Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Sport for Americans Who Don’t Like Sports

I blew off working out on Saturday to watch the US/Ghana semifinals World Cup match, which as we know now, was a mistake. Besides, it was 90 degrees here with the humidity hanging like a shit blanket over the city, so sitting tight wasn’t such a bad idea. Ironically, I’ve been right in the middle of sifting through tons of African music to create a new collection for the iPod, so I was doing that with the sound turned down. I didn’t really miss those droning plastic horns. (We had those when we were kids in the 70s: a deeply disturbing instrument that made much too loud a noise.)

It’s been easy to miss the World Cup in America. The viewing times are so awful (7:30 am, 10:30 am and 2:30 pm, daily) that most people are going about their days and not willing to break free. When I mentioned watching the match to brother J in rural PA later that evening, he said he didn’t even know it was going on. And didn’t care. The only World Cup that stuck in my head was in 2002, when I was unemployed that summer and had all kinds of times to watch these oddly-scheduled matches. I can safely say that was the only time I got into soccer on any real basis.

And I can safely say most Americans are in the same boat. You would not know that living in New York City, where it’s somehow been decided that soccer is the sport of the millennium, bars packed with fans, more ballyhoo than a Nascar rally in South Carolina.

But it’s for that reason alone – New York City – that I smell bullshit. Actually, there are a number of reasons. I think the most honest one is Lance Armstrong, who has nothing to do with soccer. But there’s something about Armstrong as an athlete that grates on me. He seems like the archetypal cyclist: slight, youngish, doesn’t appear to have a hair on his body once you get below his head, let’s not forget the “Livestrong” plastic wrist bands he sports and millions emulate, wearing his metrosexual biking pants, team shirt and bad sports shades. If you’ve spent time around bicyclists, you know the style and attitude: sheer arrogance. I know Armstrong is a great athlete, with or without blood doping, and overcame enormous odds to dominate the sport. So … why do I picture him as being such a dick?

I don’t know, but can’t you just feel it? And that negative vibe I get from the whole professional cycling world, emanates like rays of the sun from American soccer players. The most visible US player this time around? Landon Donovan. Would be sporting a duckhead haircut, maybe even a Justin Bieber, if he had more hair. You get the impression this guy gets angered easily, or at least he looks that way. He looks like the guy at work who eats salads, gets his body waxed, wears make-up at social events … and nobody likes.

For all I know, he’s a wonderful, down-to-earth guy who would make me do a 100% about-face if I spent time around him. But he puts out the dick vibe. Most of these soccer guys do, to greater and lesser extents. In America, unlike the rest of the world, soccer has the tinge of suburbia/upper-middle-class existence about it. If you were on a “good” soccer team in high school, I’m willing to bet you come from an affluent white suburb. Which is no crime – you probably also had a pretty good lacrosse team and one hell of a debate team – but there it is. It’s like wine, which is so common in Europe that towns people near vineyards will casually drive over to one and fill gallon jugs the same way we fill slushies and Big Gulp Cokes at convenience stores. In America, wine has been co-opted by overbearing shitheads to make the act of drinking it a class distinction. And I’ll give bicyclists and soccer players credit: they’re way down on my shit list compared to wine snobs. How something as basic and normal as drinking wine became this industry geared towards smug elitists, I don’t have a clue.

And as with wine, soccer as a sport has been geared towards a certain “higher” class of fan, who sees himself that way, too. I’m not questioning his fanhood – christ, if you’re an American soccer fan when this World Cup stuff isn’t around, more power to you, you really care about the sport. I don’t doubt there is a sports purity in a genuine American soccer fan, someone who gets the game, has been following it for decades, played it in high school, maybe even in college, probably as an adult in informal leagues.

But I’d also wager, most of these people spilling out of bars in New York the past week or two, damn few of them are these people. You’ll get your usual expatriates from other countries who are into the sport because it’s the national sport of their home country. No beef with these folks at all. Your disproportionately small contingent of American soccer fans. And a lot of guys who look like Lance Armstrong and Landon Donovan, acting like they grew up on a rainy pitch in Manchester and have loved the sport for years, here let me buy you another Lite Beer, but stop me at two because my girlfriend will yell at me if I gain three pounds a week before our trip to Belize.

It’s bullshit, based on class. The whole “why isn’t America more into soccer” issue is bullshit. We just aren’t; we and the world are no worse for wear. Our best athletes gravitate towards sports that are more visible/higher paying that what passes for professional soccer here. A lucky few go to Europe and make a name for themselves in premier leagues. I’ve noted this before. If we took the time and money to make soccer a national priority, and then went into each World Cup and cleaned house for 20 years straight, the world would hate us for it. They’d much rather look down on us for not giving a shit about soccer, “the only true world sport” as I heard some dweeb at the gym describe it the other day.

