I’m Sick of World Cup Fever
Soccer is far too slow and the flopping is out of control.
Round of 16 match between Spain and Russia at Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, July 1. PHOTO: © ATSUSHI TOKUMARU/AFLO VIA ZUMA PRESS
By Gerald Eskenazi
Every four years I am amused, and bemused, when my media colleagues awaken to the decidedly un-American game of soccer, as they fawn over the World Cup.
Oh, I’ve watched soccer. I’ve written a few dozen articles and even a book about it. Luckily, I haven’t had to sit through too many games.
I grew up with American sports—baseball, football and basketball—and I don’t apologize for it. In baseball and football games, whenever the ball is in play, scoring is possible at any moment. Basketball has the tantalizing expectation of scoring 2 or 3 points just seconds after a team gains possession.
Is it too dramatic to suggest that, unlike Old Europe’s games, ours mirror America’s dynamic capitalism? While they include team play and strategy, it is possible in our sports for one performer to break free, to star on his own, to change the game by force of will with a full-court drive, a touchdown after a handoff, or a home run.
Soccer (a British word, corrupted from “association football”), on the other hand, usually goes for long stretches without even a chance of scoring, as players dribble back and forth. In last Sunday’s game between Russia and Spain, the Russians passed the ball cautiously among themselves for five minutes. They knew they weren’t as good as the Spaniards, whose intricate passing and exuberance have long made them world-class. Yet the Russians tied the game, essentially stalled until the end of regulation and extra time, and then won in a penalty shootout—in which skill plays second fiddle to luck.
Just as blatant, soccer players are constantly falling from supposed “illegal” hits. Then as soon as the referee blows his whistle to call the foul, the “injured” player remarkably leaps to his feet. It is reminiscent of the recuperative powers displayed in staged professional wrestling. Soccer’s “flopping” has even begun to infect basketball, but it is not yet a basic part of the game, with players writhing in agony on the floor every few minutes.
Meanwhile, I chuckle whenever I hear an American announcer give the result of a 1-0 soccer game as “1-nil.” Does he take a “lift” instead of an elevator to his office? The “tube” instead of the subway? I could hardly stop my knees from wobbling when a local CBS radio show announced that there was “no score in the World Cup game between Mexico and Sweden.” Wow.
In college, I played and enjoyed intramural soccer. My alma mater, City College of New York, was a national champion. In its defense, soccer is a democratic game: You don’t need to spend money on equipment, size doesn’t really matter, and you get a good workout.
But there’s something that doesn’t ring right when I’m bombarded in the papers or on the “telly” with the faux excitement of Mexico barely missing a header against Germany. Before the World Cup, when was the last time an American network announced the result of a soccer game in Mexico? Or Germany? Or showed a film clip of a goal—from anywhere?
I wonder: Can you even get a hot dog and a Coke at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow?
Mr. Eskenazi was a longtime sportswriter for the New York Times, and is author of 16 books.