I have so far refrained from commenting on the World Cup, pro or con, even though it seems to have become the thing bloggers want to discuss, either as a jumping-off point for some other political argument or as an exercise in Franklin Foer-like expertise on a sport about which most American bloggers, like their countrymen, do not really care very much. Franklin Foer “and friends” at TNR have cornered the blogging market, so to speak, on World Cup commentary, but this would not have required very much effort, as there is hardly any competition for this particular job. On the right, the competition has mostly been to come up with new and clever ways to see soccer as a threat to the American way of life (as usual).
In fact, outside of the blogosphere, the loyal sports junkies tuned to ESPN and actual American soccer fans who watch soccer matches in non-World Cup years (including the obnoxious ones, such as Foer, who feel the need to refer to “the pitch” rather than “the field”), I have to wonder how many Americans were aware that their national team was playing in Nuremberg today. Of those who knew, how many cared, much less took the time this morning to watch?
As with many other things in life, ignorance would have been bliss, as the U.S. team was outmatched and outplayed (again) in a 2-1 loss to Ghana. American fans will complain, rightly, about the bogus penalty kick given to the Ghanaians that gave them the go-ahead goal, but this would be to forget the painfully weak play against a competent but hardly dominating Ghana squad.
The game was full of the sort of melodramatic fake injuries that make soccer seem to any American who has played any other contact sport to be a pathetic shadow of a real athletic contest (that the referees encourage this drama queen routine, especially this year, by inventing fouls and throwing yellow cards around as if they were confetti only exacerbates a problem that has long plagued international soccer). This display came on the heels of the Italy match, which was so poorly officiated that it would cause any casual American observer to conclude that the game was entirely arbitrary and futile. (It should be noted that there is a growing consensus that this is one of the worst-officiated World Cups ever.) Add to that the rather pitiful American performance, following the excessive billing of the USA team as the greatest soccer force ever assembled by this country, and you have the recipe for complete disinterest and disenchantment.
Do You Know Where Ghana Is?
One of my working theories on why most Americans, myself excepted, find soccer boring is that they lack a sufficiently strong rooting interest in most soccer matches, in part because so few Americans know where most of the countries participating in the World Cup actually are on the planet. Take Ghana as an extreme example. If surprisingly few American youths can locate their own country on a map, imagine how much trouble they would have in finding the west African nation of Ghana! To be fair, I consider myself to be fairly well-informed on geography and I probably could not have told you two weeks ago very much about Ghana except for its capital (Accra) and its location (between Ivory Coast and Togo).
Imagine how uninteresting it would have to be for Americans, who might be only vaguely familiar with where countries such as Croatia and Switzerland are, to watch match after match of a game they may have never played (or only played in childhood) according to rules that seem shabbily and arbitrarily enforced in the only sport in the world where crying like a girl will concretely help your team. That is not necessarily how soccer has to be played, but it is how soccer under this year’s FIFA rules is being played in Germany.
In the matches between quality teams (the Germany-Ecuador match earlier this week, for example) or the close games with surprise underdog performances (the Mexico-Angola tie last week), soccer can be genuinely entertaining and exciting. It has its tremendous lulls, of course, and soccer between mediocre teams is mind-numbingly dull and sloppy (as is any mediocre performance in any sport–see the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals as Exhibit A), but it has started to strike me as odd that Americans can complain about the boring quality of soccer considering that two of our national sports (football, baseball) have more time where nothing is happening than any other sports in the world. There are moments when soccer can rise to its billing as “the beautiful game,” but between the horrible officiating, melodramatic players and lacklustre play of more than a few allegedly world-class teams those moments are becoming fewer and fewer.