Bridging The Great Soccer Divide

Today the U.S. Men’s National Team plays a crucial match against Iran in the 2022 World Cup. If the Americans win, they advance beyond the group stage into the knockout stage and keep their long-shot hopes for the World Cup alive. If they lose or tie, they are out. Since the U.S. team has played to two draws in its first two games, they face a significant challenge, and because their opponent is Iran there are obvious geopolitical overtones.

I’m not a soccer fan, but I am a fan of my country, so I watched the U.S. game against England that ended in a scoreless tie. After the match, some loudmouth commentator on another channel said that the 0-0 tie (“nil-nil” in soccer lingo) was boring, and that’s why more Americans don’t pay much attention to soccer. The guy’s comments were part of a weird dynamic that has bedeviled the U.S. soccer scene for as long as I can remember: non-soccer fans make fun of the injury-faking and the low scores and argue that the sport is a total snoozer, and soccer fans respond that the non-soccer fans are basically knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing cretins who can’t appreciate the subtleties and strategies of a game that, incidentally, the rest of the world absolutely loves.

I didn’t think the U.S.-England match was boring. The U.S. has a very young team, and the fact that they played heavily favored England to a draw and kept their chances of advancing alive was a great result for them. They don’t seem to go in for the ridiculous play-acting on the injury front, either, which I appreciate.

I clearly don’t get all of the nuances of world-class soccer, but it doesn’t take much watching to appreciate concepts like reversing the field and trying to clear things out for breakaway runs and passes. I’m still working on the penalties, what results in corner kicks, and other elements of the game, but I can watch a soccer match without understanding those issues just like I can watch a hockey game without knowing what “offsides” is or the significance of the red line and blue line. A low-scoring soccer match involves its own special brand of tension where you know one mistake could be fatal–just like in a low-scoring baseball game. And you can’t help but admire the energy, athleticism, and skill of elite players, who run hard throughout the match, can bend and place a ball with amazing precision, and then can mash it with astonishing force. Soccer may not feature crushing hits or thunderous dunks, but it definitely offers a lot to admire.

I’ll be at work today and won’t get a chance to watch the U.S. match against Iran, but I’m definitely hoping that the U.S. finds a way to win and advance. I’m also hoping that, if they do so, we can put this perversely American argument about soccer to bed, once and for all. Both sides of the great soccer divide need to understand that not every sport needs to appeal to every person, and there’s no value in denigrating either soccer or those people who just don’t enjoy it. Live and let live, sports fans!

Go U.S.A.!