June 21, 2010

The World Cup (is half empty)

My thoughts on the World Cup after enduring the tedium of watching the U.S. playing the U.K. to a 1-1 tie (by "watching" I mean that the television was on while I did more interesting stuff). I consider myself an objective observer, as my general interest in all sports is minimal at best.

In short: soccer is an art house movie without a plot. You know it's over because it says "Fin" on the screen. (Hockey is an action movie without a plot, and is similarly pointless.) Soccer is what basketball would look like if basketball allowed goaltending and had an offside rule.

The solution (for hockey too) is to eliminate the goalie. "Offsides" would only mean being inside the goal box ahead of the ball (both defense and offense).

Americans being Americans, any sport that penalizes the fast break and the Hail Mary will forever be doomed to the sidelines. Though the real underlying difference is that Americans demand from their sports clear evidence of premeditated thought and a means of incremental evaluation.

A bunch of talented athletes improvising however brilliantly on the spur of the moment is not enough. Like improvisational jazz. Yeah, everybody "admires" improvisational jazz. Nobody actually listens to it.

An overall strategy revealed through well-planned and executed plays is the essence of American football. Americans want to see the generals directing those armies on the "playing fields of Eton," and will judge them by the wars they win. This it is true of baseball, golf, and even NASCAR.

This ability follow the deliberations and judge incremental outcomes is why boring sports like golf and baseball get so much network television coverage. Steve Sailer is spot on that golf courses "look like happy hunting grounds—a Disney-version of the primordial East African grasslands."

Unlike tennis, which stupidly bans the coach to the bleachers. This is why tennis, aside from Grand Slam tournaments, doesn't get much network television coverage. The other being that tennis is a "fast-twitch" sport that depends largely on the other guy screwing up to score. Like soccer.

Basketball hovers halfway between both worlds, which may be why it is the one international "crossover" sport that America shares with the world—fast-twitch but offense-intensive. Plays are expected. Like the double play in baseball, "Stockton to Malone" was a beautiful thing to watch.

And you could expect to see it more than once.

In evolutionary-psych terms, Americans want to see a group of individuals acting as a single team. It's the heart and soul of every classic war movie, the platoon of rugged individualists coming together for the common good. Hence the most cutting criticism of all: "He's not a team player."

Because controlling actual "team play" is impossible in soccer (and hockey), these sports are necessarily about a team acting as a collection of talented individuals. Think of soccer as a way of subverting socialism. And sublimating collectivized religious and nationalistic passions.

Americans are shamelessly patriotic and openly religious (though are more Jeffersonian about it that they'll admit), and so don't really require another weekly groupthink where nothing happens and "all the fun is in getting there" (because there's no actual "there" there).

Getting caught up in the same-only-different drama of the competitive moment is enough. The only true American national theater is the sports stadium, and the one true national imperative is to "Win one for the Gipper."

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
6/22/2010 6:23 AM   
What soccer fans fail to comprehend is the extent to which American football and basketball have been refined to be palatable spectator sports. Basketball banned goaltending, added the shot-clock and, in the case of the NBA, grants teams the option to start plays on their offensive end of the court after a timeout, thus enhancing the odds a last-second play will succeed.

The rules of the NFL have American football has been completely tailored to maximize entertainment for a TV audience. Fans love quarterbacks daring to throw the ball around the field so rule after rule has been added to protect the health of the quarterback and enhance his success. Fans like games to finish in 3 hours so rules are added to keep the clock ticking, until the very end of the game. Fans also love the spectacle of a come from behind victory so offenses have timeouts and ways of making the clock stop. Fans like games to be fairly refereed and the NFL accommodates with the most extensive video replay of any professional sport.

Soccer is an enjoyable game to play. It is also an extremely inexpensive and simple sport to play which helps explain its global popularity. But outside international events like the World Cup and the Olympics soccer perpetually fails to draw TV ratings. The American soccer fan, 99% of whom played the game at a competitive level, insist the game not change to accommodate the interests of the casual sports fan. They expect American culture to change. We can all be pretty sure how this will pan out. Once the spectacle of the World Cup completes Americas will once again change the channel to anything other than a soccer match.