Monday, July 18, 2011

World Cup Mad...(yawn)...ness

I want to start right off by admitting that I'm not a soccer fanatic. I'm not even remotely soccer literate. I watched the last game of the last World Cup in South Africa, and the last game of the last Women's World Cup in Germany between the US and Japan. I have a few friends who qualify as soccer (or "futbol" to them) fanatics and know the nuances of the game enough to scream obscenities at the officials. Also I stood around in the rain on the sidelines of my daughter's games (I mean "matches") when she was in middle school...mostly not paying attention. So I want to get it straight before I go off with authority on this rant about how hypnotically dull and pointless soccer is; I don't know what I'm talking about.

Oops, I tipped my prejudice.

 I, American patriot and  loyal friend to my soccer aficionados that I am, watched every grueling second of the interminable final match between the women's US team and Japan on Sunday in the FIFA World Cup. I wanted to participate in my friends' critique of the game--er--match. I wanted to be able to make sage points about the effervescent playing style of Lauren Cheney versus the relentless attacks of Abby Wambach.

But even I could see that the American team were playing rings around the Japanese, in every way; ball handling, play finesse, aggressiveness, discipline, stamina. But they just couldn't score. Though the US team spent most of their time threatening the Japanese goal, the quirks of chaos theory just kept deflecting all of their shots from the net, never once being touched by the Japanese goalie, who might as well not have been there. It was like there was a force field around the goal. And it got to be very frustrating, almost ridiculous.

The dull thing about soccer is that, regardless of the skill of either team, goals are so rare that it is, as the saying goes, like watching grass grow. Literally. When goals are made, they seem to be entirely weird; not a solid crack of the bat signaling a home run, not a relentless and unmistakable drive to a touchdown, not that satisfying swish of the basketball net--just a strange happenstance of bounce in which the ball happens to ricochet off of someone's head and just happens to sneak into the corner--instead of an inch to the outside. It's as if the whole point of soccer were for each side to keep flipping a coin and a score happens when the coin lands on edge.

So rare are goals in soccer, and so unexpected, that it's no wonder announcers sound like squealing 12-year-old girls whenever somebody makes one. "GOAL!!!! GOALGOALGOALGOAL!!!" (be sure to roll your "l's" when you scream this.) It's soooo exciting.  But about as exciting as watching a piece of ground for a lightning strike. On a sunny day.

For this particular game (or match), even though the Americans, for whatever reasons, were technically outplaying the Japanese, each side made two of these quirky goals and after a tedious extra thirty minutes of overtime play were still tied. Can't have that. So, instead of playing forever until one side definitely wears the other one down (as they do in tennis, baseball, and war), the whole thing devolves upon a mindless ritual called a penalty kick shootout, or something. Each side gets a chance to take five shots at the net from about twenty feet.  The goalie has to decide, "What's she gonna do? Go right or go left?" This is the game theory equivalent of Rock Paper Scissors. It's really unsatisfying and you get the feeling you were gypped. The whole thing is about as thrilling as watching someone chuck a softball to dunk a clown in a church carnival. The commentators were saying that if the two teams were still tied after this little exercise, that they'd move on to an even more inane tie-breaker, the "sudden death" penalty kick, in which the first one to make a goal wins.

And if this didn't work, I'm sure that the clever minds at FIFA had an even more foolproof method of determining the winner; "I'm thinking of a number between one and two." Or possibly the dreaded staring contest.

But it worked. The Japanese got in more free kicks than the Americans, proving that they were the best soccer team in the world. Glad that was cleared up.

Much debate has gone on about why soccer has trouble catching on in the US. I don't know why. It has to be the dullest game ever thought up. The reason it's so popular around the rest of the world must be because you don't need much to play it. Any bunch of kids can wrap a wad of rags together into a soccer ball and start kicking it around the street, or minefield. You don't need special equipment. You don't need a net or a backstop or ice or helmets or skates or bats or mitts or even shoes. But cheapness doesn't make it good. Rock Paper Scissors is cheap, too.

Another reason soccer may have trouble catching on in the US is the nature of its play. There aren't time outs, downs, or innings. The clock keeps ticking even when the ball goes out of bounds. So, consequently, you better have gone to the bathroom before the game (or match) starts. And, even more consequently, there are no places for commercial breaks. What advertiser is going to want to buy a spot on either side of a game? Or in the middle? It's just not commercially viable. The brilliant design of American sports is that they are just made for commerce, with built-in advertising breaks. Soccer was designed by socialist regimes who see no need for advertising...or bathroom breaks (just go in your pants, like we do).

As I said, I don't know what I'm talking about. I come from a generation that only played soccer in gym in high school (when it had the same status as dodge ball). But watching last Sunday's World Cup, I kept thinking that this was a metaphor for something. I couldn't think of what. So I decided to go the easy route and whine about the game. Or match.