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.