Utter bullshit. We have the summer and winter olympics to kick world ass at every even-numbered year. How many times have I heard the “America’s lack of interest in soccer is indicative of its insularity” routine? Too many times. If you don’t like America, just say it, it’s OK, no one’s going to kill you over this. The only people I hear saying shit like that are people who don’t like sports in general. And I gather they’ll latch onto something like soccer, or bicycling when the Tour de France rolls around, and pretend they really care about these sports. And they just don’t. It’s just another excuse to bash not America, per se, but the type of American they despise, i.e., white people the size of houses who really love football, baseball and Nascar. (Probably drive SUVs, vote Republican, listen to Rush (Limbaugh), etc. … we all know the drill by heart.)

It’s important to mention Nascar because fan-wise, it’s the polar opposite of soccer. You won’t find metrosexuals in #3 t-shirts piling into NYC bars to watch the Indy 500 on wide-screen TVs. If anything, they’d derisively laugh at the concept. Me? I hate Nascar. Also not big on hunting or fishing. From a small town. Know plenty of people who are seriously into all three. They’re fine. Nothing wrong with them. I will find myself goofing on people when they veer too far into Nascar country – sporting the truly awful and ugly t-shirts and head gear – but I respect the fact that this is their sport, and they genuinely love it. Millions of Americans do.

Why would these instant soccer fans in New York not grant the same sort of clemency to Nascar and treat the major races in the circuit as major events on par with World Cup soccer? I’d say it’s perception. These people perceive themselves as worldly people, in touch with other people from other nations, why, they vacation overseas regularly, have been to (insert major city in Europe/Africa/South America here), have “friends” all over the globe … soccer, like wine, is just something they indulge in to show their worldliness. Right?

I don’t understand why being a Nascar fan would make one any more less worldly … save to say it’s perceived in America as sport for rednecks, and to follow it, chances are good that you, too, are a redneck by extension. It’s just bullshit to me. Bullshit of the worst kind, to attach these extraneous social values to sports. But you better believe, doing so is just as much a national pastime as following the sports themselves. Most countries in the world, soccer is the sport of the people. All you need is a ball, an open field, four cones to set up for the goals, basic gist of where the sidelines are. I’m sure there are countless kids playing this game right now in Africa, or the slums of major South American cities, or in any European country.

They’re in America, too. Soccer will be a big deal in any suburban school district. Even the rural area I’m from in Pennsylvania, you drive around, and you spot soccer fields here and there. I believe there are soccer programs in most school districts back there, although football overshadows them as their seasons are concurrent.

But you know what? You get into cities and more working-class black rural areas, and I don’t think you see anywhere near as many soccer fields. If you do, kids aren’t using them, adults in leagues are. And until you see this with all kids – until the sport is that accepted and sought after at that elemental level – the US will never be a soccer power. Until you reach that part of America that fuels so many topline professional sports, soccer will be what it is here and has been for a long time: a sport for a certain class of people in America not known for producing champion-caliber athletes. (Or at least that’s how I feel every time I see lacrosse on ESPN. Can’t help but think if you put these burly “see themselves as badass” white college guys up against a team of linebackers and safeties from professional football with a month or two of training, you’d see how thin the veneer of that sport is.)

Every Sunday, in the schoolyard behind my place here, there’s an informal Mexican soccer league that’s taken over the asphalt field in the afternoon. More like morning. These guys show up around 10:00 am to make sure they get the field, and they stay until about 4:00 pm or so, playing each other. They go all out: uniforms, their own nets, even their own referees. The sidelines are filled with wives, kids, other players – there are probably 100 people in that lot back there at any given time in those hours. They set up a refreshments tents selling roasted corn, beans and rice, bottles of water and soda in coolers, etc.

I think the locals were a bit freaked out at first but later realized these people meant no harm. The cops made a show of force after this happened once or twice, had a talk with the guys running the league, made sure they cleaned up after themselves, and I can say these people are no more or less of a problem than the local teenage dickheads who hang out there playing basketball or baseball. Yeah, there is sometimes garbage left over, but per capita, a few empty Gatorade bottles for 100+ people, as compared to a few more empty Gatorade bottles for eight local teenage dickheads … do the math. A suburban youth hockey league commandeered the field a few years ago on Sunday, and the parents with those kids were always carrying on like maniacs, you could hear them yelling all afternoon. I’d take these immigrant Mexican soccer players over those boorish Long Island hockey parents any day of the week.

My point being, that field plays host to a bunch of immigrants who love the sport with a passion, who grew up playing it back home, love the game enough to form their own informal league, buy their own jerseys and equipment, and hang out for hours on a Sunday to make sure they have a place to play the game. This is it for them, the highlight of their week.

I’ll know soccer is a big deal when neighborhood kids go to the same lengths to play the game. I just don’t see it happening, especially with the advent of home video games. I gather the only neighborhood kids I see playing basketball and baseball around here are too poor to buy an X-Box. Until you get poor people of all colors on board with this thing, soccer will never be a major sport in America. And I think the disdain we’re trained to have in this country for the poor is greater than the urge we have to create another avenue for them to make a lot of money through sports. It’s odd how so much of sports comes down to money, but it surely does.

1 comment:

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