It's the Sport, Stupid

The Post-Gazette's Ron Cook hates soccer, and I don't care.

In today's paper, the columnist writes, "When it comes to soccer -- World Cup or otherwise -- my opinion is that I don't like it, can't stand it, am not sure I would watch more than a few minutes of it even if my life depended on it."

Whatever. Most sports columnists - most columnists, period - are paid to be provocative rather than wise.

Here's the part, though, where I sat up and decided that whether or not Cook likes the game, he has no idea what the sport is even about.

Cook, not looking forward to tomorrow's showdown between the US and Ghana:

"Ghana? How do you hate a country that gave us Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first black African secretary-general of the United Nations? I'm telling you, you can't."

Which is good, because of course you're not supposed to. There are some extraordinary national rivalries in international soccer. The English and the Argentines don't get along, for example; the English are justifiably still upset about a certain goal allowed against them in 1986. The Argentines have not forgiven or forgotten a certain brief war. There is no love lost between the Dutch and the Germans. El Salvador and Honduras, 1969, come to mind, though that event had little to do with soccer itself. At the club level, ancient tribal hatreds do persist (see: certain English Premier League clubs, certain Italian clubs, certain Argentine clubs, for example), though fortunately they have yet to penetrate the American soccer consciousness in any meaningful way. I support certain clubs in Europe that lead close friends of mine to deride my intelligence when we are talking about soccer.

But as a rule, soccer fans don't walk around hating the other team. This isn't, say, ice hockey, or professional American football. It is surprisingly easy, and surprisingly powerful, to express your passion for your side -- your country -- without disrespecting your adversary, let alone hating them.

The beautiful thing about the beautiful game, especially at the World Cup, is how incredibly unifying the whole thing is. The World Cup started two years ago with more than 200 teams, from Norway to South Africa and North Korea to Peru. All not just playing the same sport, but claiming it: Wherever soccer really began, many of these countries claim it as part of their national traditions. You can't say that about many cultural institutions in the world. Is soccer "American" (whatever that question means)? Of course not. That's the whole point. The US is participating, with a fortitude that a lot of people identify as characteristically American, in a global event.

The 32 finalists are in South Africa. If you watch the games (this would not be Ron Cook, of course, who is out mowing is lawn in protest), you see fans in the stands behaving as fans generally behave at World Cup finals matches these days: With enthusiasm. With joy. (Occasionally, for the French, for example, or the Italians, with despair.) The most fun I've ever had when attending a sporting event was at the World Cup final in 1994, between Italy and Brazil. More than 100,000 fans in the Pasadena sunshine, from around the world, passionately attached to their teams (I wore a Brazil jersey that day) but also passionately attached to the spirit of the day.

The World Cup is an extraordinarily display of international good will. Sure, there is the occasional problem with an official (like *that* never happens in American sports!), and some teams are prone to what is delicately called unsportsmanlike behavior (again, something that is absolutely foreign to pro -- even college -- sports in the US!). High quality but low scoring games are often praiseworthy. (Perfect game, anyone? Not one even gets on base! How dull is that?)

So what. I have my US semi-throwback jersey ready, and I'll be watching tomorrow. The lawn can wait.


4 Responses to "It's the Sport, Stupid"

ChrisP said... 6/25/2010 12:26 PM

You dont think the "ultra" fans in Italy go a bit further than steelers/ravens rivalry? I agree with you at the world cup level, but i think what you say applies to hockey equally well.

Mike Madison said... 6/25/2010 4:40 PM

The dynamics of club soccer -- where the ultra phenomenon has been most visible -- are sometimes quite different than the dynamics of national team soccer, particularly in Europe and South America. The working class origins of the sport play into class and ethnic rivalries generally. (So, yes, it goes quite a bit further than Steelers/Ravens, in the sense that there are real class issues at stake.)

Beyond that, I've tried hard here to be pro-soccer, mostly, and not anti-anything else!

Mike Madison said... 6/26/2010 8:36 AM

And except for the part about ice hockey. Maybe international ice hockey is unifying for its fans, but the sport isn't exactly global in the soccer sense ("Norway to South Africa and North Korea to Peru"), is it?

MH said... 6/26/2010 10:25 PM

We lost and but in four years we have another chance. Which counts as "unfounded optimism" for the Pirates' management.

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