This guy demurs.
11 Reasons Why I Hate Soccer
A few weeks ago, I got back to my car and found that a magnetic Orlando City bumper sticker had been attached to my car. Orlando City is one of the newest MLS soccer teams, and I have to admit it’s been pretty impressive how quickly the Lions have garnered an enthusiastic fan base. These bumper stickers are everywhere – partly because they are giving thousands and thousands away for free, but mostly because there’s genuine soccer enthusiasm here in Orlando and the city lacks any pro sports competition (except the occasionally good but usually miserable NBA franchise, the Orlando Magic).
Needless to say, I’m not a fan. I got rid of the freebie immediately. I admire what the Lions have done from a business perspective, and I can happily watch World Cup or Olympic soccer (in small doses), but I am, by and large, the typical American sports snob who doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. In fact, I so much fit the stereotype, that you may not need to read any further. If you care to, here’s my reasons.
When I was a wee lad, we would sometimes go to Friendly’s to celebrate a birthday. It’s been years, so I barely remember, but I seem to recall a wild scene of ice cream and sparklers and candles and balloons. In soccer, “friendlies” are apparently matches arranged between two teams that have no implications in terms of standings or seedings or tournament placement. When American soccer teams do this, they also call these matches friendlies, despite the fact that we have a perfectly good American English word for the concept called scrimmages. Scrimmage has the following alternate definition: “a confused struggle or fight” with the following synonyms offered: “fight, tussle, brawl, struggle, fracas, free-for-all”. Now, what sane sports fan favors the word “friendlies” over the word “scrimmage”? Friendlies calls to mind every stereotype of soccer as a non-competitive European sport made for children to play. (I don’t question either the athleticism or the danger of soccer played at a high level; I’m complaining about a word.) Scrimmage says: “This may not count in the standings, but prepare to get your ass kicked anyway.” If you really want to use a unique word to emphasize soccer’s uniqueness, try “Fracases” or “Tussles”. Please.
2. Loaning Players
What’s the deal with this loaning of players? Orlando City currently has some of their players on loan to national teams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their players – or people I assumed were their players – are on loan from somewhere else. In American sports we have unions, damn it, and we have free agency. Hell, we even once had a greatest-baseketball-player-of-all-time decide he was going to play baseball for a while, on a lark. In soccer, apparently, they dabble in the flesh trade, where players get passed around like so many baskets at a dim sum restaurant. Someone from the UN should really look into this whole thing. Even if there’s nothing sinister going on here, the fact that an American team can loan its players out just underscores how low on the totem pole the American league ranks in the first place. We’re like the pathetic kids at the play ground who can get the big kids to play with us until all of his friends show up.
3. Real This And City That
Speaking of pathetic, do we really have to adopt European-style team names for our American soccer teams? Let’s see how many times I have to throw up while scanning the MLS standings in my local paper: DC United (hurl), New England Revolution, Orlando City Lions (hurl), Toronto FC (hurl, though I had to verify FC stands for Football Club first to be certain), Montreal Impact (no hurl because there’s no soccerism here, but Impact is about as lame as they come), Columbus Crew (no hurl but same comment), New York Red Bulls (gonna have to call “hurl” here for using a lame energy drink product in the name of their team), New York City FC (hurl), Philadelphia Union (no hurl, but any league worth its salt would not permit a Union and a United in the same conference), Chicago Fire. That’s a pretty high hurl to no hurl ratio, and that’s just the Eastern Conference. The Pandering Factor is even higher in the Western Conference, with several FCs, something called the Sporting KC (no idea, but definitely sounds soccerish), and the abysmally named Real Salt Lake.
