Why slam a sport that offers a chance to excel?
The venerable sport of football … OK, I’ll cave in and call it soccer, if for nothing else than the sake of clarity … has generated a lot of buzz this summer, even in this nation, where football means helmets, pads and concussions, not shin guards, shorts and dramatic embellishments of minor infractions.
Now, I am a fan of both forms of football, although the failure of the American version to properly address head injuries is making it harder and harder to justify supporting it. There are rules and equipment changes I believe could address the issue, but that is a story for another day.
Meanwhile, the soccer World Cup for women and the recent — and, IMHO, probably justified — coaching change for the U.S. men’s team has raised the sport’s profile here.
For example, as of about 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 11, an article on espn.com rating the U.S. men’s team’s players in their 1-1 tie vs. Mexico the night before had generated 448 comments, some of them even insightful.
Articles on si.com and on boston.com have also sparked many responses in the course of the summer, including a debate I started on boston.com about why more attention was not paid to the fact that in the World Cup final Japan’s extra-time tying goal deflected in off U.S. star Abby Wambach. (A slight correction: I wrote here a month ago the ball hit her shoulder; a later view of a higher-definition replay showed it hit her right wrist.) I suspect sexism, for the record.
What I couldn’t help but notice while reading the comments under the articles were the haters.
I mean, something about soccer apparently drives some people up the wall. Their contempt for the sport reaches such heights (depths?) they are not content to ignore it, but to crash discussions of the sport among its aficionados in order to compare it unfavorably to root canals, water torture and tracking hair growth on Chia pets.
Part of their ire no doubt derives from certain soccer fans who insist the sport is God’s gift to the masses, and that those who don’t appreciate it are ignorant and unwashed. That particularly zealous point of view is, of course, indefensible.
But if soccer is so awful, why does it remain the most popular sport on the planet?
One hint can be partly illustrated in an exchange of emails last week between my esteemed colleague and fellow Red Sox fan Karl Lindholm. He wrote:
“The Red Sox have such normal-sized players — Ellsbury, Pedroia, Reddick, all with some pop. Gives hope to all the world’s smallish guys.”
True enough, I thought. Baseball is a sport, unlike basketball and American football, in which size does not automatically convey a tremendous advantage, at least in most cases.
And then soccer leapt to my mind. Pelé, Brazil’s all-time leading international scorer, is listed (generously, I would say) at 5-foot-8. Maradona, the Argentina international whose score vs. England — he dribbled 60 meters through six defenders before converting — was voted the “Goal of the (21st) Century” is 5-5. Andrés Iniesta, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder who scored the overtime game-winner in the 2010 men’s World Cup, is 5-7.
What’s one thing they all have in common? They’re even shorter than I am. I confess that U.S. star Landon Donovan, at 5-9, has a half-inch on me.
The point? Virtually every boy or girl in every community around the world can realistically dream of soccer glory. They don’t have to hope to grow to be 6-7 or taller to play professional basketball, or 6-4, 250 to be a linebacker. They just have to start dribbling a ball in a cobbled square or dusty back lot.
And that’s another thing. No one needs expensive equipment. Just one ball and some room, and a game can break out. Soccer is a democratic sport that rewards hard work and skill, not money and high levels of organization.
OK, but you can’t use your hands, the critics wail. How can it be a great sport if hand-eye coordination and the use of humanity’s greatest athletic asset are limited to one of 11 players?
Well, to start with, every other team sport does require the use of hands. Having one exception to the rule — one that demands the development of a unique skill set — does not strike me as a problem. Rather, soccer offers an exciting chance for athletes to showcase creativity.
Also, by eliminating the use of hands, the sport remains more democratic. Size is still an advantage for playing balls out of the air, but with much of soccer play anchored to the ground, quick, small players like Pelé, Maradona and Iniesta retain an edge.
As for the fact that soccer is low scoring, guilty as charged. It will always be difficult to work within the inherent limitations of the sport’s rules and maneuver the ball past the defense and the goalie into the net.
Some find that process as exciting as watching their neighbors mowing lawns. Others find that challenge fascinating.
That’s no reason to hate a sport that anyone can aspire to play, though.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].