I’ve tried to like it. I’ve pretended to like it.
I’ve watched “football,” i.e. soccer, in a London pub full of howling, pint-swilling die-hard fans. I’ve seen big, live national matches in packed stadiums in Ecuador and Colombia, where the most compelling element was the ever-present threat of violence and mayhem in the stands, fans smashing beer bottles over one another’s heads. I’ve watched the World Cup, which is presently being held in Brazil. There could be no more sacrosanct moment for me to make this admission–I just can’t get into soccer.
Which is unprecedented. Usually I can be instantly sucked in by any activity where a score is kept. Julee claims I will watch anything competitive, and I totally do. Except soccer.
It isn’t just that the game is slow-paced and low-scoring. Similar slander can be leveled (wrongly, I believe) against baseball. And as we approach the Major League All-Star Break, that incomparable midsummer night, maybe the very nature of baseball is useful by way of comparison to today’s modern sports, including soccer.
Our putative national pastime is really a nineteenth-century pastoral activity, a Victorian-era invention with overtones of Romanticism. It is one of the few sports (and alone among modern sports) where time is not the enemy, the second foe. There is no clock. There is no overtime, or–heaven forbid–sudden death, just extra innings. In theory a baseball game can last until Judgment Day. Football, basketball, hockey–all are desperate, mechanistic battles against the relentless game clock. When time “expires,” you’re either a winner or a loser. Time is the ultimate conqueror.
Nor does baseball have penalties. A football game’s outcome often turns on the judgment of a single official declaring that a violation of the rules has occurred and must be punished (though the other team can show mercy if it is to their advantage to do so). I find the frequency of penalties in basketball so maddening that it makes most contests unbearable and reveals how imperfectly conceived basketball is if a game cannot progress more than a minute without a blaring horn announcing that yet another foul has been committed. In hockey there is actually a provision for incarcerating the offending player. Punishment is a key to the game. The closest thing to a penalty in baseball is an error, and that is more a penalty against oneself rather than a transgression, a “miscue” rather than a violation.
Soccer has a kaleidoscope of infractions, replete with colored “penalty cards.” Plus “extra time” to compensate for the time wasted distributing said cards. Maybe that’s why I haven’t fallen in love with soccer, the way I’ve been told I’m supposed to if I don’t want to be seen as some Yankee yokel. Nothing much happens outside people faking victimhood and trying to con a ref into calling a penalty. An entire nation’s sense of pride can pivot on such a moment. Riots and looting break out.
Once again this World Cup I have tried to get excited about soccer (don’t call it football) and have ended up preferring to watch paint dry. “I don’t know, Jules,” I said to my wife the other day. “I just can’t get interested in it no matter how hard I try.”
“Maybe,” she said slyly, “this is God’s way of telling you you watch too much sports.”
Ha! Score one for Julee.