4. Juuuust A Bit Outside!
There’s an iconic scene in the baseball movie Major League in which Bob Uecker’s character – an announcer for the Cleveland Indians – is calling the first pitch offered by Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” rookie pitcher. Sheen misses the plate by about 4 feet, and Uecker sarcastically deadpans, “Just a bit outside”. The scene is recreated every 12 minutes or so in world-class soccer matches. After several minutes where nothing interesting happens, the ball will inexplicably find its way to the center of the field and onto the foot of a player who scored a goal as recently as last year. The announcer’s voice raises in pitch and he begins shouting excitedly. The player launches into the ball full force, sending it oh so close – just 30 or 35 feet above the crossbar. (Soccer near misses are a lot like airplane near misses – it’s truly noteworthy if two planes come within 100 feet of one another; if a soccer ball comes within 30 feet of the crossbar or the post, the announcer nearly has a heart attack.) Understand, these are world-class athletes aiming at a net that is 24 feet wide and 8 feet high! That’s 192 square feet, larger than my office. You could fit an entire NHL team in the goal opening. And most of these misses wouldn’t be goals if you had 2 regulation nets side by side.
5. Estrela Passes It To Kaka, Back To Estrela, Back To Kaka, Back To Estrela
There’s a hilarious scene in an episode of The Simpsons when Springfield becomes a World Cup host city. World Cup fever has truly gripped the town and the stadium is full of passionate screaming fans. One team takes possession, and over the next 60 seconds or so, proceeds to pass it back and forth between three players with no attempt to advance it down the field. Over the course of this display (which the American announcer finds dreadfully dull and the South American announcer finds rapturously enthralling), the Springfield crowd descends from excitement to silence. Although Ned Flanders announces “There’s plenty of exits for everybody!” a riot ensues. Funny is funny because there’s at least a kernel of truth in the satire. Soccer is played on a huge field with 11 people on a side, and the ability of one team to position the ball in the center of the pitch deep in the opponent’s territory is just about nil. (<–note the proper use of the word “nil” here; more on this later.) In fact, about 85% of a soccer match can be summed up thusly: “Hey… I know!… Let’s try the other side of the field!… Oh well, they’ve got guys over there too… Hey… I know!… Let’s try the other side of the field!” Lather, rinse, repeat.
Soccer has an offsides rule: if a player advances past the ball and the opposing team’s defense, he is offside, play is stopped, and the opposing team is awarded the ball. In the image, the player labeled B is offsides because he has gotten farther than the player labeled 1, who is on the defending team, and player B isn’t in possession of the ball. Put more cynically, we might say that player B has committed the crime of running faster than his opponents. Why are there 3 offensive players in this image and only 2 defenders? Perhaps the defending team gambled and got caught upfield, perhaps the offense executed some precise downfield passing, perhaps the coach of the offensive team designed a clever play that resulted in player B running free. In soccer, these strategic or athletic achievements are punished by your team losing possession. It’s almost as though the soccer rulers decided, yes, the defensive team has 11 players, one of which is a goalie with the power to pick up the ball with his hands, and yes, many games go 90 minutes without a single goal, but we can’t very well let somebody on a soccer field have a decent chance of scoring, can we? Soccer offsides is just about the lamest rule in sports – it protects the defensive team from bad play, bad decisions, and bad strategy.
Low-scoring games can be exciting, so long as you are watching excellent play. Low-scoring basketball games, and often football games, are due to bad execution, but I’ve seen some amazing 1-0 hockey games and there’s nothing like a pitcher’s duel during the major league baseball playoffs. Soccer matches, on the other hand, are rarely exciting, even if they may be well-played to end with a low score. When a “chance” is a shot that’s “just a bit outside”, that’s not my idea of excitement. But that’s not what my complaint is here. My complaint here is just one of terminology – the same as my complaint with friendlies. If a Brit or an Aussie tells me a match finished one-nil, that’s fine by me, but American sportscasters – the same ones who’ve just reported on the “seven to nothing” baseball shutout – go out of their way to use the word “nil” when there’s a soccer match under discussion. We’ve got a perfectly good word for a sports contest in which one team has 0 – I bet you just used that word in your head when you read the digit 0 on the screen. Yep. Zero. Or if you like, nothing. Good god, please use goose-egg before nil for heaven’s sake. You don’t have to sound like a Euro wanna-be every second, with your friendlies and your Reals and your FCs and your nils.
