June 15, 2006
My World Cup Runneth Over
Soccer's World Cup, played every four years, is being contested in Germany by 32 national teams from all parts of the world. One week of competition has gone by, three weeks to go before the championship game on July 9. The world is riveted.
But not the American sports public, which has reacted with its usual collective yawn.
Why hasn't soccer fever caught on here? Why is it an obsession/religion in just about every other country, including Israel, but largely ignored in the United States?
Theories have been offered: that soccer moms don't control the TV remote; that American TV avoids sports that don't offer alluring time-outs for commercials; that soccer is too slow for an American audience; that not using arms or hands goes against our grain; that Americans just don't get soccer's subtle charms.
All that may be true, but I suspect the real answer lies elsewhere.
As Americans, we've always been optimistic, on or off the playing field. Your career down the tubes? No worries. Go out and reinvent yourself. You've hit bottom? No big deal. Like The Doors told us years ago, just break on through to the other side.
The rest of the world, which has a less optimistic view, believes that when you hit bottom, you just lie there.
It's our American optimism that's at the heart of why we don't take to soccer. Think about it. Soccer is a 90-plus-minute game in which the final score, often enough, is 0-0, or perhaps 1-0. In a typical game, there are about 100 attempts to move the ball into scoring position. Of those, there are about 20 actual shots, half of which don't go anywhere near the goal. All that flailing and tackling and passing and running, and at the end of game, you've got just one lousy goal. If that.
One-hundred plays. One possible score. That's a failure rate that Americans will not put up with. A soccer match is a cold slap in the face to the American assumption that hard work and cosmic justice will, in the end, achieve positive results.
When the fates don't reward skill and hard work, we Americans are outraged. We call it unfair. The rest of the world shrugs and says: That's what a sports event should be -- for every 100 attempts, you get one success. Maybe. If you're lucky.
And that's how most of the world, including Israel, sees life. When I lived in Israel, the phrase one heard -- whenever there was a disaster -- was yihyeh tov, it'll be OK. No matter how terrible things were at the time, no matter what had taken place, someone was sure to say, yihyeh tov. Things will be all right.
But the tone with which this was said, and the resigned shrug, the what-can-you-do hand gesture, made it clear that Israelis didn't really believe that things were going to be all right. It was said like a magical incantation, and the implicit message was that things would inevitably get worse.
Israelis, like the rest of the world, don't have Americans' blind optimism, the Pollyanna faith that good works will be rewarded. Israelis love soccer because they're realistic enough to know that 0-0 is all we can expect from life. Broken plays are the norm, and any scoring probably happens when the fates are taking a nap.
We Americans aren't like that. We love scoring. Lots of it. It confirms our belief that if you perform well, the outcome will be successful. Look at our sports. Basketball has a 50 percent scoring success rate, while baseball and football also have a great deal of scoring, or at least successful plays, like base hits and completed passes. This may be the reason that ice hockey -- with its relatively low scoring and high frustration factor -- has remained in the second tier of American sports, even when the matches are juiced up with fistfights.
Yes, it's our optimism -- our unshakable, Hollywood-reinforced belief that wherever there's a problem there must be a solution -- that keeps us from embracing soccer, a sport that is heartbreaking in its insistence that life is a series of broken plays. Soccer is a paean to the futility of expectations. It's a sport whose fans are resigned to the dark but realistic assumption that passion and effort and teamwork almost never yield any tangible results.
In short, soccer is quintessentially un-American.
More than anyone, Albert Camus -- in such works as the "Myth of Sisyphus" -- expresses the view that life is absurd, a series of broken plays, and does not necessarily reward those who deserve it. He says that the struggle itself is heroic, irrespective of results. Camus, who played soccer and loved the sport, is supposed to have said that many of his understandings about life were drawn from lessons he learned on the soccer pitch.
No doubt, soccer would have been Sisyphus's sport of choice.
Roberto Loiederman is a screenwriter and co-author of "The Eagle Mutiny" (Naval Institute Press, 2001).