest in sports in general (much less soccer!) going nuts for a seemingly arbitrarily chosen country. But I can't blame soccer for my obnoxious friends, now can I?I snorted aloud at your vuvuzela conversation. :)

  11. No — you can't blame the World Cup for your friends' over-updating tendencies. I think here in the US, the game has finally gotten onto the "average person's" radar. Like the Olympics — we'll care (sometimes vehemently) for people we've never heard of, in a sport we barely understand — but for 3 or 4 weeks, it's perfect. God Bless America.

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