8. And Now For Something Completely Different
It didn’t take too much googling to find an article pontificating about why more than 40% of Premier League goals have come off of set plays – dead ball plays like free kicks and corner kicks. In other words, most of a soccer match is during running time with the ball constantly in motion, but occasionally a foul is called leading to a free kick, or the defense sends the ball out of bounds over the back line leading to a corner kick. Then of course there are the rare penalties called deep inside the offensive zone resulting in a penalty kick. These can also occur during shootouts at the end of tied games (though this occurs only, I believe, during knockout rounds of tournaments, not regular season matches or during tournament group play). So why are a great many goals scored in these situations? I’ll tell you why – because it’s nearly impossible to score otherwise. This means that most games are decided on the basis of skills that aren’t used during the normal course of play. Worse, games decided on the basis of penalty kicks or free kicks may be controversial since they require the judgment call of the referee. When a significant portion of the scoring occurs outside the normal flow of the game, it’s a problem.
9. Kissing Your Sister
The Navy football coach (no, not futbal coach) Eddie Erdelatz is credited with coining the phrase, “A tie is like kissing your sister.” One of the reasons soccer is weird is that soccer fans find ties unnaturally satisfying. I mean, would you hang out with someone who gained unnatural satisfaction from kissing his sister? Of course not. But in soccer, a tie is often a great badge of pride. When an underdog ties a major power in some World Cup group play match, or when our own Orlando City earns a tie with a late goal, well, we’re supposed to be pretty excited about that. Ties are soccer’s bread and butter, the great ambition of too many teams in too many contests.
10. Would It Kill You To Have A Clock?!
I actually don’t hate soccer. It has some interesting rules and some unique characteristics. Unlike basketball or football, you can step out of bounds and still play the ball so long as the ball isn’t over the line. That’s kind of cool. It’s also the only major team sport that uses running time – that’s kind of cool too, though it does allow for an awful lot of stalling when one team has an insurmountable lead (like you know, 1-0). But soccer manages to mess this up with some peculiarities. Why on earth does the time count up rather than count down? Why, when someone scores, is it reported in vague fashion? (“Kaka scored in the 38th minute.”) And why, why do the referees mysteriously add minutes to the clock when someone is injured? Would it kill you to have a clock? Would it kill you to have a clock that counts down to zero? One that the referees can stop during injuries? So everyone knows, like, when the game is going to end? We put a man on the moon 46 years ago. We have time pieces accurate to billionths of a second. And still, in 2015, we have people scoring goals in the 92nd minute of a 90 minute game. (Hurl.)
11. Games That Don’t Matter
I’ll watch the World Cup. But I won’t watch Group Play, which is just utter nonsense. Wake me when we get to the knockout rounds. To clarify, the World Cup is currently contested by 32 countries. These teams are selected by results in qualification tournaments, but are then slotted into 8 Groups of 4 teams each. Every Cup I’ve paid attention to, the revelation of the Group is then followed by unending bitching an moaning about the unevenness of quality across the groups, with hyperbolic names such as the “group of death”. Understand, all you have to do to advance is be in the top 2 of a 4 team Group! The unevenness of quality is a consequence of the groupings being only partially determined by strength; geographical diversity within the groups is another desideratum. The Group Play round has one laudable consequence: it ensures that every team plays at least 3 games before going home. But this advantage is offset by all of the disadvantages. Teams can easily advance without winning a game, because you get points for ties. Ties in the standings are broken by goal differential, so two teams with the same record can have different fates due to the number of goals scored and allowed. This unfairness is exacerbated by the fact that the third of 3 games might be meaningless for one member of the Group. A team can be numerically eliminated after 2 games, or can be already assured of advancing. It often happens in one or more Groups that the two teams fighting for the second slot in a Group are playing opponents with no interest in the outcome! Or worse, one team is playing another team deeply invested in the result, while their competition is playing a team resting their stars or phoning in the match. This problem is further compounded by the lack of overtime or shootouts during Group Play, meaning that the ties pile up and goal differential will rule the day. It’s just not very sporting – which is not something you want said of what is supposedly the biggest sporting event in the world.
All that without mentioning the graft. My god, the graft.
Or the vuvuzela. Or the non-stop singing from the crowd. Or the riots.
I could do another 11 pretty easily but I’ll stop now. Injury time has expired and there’s no overtime.